Landscape Futures & Food ~ part two
More on 'good farming', sustainable land use and social change with Dr Lee-Ann Sutherland
Q. We’ve spoken quite a bit so far about succession and farming families… I was wondering whether you got a chance to have a look at the gender dynamics and the social relations that underlie this concept of the good farmer?
In my research interviewing French farmers [for an MPhil in Agricultural history] I became really interested in the historically overlooked role of wives as farm administrators. And how, in France, farm activity wives did wasn’t officially recognised until the 1990s…
Yes! We wrote a whole chapter in the book on the notion of gender in relation to good farming, because what I've come to realise over time is that as you interview farmers you don't typically volunteer to interview more than one. By and large, you will get the oldest male on the whole thing because that is who is seen as the primary farmer. And it could be that there is a son and a spouse and a daughter also working on the farm, but you will inevitably get to speak to the older farmer. And so it's actually more of a comment on our research methods - something a lot of academics are trying to push for now, and I'm amongst them, is interviewing more than one person per farm because you do end up talking to just men, and then you get a very male perspective, which actually then reinforces the idea that farmers are men because that's who is appearing in the research.
And so a lot of the ideas about what it is to be a good farmer are in fact, male ideas about what it is to be a good farmer, and we didn't have enough data to really get into it and pull out - what are women saying and how is that different? I mean, we do know for sure that there are women that are a lot more visible in organic farming and in alternative sort of approaches.
So whether you're getting more women into that because it's more interesting for them or whether it's just the same, that a number of women are there because, as you say, farming is a family occupation, so you typically have husband and wife or partners working together. So maybe it's just that women are more visible in organic farming, It's hard to say but it certainly looks like there are more female-led firms with women being identified as the primary farmer in alternative approaches.
Q. Somehow that really feeds into eco-feminist ethics of women as carers… and perceptions of that.
It's strange though - because the role the wife takes on the farms that I've encountered is often, simultaneously, that they’re the administrative assistant and the accountant. So they really keep the score! They'll often be the ones who are the most aware of the money that the farm is making.
And then, on the other hand, sometimes they're the ones who will intervene to stop a hedgerow being taken down… or be seen as more [biodiversity-sensitive].
Is the stereotype that women are the ‘carers’ in these landscapes and the men are the ‘doers’ grounded in reality or is this something that we're just culturally creating?
Well, there's actually really interesting gender literature which looks at agriculture in particular and it talks about the perpetuation of these stereotypical gender roles. I mean, you can see it back, you know, kind of 40 or 50 years ago when farming was a very manual profession. So if you've got a farming couple, it really makes sense to have the one who's physically stronger doing the manual labour. Plus, there wasn't a lot of child care and that sort of thing. Farm families often have multiple children, so it typically just made sense for women to be in the house. And in the house, you can do the bookkeeping or that sort of thing. Farming women, by the way, tend to be better educated than men on farms. Just on average, they tend to have had more education, so they do actually tend to be responsible for the bookkeeping. And increasingly that's also holding their pocketbook quite often because they're also working off farm and perhaps earning more money than the farm does and are saying, you know, ‘wait a minute, is this a good idea?’
There's some interesting literature looking at the mechanisation of farming because you would think now that we've got tractors and that sort of thing, surely a woman can drive a tractor just as well as a man can, and they can! But there's something really interesting about male identity as being big and strong that really links well into machinery.
So you see machinery as being symbolic of power. And so what you actually see is this idea of driving a tractor has become a very male thing or you see the mechanisation of dairy, for instance. So it used to be a lot of milking dairy cows by hand and that was often a female activity. And once it became something that was mechanised, then it became more of a male activity because men and machines somehow seem to go together! So despite agriculture becoming much less labour intensive in a physical sense, requiring a male body to do it, it's actually still quite masculine.
Q. That’s fascinating, and it makes me think of one tech cooperative in France that's trying to develop agricultural tools for women. It’s a Start-Up Lab and there's this whole underlying argument that the tools themselves are just ill shaped for the female body!
Right? The Scottish Government had a Women in Agriculture Task Force for a couple of years and it came off the back of some research that we did that is exactly what you're talking about, that a lot of the way farms are set up is just not suited to a female body. My favourite example is the weight sensor on the seat of a tractor. So it's a safety feature that the tractors engine will cut out when you come off the seat. So if you're thrown from the tractor, you're not going to be run over by it. But the sensor is typically calibrated so that lighter women, if they're bouncing around through a field, come far enough off the seat that it sets off the weight sensor.
