Skip to main content
Report, 2019

D2.2 Report on analysis of biographical narratives exploring short- and long-term adaptive behaviour of farmers under various challenges

Coopmans, Isabeau; Draganova, Mariana; Fowler, Sue; Manevska Tasevska, Gordana; Midmore, Peter; Mishev, Plamen; Nicholas-Davis, Pip; Petitt, Andrea; Prové, Charlotte; Senni, Saverio


The Horizon 2020 project Towards Sustainable and Resilient EU Farming Systems (SURE-Farm) defines resilience as maintaining the essential functions of EU farming systems in the face of increasingly complex and volatile economic, social, ecological and institutional risks: Meuwissen (2018) suggests that resilience over time is achieved across the increasingly fundamental attributes of robustness, adaptability and transformability, representing system responses to short, medium and long-term external drivers, respectively. Maxwell (1986) also recognised that external drivers vary significantly in time and space and distinguished four different types of perturbations: noise, shocks, cycles and trends. Analysis of narratives (Rosenthal, 2004; Riessmann, 2008) can be used to enable researchers to gain indepth understanding of the rationale surrounding farmer decision making when faced with drivers of change (e.g. MacDonald et al., 2014), and how farmers manage critical decision points in their farming businesses. This understanding is crucial for developing the tools and policy measures needed to support the sustainability and resilience of European agriculture. We have used personal histories of family farms, and business histories of corporate farms, to identify phases in the separate production, demographic and policy adaptive cycles (and consequences of interactions between them) as they have impacted on the individuals concerned and their business enterprises. Biographical stories were collected from nine to ten narrators (early-, mid- and late-career), in each of five case studies chosen to represent a range of regions and farming systems in Europe. These included large scale family and corporate arable farms in Northeast Bulgaria (BG) and the East of England (UK); dairy farms in Flanders (BE); small-scale perennial crop (hazelnut) farms in central Italy (IT) and high value egg and broiler systems in Southern Sweden (SE). A single question was used to initiate the narrators’ stories, without qualification beforehand, supported only with expressions of interest and encouragement in the first part of the interview, with subsequent exploratory questions devoted to clarifying the internal structure of the narrative. Narratives were transcribed and analysed to identify the drivers and responses to critical decision-making points in the stories. Comparisons across the five regional farming system cases have also been made to generate wider insights into how the narrators responded to different challenges. The drivers leading up to critical decision points in the narratives were grouped according to themes which followed a spectrum ranging from internal (those arising from within the farm system), to external (those acting on the farm system). Internal drivers included health, relationships, intergenerational change, retirement, redundancy. The more intermediate drivers included financial pressures, skills, labour, disasters, land issues, water. External drivers included supply chain factors, markets, technology, policy and regulation. Some drivers and responses were observed to relate to the farmer whilst others related to the farming system. Key findings from cross-narrative analysis distinguished inertia as the predominant response to system challenges, and that incremental changes (or creeping change, as we have termed it) in the system over a long-time frame rather than a definable critical decision point, is widely evident in the narratives. Climate change was not identified as being a driver and was only mentioned at all in two of the 45 narratives. Farmer identity ranged broadly across the narratives with the extremes being represented by those who farmed because it was their vocation, to those who perceived themselves first and foremost as business operators. To an extent, these identities reflected the degree of attachment to land, with the more vocational farmers having a strong attachment to their farmed land (particularly in the Flemish case) and the more business-minded (particularly in Northeast Bulgaria and the East of England) having less attachment. The long-term nature of the hazelnut crop in Central Italy meant that attachment to the land was strong, regardless of farmer identity. Family support, whether perceived as positive or negative by the narrator, was found to influence decision-making, and changing work/life balance expectations, particularly amongst early-career farmers with young families, was also influential. The narratives revealed different approaches to risk alleviation, both within and across case studies. In instances where land availability was not restricted (for example, Northeast Bulgaria, and to some extent, East Anglia), scale enlargement was predominant, but where land was restricted, diversification was the predominant response (for example, in the Flemish narratives). There were strong similarities and distinctive differences across the narrative contexts. Similarities included the dominance of internal drivers, intergenerational change as a major critical decision point, the perception of many external drivers as noise, and more frustration with policy drivers compared with weather events. There were few mentions of insurance by the narrators. The findings indicate that robustness is demonstrated in response to many drivers classified as cycles and shocks, whilst prolonged trends result primarily in adaptation. Transformations were relatively infrequent in the narratives and those identified were not radical in nature. The main policy related conclusions from the study suggest that farming systems are ill-equipped for a rapid move from direct payments to income insurance. They also appear to be unprepared for climate change. Long-term, coherent strategies required for dealing with intergenerational change were not apparent, confirming parallel literature that suggests that legal, social welfare and policy obstacles to farm succession need to be addressed.

Published in

Publisher: SURE-Farm