Journal of Rural Community Psychology, Vol. E2, No. 1, 1999 
Family Issues in Two Forms
of Sustainable Agriculture
Paul C. Rosenblatt & Althea A. Dixon
University of Minnesota
An important distinction that can be drawn among families doing sustainable farming is between (a) those who have taken over a family farm and then moved the operation toward more sustainable farming and (b) those who have entered farming from outside and are farming sustainably. Qualitative interviews of 7 families of the former type and 10 of the latter suggests that the family issues in the two kinds of farming are rather different. In the former farming is often done in the shadow of the older generation. Older family members may be critical of the move toward sustainability. Among families moving into sustainable farming from outside, off farm income is a necessity, and there are substantial family communication challenges in working out a division of labor for the farming activities, facing economic difficulties, and maintaining a shared commitment to the farm and to farm work.
One kind of advance in psychological and social scientific knowledge involves identification of distinct patterns in what had previously been taken as a unitary but rather chaotic phenomenon. In the study of sustainable agriculture, farm operations are often treated as though they constitute a single meaningful category. (In one interesting exception, Allen and Bernhardt, 1995, distinguished among "transitional," "near organic," and "sustainable" farm operations.) But farm families involved in sustainable farming are diverse in all sorts of ways, and that diversity is important in understanding what goes on in those families.
One aspect of such diversity is that some families involved in sustainable farming have taken the farm over through intergenerational transfer and then moved the farm operation toward greater sustainability. Other farm families involved in sustainable farming have entered farming from the outside, acquiring their farm through purchase. The distinction is easy to overlook, because for many years it seemed the only way to enter farming was to acquire a farm through intergenerational transfer. However, moving into farming from the outside has been made easier by the sustainable farming movement and the increased market for organic products. The two types of entry into sustainable farming are probably associated with many kinds of differences, including family communication patterns, ease of obtaining loans to finance farm operations, cash flow management, and things that need to be learned. The present article focuses on family life. In particular, the question addressed by the research reported here is: What are the family issues for farm families in the two types of sustainable farming?
Family life is of interest for many reasons. Families moving into sustainable farming may be doing so in part because they believe it will lead to improved family life. But movement into sustainable farming may create a new set of problems that must be resolved or managed. Thus, studying family issues in the two types of sustainable farming can be helpful in understanding (a) family needs for educational, counseling or other sources of help, and (b) why families stay in or drop out of sustainable farming. For farm families involved in sustainable farming, this kind of information can provide useful perspective on their own lives. And for families thinking of entering sustainable farming, the information can parallel economic, agronomic, and other technical information in informing them of possible challenges, benefits, and needs.
Lists of midwestern farm families who were involved in sustainable agriculture were obtained from multi-state, statewide, and multi-county sustainable farming organizations and from a state department of agriculture. The interviewer established a base of operation in each of two different states; sustainable farms were sampled on the basis of their proximity to one of the bases. Families were first contacted by letter and then by telephone. In all, 38 members of 17 farm families were interviewed, 18 females and 20 males. Family members who were interviewed were interviewed together. The interviewer had a set of interview questions and probes, but the farm operations and family issues were so diverse that substantial areas of the interview schedule were irrelevant to any particular family, and not infrequently the interview led to domains that were not in the interview schedule or not well elaborated in the schedule.
Two of the 17 households centered on a same sex couple, one household was a father-daughter operation, and another a multigenerational operation with the older generation being an uncle. The other 13 were households operated by a married couple. Three of the married couple interviews included children who were involved in the farm operation. In one of the 17 cases, only one adult was present for the interview.
The interviews were audiotaped. The audiotapes were transcribed and the transcriptions double-checked for accuracy. The transcriptions were coded for narratives dealing with family issues associated with involvement in sustainable agriculture and for details concerning the economics of the farm, the history of family involvement in the farm, the kinds of farming done, and issues of relationship to the community.
The Families and the Farm Operations
Seven farms involved intergenerational transfer to the adults who were the focus of the interview. In six of those cases, at least one adult acquiring the farm had spent considerable growing up time on the farm. In the case of the couple acquiring a farm from an uncle, neither had grown up on the farm or in farming.