We had this woman talking about driving down the road and every time she went over a bump the tractor engine cut out! So she's got this load of bales behind her at the same time as the safety measures kicked in and it's bumped her off the seat. So yeah, you're quite right…there's horrifying stories and realities about farms being set up for men. And the thing is, it's not just men, it's men of a particular age. A lot of farmers are older and these are also often safety issues for men in their 70s. Or even current teenagers who have had a less physical upbringing and who are trying to do things just like their parents do. That maybe they aren't strong enough for. There are a lot of safety issues in agriculture surrounding the social dynamics of the ideal, or ‘good’ farmer.
Q. We’re thinking a lot about how people, especially new generations, are currently joining up the dots of biodiversity sensitive farming to create that landscape scale change and, of course, social change!
But you mentioned earlier that in your research, you found it's facing different kinds of crises, whether it's sanitary crises or financial crises on farm, that often leads farmers to shift their practises and shift their ideas of what it means to be a good farmer.
What role does regulation and market incentives play in this - do you think there are positive ways to facilitate these shifts?
Farmers are changing incrementally all the time and they're adapting to the rules of the game in conceptual terms - how do you be a good farmer? What does it mean to have a profitable farm? And then from that follows on a lot of things…
Environmental measures when they were first came out were seen as something very strange and very foreign, and now farmers just do it. You know, it's just a normal part of activity. It used to be that they spent a lot of time, you know, washing out their sprayers and just letting the spread all over the ground. And they don't do that anymore because they know that that's not good practice. So ideas about what are good practices do shift, over time, and the government has a big role to play in terms of the kind of regulations and how they enforce them in relation to farming.
I mean, we have to remember… these hedgerows and things we're getting paid to put back in. Well, you know, 30 years ago, my dad got paid to take them out! So farmers have a healthy scepticism of what scientists in the government tell them is a good idea now because they have these long family memories of what was encouraged, you know, 30, 40, 50 years ago. It's actually the complete opposite of what we're encouraging right now. But they do take on board incrementally the new expectations of them.
Farmers are looking at veganism, for instance, they are looking around at the changing context and what's going on with climate change, and they're thinking - ‘I need to adapt to this!’ Now, I don't think they're necessarily thinking they need to adapt as fast as we think they need to adapt, but they will be adapting for sure. They want their farms to last into the future and they don't want to be the villains of society. They want to be seen to be doing a good thing.
Q. Do you think that private companies that are involved in the whole agri food systems have a role to play as well in supporting the transition to biodiversity-sensitive farming?
Oh, absolutely. I mean, the procurement standards that grocery stores have, have an enormous influence on what farmers do, particularly in relation to things like anti-microbial use, but also in relation to when things come to market, what kind of quality they come to market and all that sorts of things. Yeah, grocery stores, suppliers, processors, that whole cohort have an enormous influence on farmers. =
Q. And then maybe upstream, those who create agricultural machinery and who market it as appealing and innovative. Do you also see them as a factor in changing ideas of good farming?
Well, there's always going to be a cohort of farmers out there who want to have the newest and the best and the most efficient technology… And who understandably associate that with good practice. So I think the equipment companies in particular both have a lot to answer for in terms of what they've been selling to farmers because they've been selling this masculine cultural identity for a long time. But also, farmers can't adopt a technology that's not out there and the best co-innovators in the world on farms aren't going to invent a tractor or the kind of technology that we have right now from scratch. They need companies to be moving that direction too!
Q. It's very curious to think about farmers in that sense as consumers, not only of an agricultural tools, but also of the cultural identities attached to them!
Do you think about new agritech innovations as progress?
Are these kind of tools giving you hope for the way that we're facing the biodiversity and climate crises?
I think it's quite promising. I don't think we can go back. I mean, I think there may be some things that we should roll back in terms of how we think about the environment but I think we need to be going forward, by and large, and thinking about how we use these technologies.
Let's see what we can do that makes for less environmental damage. I'm not saying that there's a technological fix to the biodiversity crisis. I think we definitely have land that needs to be left to its own devices but also land that needs to be actively cultivated to produce biodiversity.
And another aspect of the good farmer thing that I've been arguing for, actually, is enabling farmers to feel like producing biodiversity is really, really, important.
Farmers often, currently, don't look at a field and automatically recognise whether it's diverse or not. They don't necessarily recognise with the beneficial insects are. They may enjoy seeing birds around, but that they may be because they're pretty. Songbirds are pretty, or birds at feeders, not because they're particularly good for a type of pollination or a particular ecological value.
