Journal of Rural Community Psychology, Vol. E2, No.
in Two Forms
Paul C. Rosenblatt &
Althea A. Dixon
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.
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
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
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.
with Intergenerational Transfer
Tension over Conventional
vs. Sustainable Farming
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
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
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
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
This couple also emphasized
that the move to sustainable farming improved couple life.
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
M: Part of
the...fun...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.
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.
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
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.
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; ...it 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
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.
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
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
Sorting Out Differences
in Commitment to Farming
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
W2: Yeah. And we work
on it. It's something we work on all the time. It's part of the relationship.
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
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
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.
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
...work 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.
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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Hassanein, N., &
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Salamon, S., Farnsworth,
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Family Social Science.
was supported by grants from the University of Minnesota Graduate School
and the University of Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station.
concerning this article should be addressed to Paul C. Rosenblatt, Department
of Family Social Science, University of Minnesota, St. Paul, MN 55108.
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