Ten other farms involved purchases, not intergenerational transfer. In seven of the ten cases of farm purchase, neither member of the couple had grown up in a farm family. In three, one or both partners had.
The forms of sustainable farming were diverse. Typically sustainable farming involved reduced use or non-use of agrochemical on crops and forage and reduced use or non-use of antibiotics and hormones on livestock, a choice of crops that could be farmed with limited inputs (including animals that could be fed on pasture), and a reduced use of machinery. Some farms were producing certified organic products, and a vital part of their sustainability was operating in a market niche that paid relatively well for organic products. Most families with dairy animals reduced their herd substantially over the winter or stopped milking. Similarly, some families raised chickens, hogs, or beef cattle seasonally.
For families who acquired the farm through intergenerational transfer, the median amount of owned and rented land was 280 acres with a range from 140 to 3000 acres.
For families who entered farming from the outside, without an intergenerational transfer, the median amount of owned and rented land was 77 acres, with a range from 1.25 acres to 360 acres. (The 360 acre was a self-startup farm of decades ago that had recently moved into sustainable farming. In some ways it was like the intergenerational transfer farms, an operation that had been ongoing for many years as a conventional farm. Without it, the median amount of owned and rented land in the self-start up group is 73.5 acres, and the largest self-start up farm is 160 acres.)
Some of the small acreage farms were sustained by producing nontraditional farm products and being close to a substantial market for that product ó for example, for organic goat milk cheese or free range chickens direct-marketed to urban consumers. Three of the smaller farms, all operated by people who had entered farming from outside, included a community supported agriculture (CSA) operation in which customers bought shares in the produce in advance and received produce every week there was a substantial harvest.
Most people entered sustainable farming thinking that such farming would be economically superior to (or at least as profitable as) conventional farming. Everyone hoped to have an economically sustainable farm operation, which is in accord with findings by Salamon et al. (1997). But no family found that easy to achieve, and all experienced it as an ongoing concern. In every one of the 17 households, economic sustainability required off-farm income (and perhaps health insurance benefits) and/or multiple sources of farm income.
At least one adult in each household talked about the value of low input farming from the viewpoint of a non-economic ideology, particularly sustainable farming as good for the environment, the land, the health of family members, and the health of consumers. However, in two households there was a sense that the more extreme forms of low input agriculture were not consistent with economic sustainability, and they were moving their farm operation toward conventional farming.
In every family in the study, there were concerns expressed about the future of farming, the poor economic situation for farm families, and farming sustainably where many neighbors were farming conventionally. In accord findings in a study by Hassanein and Kloppenburg (1995) of sustainable farming, all 17 families in the present study had joined and participated in sustainable farming organizations. However, two families who had taken over a farm through intergenerational transfer had pulled away from such organizations. In all 17 families, at least one adult talked about struggles to learn how to do sustainable farming. They talked about looking for help from neighbors, members of sustainable farm organizations, classes, reading, extension agents, and other sources.
Family Issues with Intergenerational Transfer
Tension over Conventional vs. Sustainable Farming
With intergenerational transfer, there was often a long-term process of buying out the farm, and often the older family members from whom the farm was being bought lived on or near the farm and continued to be involved in farming activities. That made the older family members a presence, possibly a critical presence, for the younger adults who were taking over the farm. Further, the older family members often obtained a substantial fraction of their retirement income as the younger family members made regular payments toward purchasing the farm, so anything that threatened that incomeófor example, movement into what could seem to be a higher risk kind of farming--could be upsetting. And since the older adults were often living in the community in which they had lived for decades, and reputations in that community were based on farming respectably (for example, using the right kinds of procedures, keeping fields weed free), the move by the younger family members to what seemed to be a less respectable kind of farming could be a threat to the reputation of the older adults and the whole family. For all those reasons, one might expect that some younger adults who were moving the family farm into sustainable farming would upset their elders and hear criticism from them. In one case, the elders were dead. In another, the elders had moved to a warmer climate and were indifferent to changes in the farm operation. But in three of the other five families, elders were critical of the move to sustainable farming. Here are two narrative examples.