So there's a missing element there that we can work with farmers to help them learn more about how to see a field as biodiverse and therefore to value it on that basis.
I think there's a lot more that technology can do and we should be looking for a hybrid solution that involves this new technology but also enables what we already know about how nature works to help move farming forward.
Q. I think it's fascinating to think about reframing the role of the farmer as a biodiversity producer. But in the next decade, half of European farmers are going to be retiring. I worry that the farmers themselves as the connections that we have to our landscapes are just going to be disappearing? Does that resonate with you at all?
Well, there's an interesting thing about this idea that so many farmers are going to be retiring. My experience has been that farmers don't really retire!
I mean, goodness, my grandfather was on his tractor into his 90s! If you've got somebody coming along behind you, you can stay on your farm indefinitely… So I wouldn't be so convinced that so many farmers are completely moving on. But you're right, there's no question that they're getting older and there needs to be a new generation coming through behind them.
We actually have really poor statistics about whether there is this generation coming along because until recently, nobody asked that question! They were just doing demographics on the oldest farmer or the primary farmer. And so it was anybody's guess whether there was another farmer coming along behind them or even a generation after that.
So I don't think we're going to be losing that right away - I think we will still have that farm memory passed down between the generations. I think it's a bigger issue that quite often you don't get to inherit your farm until you're in your 60s because the parent farmer doesn't actually seriously step back from a decision making role until he's in his 70s or 80s. And let's face it, your 60s is not likely to be your most innovative time in your life! At the same time, people in their 60s, especially if they've had another profession or are stepping in later in life, maybe more oriented towards producing biodiversity and coming into farming as more of a semi-retirement sort of approach. And that's, to be fair, that's the way a lot of farms go. So I'm going in multiple directions here but there's kind of two sorts of farming trajectories.
The real interesting turning point is what happens to farms when they do actually get past the point of somebody's retirement and they just sell up something. Something that we don't know a lot about in Europe but it's becoming really obvious that we need to know more about - is the different forms of contract farming and what happens to these farms that are being sold.
Because although we are seeing organic smaller scale farmers come in and people pursuing alternative approaches, quite often, farms will get amalgamated into bigger farms once sold. And so we're seeing a lot of contract farming where you have one individual who's farming thousands and thousands of acres of land, no longer resident on that land, no longer necessarily even making a lot of the day to day decision making. Maybe it's the people who are running the fleet of equipment. Maybe there's a manager who's making those decisions. So there's this disconnection between the farmer in official terms and who's actually making the decisions. One of the particular problems with these enormous scale farms is that when you've got this kind of hierarchy, it's actually quite difficult to prioritise environmental things because often they’re a bit fiddly or time consuming to in terms of workflows. So contract farming can be, but doesn't have to be, really bad for the environment, just because it’s about convenience and you've got this disconnected hierarchy.
Q. There are a lot of small-scale farmer movements against those growing farms and those immense thousand hectare farms in some parts of France.
We caught up with a Rep of the Confédération Paysanne local to me for the podcast and we’ve been talking to younger farmers too, which is hopeful! There’s also more agritech education taking off for young people in France, like Hectar…
Following this thread, I have a pet theory about generational perspectives and the French farming sector - up until the Second World War, around 36% of the French workforce was still working in farming, which is a third of our grandparents, still today.
That’s very different from many of our European neighbours. I was wondering if you had anything to say about that. Do you think France is special in that sense?
France is definitely special with that connection to the land - I think you're quite right, that's probably at least part of where it's coming from. The French people still feel very tied to agriculture, the kind of subsidies that we just we always joke in the UK that, you know, UK farmers have really benefited from from French farmers!
I mean, French farmers protest - they drive their tractors down highways. They stop traffic. If we did that in the UK, we would lose our subsidies! There is no way the British people would fall in line behind us if we started protesting like that. But in France, they do. And you're right, it probably is connected to just that generational connection but there's also a really interesting law in France that says that you can't buy farmland unless you're either born and raised on a farm or you have an agricultural education. Austria is the same way but there aren't very many countries in Europe that make that distinction. Here in the UK, anybody can buy farmland and you see it being used more as an investment. Not that is not being used as an investment in France. But I think the fact that you have that law in place makes it more likely that you've got people that do have that connexion to agriculture, farming, the land. Some of the best support for young farmers coming up I have seen has been in France.
Q. I live in Brittany at the moment and I see that mindset everywhere. Buying land and being young and trying to get your farm licence to design and secure that. It's very present for me! Thanks so much for joining us…
Conversation edited for clarity and format. Interview by Alexandra Georges-Picot.
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