I: What did your parents think when you decided to go organic? M:(laughs) By that time they were willing to just say, "Theyíre gonna do something different anyway. Let 'em go ahead and do it." W: And yet over the years, there have been enough comparison comments (M: Yeah) that have said, "Youíre not doing a good enough job." ....They were comparing us to the cousin...who has the clean fields. The visual things were what were still important. M: I think that the thought of organic farming, to [my father], was probably a shocking thought, realizing that the fields were gonna be kinda messy and that thereís gonna be reduced yields and so on. But I donít remember him saying a lot about it. 13
In two of the three cases where elders had been critical, the criticism abated when the sustainable farming operation proved to be economically successful.
M: My brother pinned up an article on our farm on the wall of his shop for a little while one week (chuckling). He doesnít knock me so much anymore. My dad hasnít knocked me at all, other than to tell me I never did know how to run machinery (laughs). So he doesnít knock me so much. 01
I: When did your father come around? Or did he ever? M: Oh, he did. Yeah. W: Yeah. Well, after the first couple years, when we started, (M: Yeah) when we had decent crops. 08
Paralleling findings by Salamon et al. (1997), in some of the families that had moved into sustainable farming there were family traditions of innovation, experimentation, and environmental sensitivity in farming (even in some of the families in which the younger adults were criticized for moving into sustainable farming).
M: My dad got involved in organics back in the late 60's.... I was only 14. And I remember that Dad bought a chisel plow, which there was no chisel plows around here, and...another thing which led I think to...Dad being a independent type of a person was that he was also involved with NFO. And that was not real widely liked or accepted right in this area. So when your peers looked at you, they didn't look at you with respect.... They looked at you with either distrust or disgust or questions.... I think that created the sense of being independent and sure enough of what you were doing so that you could trust your instincts and do what you wanted to do, despite what your peers were doing. 04
M: My dad was one of the last sweet clover farmers in the area. Sweet clover used to be a part of the rotation in this part of the country, a lot in the 30ís, 40ís, 50ís. As chemicals came in, then of course sweet clover went out because it didnít fit the program. So I had some exposure to rotation and fertility management with legumes. 13
Improved Family Life
One of the seven cases of farm transfer was to a single person; the other six cases involved transfer to a family. In accord with findings reported by Chiappe and Flora (1998), in all six of the families that had moved as a family into sustainable farming, at least one family member said that family life had improved. In one instance it was because farming seemed less stressful with the move into sustainable.
W: The things that we were doing, putting the cows back out on pasture on prime farm land, when the thing is to get more acres and get these huge tractors and grow corn and beans and thatís it. And if you do it right, you can make sure you get that over 200 bushel corn and if you get that 2200 pounds of milk out of that cow, youíre successful. It doesnít [matter] what the cost to your family is. Doesnít matter the cost that you have, even if it puts you in debt. "I got this award. Isnít that really cool?" And it doesnít matter if it drives you batty.... When you run 2200 acres, letís say, and thatís getting to be sort of a normal small number for a farm..., you have to work that ground. You have to plant it, and then you have to spray it or whatever else [you] decide to do with it, and then you have to combine it. Well, thereís only so many hours in a day, and if youíre just doing it yourself or with your wife, youíre out there around the clock for at least three weeks, ...if nothing broke. Thatís where the cost to the family comes.
M: Family life stops during that period of time. And then every time the weather goes the wrong way (W: It delays it that much longer), the mood of the farmer, "Well, the year is ruined," and he [says], "You canít have any more money till we know how our crops gonna turn out." (W: Yeah) Itís just constant pressure.... We see a lot of people in sustainable farming that are doing a poor job of sustainable farming and are still getting enough money to hold up his end of the family expenses.... We see people with earnings in excess of 40% net, 80% net sometimes, in sustainable farming, organic farming.... Thereís a lot more room for error and crop failures in that type of farming situation. 01
This couple also emphasized that the move to sustainable farming improved couple life.
 M: We went into the farm crisis owing about $1900 an acre debt, so we were virtually bankrupt all the way through it.... During that period, everything had to be perfect.... It was just teeny, tiny little things that were so important to make the system work.... You're just on edge, and youíre locked into that heavy production and long days. 01
For them, the improvement was also because the change to sustainable farming required new goal setting processes.
M: Part of sustainable ag is the brainstorming. You can set all the members of a family that are together and brainstorm: "What do you want to do with this farm?" And somebody might want to put a racetrack on it, and somebody might want to put a W: (interrupting) hog shooting range. M: (laughs) Yeah, a hog shooting range (all laughing). One year when pigs were real cheap, and the hunters, found out the hunters were paying two hundred bucks for a license, or whatever, so she figured she could. 01
Although in every one of the six families at least one adult family member felt that family life improved with the move into sustainable farming, the opinion that family life had improved was not necessarily unanimous in a family.
M: Some of the things that we tried ended up being more labor-intensive...than what we started out thinking it would be. So your quality of life, your family time, really kind of ended up going down the tubes.
W: Well, I wouldnít agree with that, because our whole family enjoys working, and weíve always done all the work together. So itís not like it went down the tubes. We still were able to take (M: yeah) vacations and things like that....
M: We have a lot more quality time if I go out and get things sprayed. Instead of spending days on end walking beans we can be doing something together. 16
In accord with research by Meares (1997), in families in which it was primarily a man or the males in the family who were working directly with crops and farm animals, the change to sustainable farming was said to have affected the men or the males more than the women or females. In such cases, the changes in quality of family life had more to do with what the man or the males in the family were doing with their time. But the picture drawn from what people in our small scale qualitative study said to us is not as clear as the picture Meares drew from her small scale qualitative study. Although some people who had moved into sustainable farming told us that the move saved them time, some said it demanded more time. Although in some households the move into sustainable had more affect on quality of life for the man or primarily affected the woman because things changed for the man, in some households the woman had all along been involved in work with crops or animals, and the move into sustainability affected her directly. Also in accord with Meares, in some households it was a woman who primarily managed what could be called the community contacts of the family, and moving into sustainability did not change that. But in other households moving into sustainability drew the man into active participation in sustainable farming organizations and made him a more important link to community and other families than he was before.
Improved Child Life and Improved Parent-Child Relations

In five of the six cases where a family had young children, at least one adult said that the move to sustainable farming had improved child life and/or parent-child relations. Here are two examples.

W: Thatís another thing I like about sustainable farming. Thereís no place I canít take my little boy. We can walk fences all day, and heís not gonna get hurt unless he trips over a rock and bangs his head on another rock. The danger level is so much less than when youíre out there with the tractor harvesting. Then you got to worry about the hay bind, and you gotta worry about the rake, and then you gotta worry about the forage equipment that you chop it with, or the wagons that you haul with, and then the tractors and all that. Where now...itís fun, and you can stop and say, "Oh, look at that. Thereís a deer, the butterfly," or a frog, or some varmint or whatever. Bird watching or whatever. You can take the time to do those kinds of things. 01
W: When [our daughter] was in kindergarten, ...she got really upset because she wanted us to spend some time with her. And we said, Daddyís out making hay, or Daddyís out shelling corn, or Daddyís out doing this or doing that, and then we kinda really took a look at the conventional farming and how things were going.... M: Safety was another thing that was (W: Yeah) part of it was that we could have the kids along with us; was just gonna be more safer. We were gonna run less equipment.... We had four kids under the age of six there...when we started grazing. 04
Possibility of Future Intergenerational Transfer
In two of the families that had acquired their farm through intergenerational transfer and where there was an offspring who was interested and involved in farming, at least one adult said that the move into sustainable farming improved the chances for intergenerational transfer. This was so because the farm was more viable economically and because sustainable farming activities made the farm more inviting to their children as an operation to take over.
Family Issues for Those Who Started Their Own Farm
People involved in self-start up farms generally talked about different relationship issues than people involved in farms acquired through intergenerational transfer. Some couples talked about kin who questioned their going into farming or who thought it strange or amusing, but nobody reported conflict with kin or hard feelings among kin over the move into farming. Thus, there was nothing that came close to resembling the intergenerational difficulties reported by some people involved in intergenerational farm transfer. And there were no members of the extended family questioning the move into sustainable farming, as opposed to conventional farming.
At least one adult in all 10 families that moved into farming on their own was clear that farming was a better, more rewarding, more fulfilling life than what they had before. But rather than contrasting conventional with sustainable farming most compared working for somebody else or urban life with sustainable farming (cf. Jacob, 1997).
Some of the people who started their own farm had dreams of eventual intergenerational transfer, perhaps to a niece or nephew or perhaps to a child who was at present a preschooler. But none was at all close to making such a transfer, in terms of who was available and perhaps in how economically viable the farm was.
So the family issues that came up for families who had taken over a family farm and had moved it toward sustainable farming were not issues for families who had moved into farming from outside. But there were still family issues for some families that had started their own farm.
People who were new to farming struggled with being beginners and making costly mistakes. All 10 couples who started their own farm, even though they were farming with limited inputs and little or no machinery, struggled with having to capitalize everything--making a barn usable, repairing or building fencing, establishing a herd, building windbreaks, even buying buckets. Also, many of the couples needed, for the first time in their relationship, to learn how to work together in an enterprise.
Couple Communication
All of the couples who were new to farming said that they had spent a lot of time talking about the farm and farming, because of all the startup decisions that had to be made, because roles had to be worked out, and because there were so many possibilities for frustrations and resentments and those had to be resolved or managed. Here are two examples.
M: I donít think that weíre finding that we need to communicate more. Weíve always beenÖ [W: Maybe we have to be better at it (laugh]). Well, weíve always communicated well. But weíve never been working together in the work place.... Most of the problems tend to arise when we sort of see different priorities. Thatís what I see as most of the problems, that we have in communications where, you know, I see that, I think this, this and this needs to be done, and [my wife] might think that this, this and this needs to be done first, or she sees these as being more important at this particular time. And then we have a discussion about that. It seems like thatís where the problems come in. We will both agree that, oh yeah, these are all important things, but I would say, "Well, Iíve got to go out and cultivate this field right now. Itís just got to be done." And she would see something else as [most important]. 09
W: When you have a farm where youíre both working sort of together, but even in different areas, you have to talk together about certain things, Ďcause certain things have to get done, whether itís a fence that needs to be fixed or anything.... M: A lot of the guys that I work with, they canít imagine ....Thatís a little too much togetherness (chuckles). 15
Getting along as a Couple Working Together
For most couples who moved into farming from outside it was the first time they had worked together on a sustained basis, and they had to accommodate their different work styles, different propensities to keep busy, and differing needs to spend time at things other than farm work, household chores, or child care. Some of the couples who started their own farm talked about conflict about couple division of labor. Here are two examples.
W1: I would think the biggest clashes would be on
W2: Seems to be a use of time. (W1: Yeah.) I love details. I will spend ages, just a lot of time doing something, doing it right the first time. I wanted to trim all the hooves. Thereís 50 animals and thatís 200 hooves. W1: And thereís not 37 hours in a day. W2: Yeah, there's not enough hours in the day. She could help me this morning, but not in the afternoon. So we had to come to an agreement that we would vaccinate and worm, and then I'll come out another day and sit by myself all day, turn on the radio and trim hooves.... Thatís where you get the most impatient.       (W1: Right, right)    Use of time.
W1: Because you are so are detail-oriented. And I'm so big-picture oriented. You know, trying to manage everything. Which isn't always the best approach, but so I'm seeing other things that need to be done. So thatís probably our biggest problem is I tend to get a little bossy.
W2: Umhm (laughs). Does the nod get recorded? It hears me nod. Umhm, umhm, yep.
W1: So we both know it's there.
W2: Yeah. And we work on it. It's something we work on all the time. It's part of the relationship. 07
M: We've always communicated well. But we've never been working together in the work place. I think that before we farmed we each had our jobs that we did during the day, and the kinds of stuff we did at home, we weren't dealing with ...important financial issues.... Youíre used to dealing with our own time budgeting at our work place and it was really obvious how things went. Now, time budgeting is more complicated.... Whose responsibility is it to do what? How do we split up the farm work?
W:....Yeah, so I'd say time has really been the biggest kind of contention. We have different styles of handling things. (M: Right.) And [he] is more task-oriented than I am....
M: Yeah. I'm very good at planning things out, and just doing them and making sure that they happen, so when we try to work together...on things that are kinda complicated and need to get done in a certain way, sometimes we kind of have a hard time working together.
W: I don't like to have him tell me what to do (giggles).
M: Right. Even if Iím right. W: Even though, like if itís something with machinery. Yeah, even if heís right. Even if I know heís right. (laughs) I feel like weíre still kind of learning how to do this together. A lot of it is deciding what we want out of being here. 09
Sorting Out Differences in Commitment to Farming
In some couples new to farming it became clear that only one partner was strongly interested in farming. The other did not want to do much of the farm work, was less invested in the farm, was more invested in non-farm activities, or found farm work distasteful. In those couples there were relationship tensions and even economic difficulties as the differences became visible and as the partners tried to sort out what to do about the differences.
W: I...spent a great deal of time doing nothing (chuckles) when I was younger. I didnít have very many expectations around the house. Sure didnít have any chores to do. And so my lesson from [my husband] is to learn how to appreciate a little bit more, to see it as something to, not just enjoy but learn from. And so itís a real delicate balance that we argue about. It creates more stress than anything else on the farm.... But thereís another issue, too, and that is the unpredictability of farming. Thatís also hard for me. ...My familyís only ever worked one job all my life. My parents have had the same job. We never had to worry about hot days and chickens dying and cold days and chickens dying and cows getting out. Iíve had to learn how to be flexible. I donít know that Iíve always learned that very successfully. But thatís the opportunity in front of me now, to practice flexibility.... I like to be able to go places on weekends, or even weeks at a time, and thereís not a lot of opportunity for us to do that, in the summer, at all. And so what ends up happening is that my daughter and I go places, and [my husband] stays back here, and without even recognizing whatís happening, it really contributes to a distance in our relationship. 03
The data reported in this paper suggest that in understanding the family issues associated with sustainable farming it is useful to differentiate among types of sustainable farm operations. This paper lays out one such distinction, but conceivably many others would be useful in clarifying issues for families involved in sustainable farming.
This paper suggests that farm families who take over a farm through intergenerational transfer and then shift the farm operation from conventional agriculture to sustainable agriculture may experience intergenerational tension over the old way of farming versus the new. They also may feel that they have benefited from the change in farming--moving to what they experience as a better family life, perhaps having more time for desirable family togetherness, perhaps creating a safer physical environment for young children, perhaps strengthening parent-young-child relationships, and perhaps improving the chances of intergenerational transfer to the younger generation.
Farm families who have moved into sustainable farming from outside of farming may generally find farming preferable to a life without farming, but they also may have problems as beginners (particularly financial problems, problems with working out shared decisions, and problems in learning how to do the kind of farming they want to do). Working together in the ways farming demands may be unprecedented in the family's experience. Families entering farming from outside may find that they are challenged to communicate better and more effectively than they have in the past. And they may also find, as the realities of farming and of personal preferences and abilities become clear, that they are not equally committed to farming.
Farm families thinking of entering sustainable farming and those already involved in sustainable farming might benefit from information about family issues that occur with sustainable farming. Such information might help them to anticipate issues, to understand what will happen or what is happening to them, and to acquire helpful perspective on their close relationships.
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Author Note

Department of Family Social Science.
This research was supported by grants from the University of Minnesota Graduate School and the University of Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Paul C. Rosenblatt, Department of Family Social Science, University of Minnesota, St. Paul, MN 55108. Send electronic mail to: