75th Anniversary: 10) Rediscovery of Farming Styles

Farming styles refer to a cultural repertoire, a composite of normative and strategic ideas about how farming should be done. The notion goes back to early work of Hofstee, the founding father of the Rural Sociology Group, initially by focussing on the cultural backgrounds of inter-regional differences in farmers’ uptake the agricultural modernisation logics. Late 1980s the notions re-appears, changing the focal point to intra-regional significance of differentiating farmers’ responses in relation to the various sustainability problems that characterize these same modernisation logics.

Analytically this return to the farming styles notion enables to question the inevitability of ongoing agricultural intensification, specialisation and scale-enlargement, as well as its accompanying tendency to segregate agricultural activity from other rural functions as nature, biodiversity, landscape, etc. Various regional farming styles studies at the end of the 1980s and early 1990s revealed that, rooted in their typical cultural repertoires and specific relations with institutional settings, markets and technology, regional diversity in farming styles entailed specific promises in relation to sustainability problems as mineral losses, loss of biodiversity, loss of landscape values, loss of rural employment and -more generally- loss of agriculture’s licence to produce.

Farming Style Research: eye for quality of farm labour

These farming style research outcomes certainly did generate policy attention for alternative agricultural development pathways. Same outcomes, however, were strongly contested by principle defenders and beneficiaries of the agricultural modernisation model. As Farming styles scholars we were particularly challenged to translate our findings into practical policy measures as farming styles would have insufficiently hard boundaries and would say little about long term continuity prospects. Suggestions to design more tailor-made agri-environmental policy frameworks, thus better aligned with style-specific opportunities and interests, got relatively little policy response. Farming style research, therefore, did induce initially probably especially empirically grounded theorizing of agricultural dynamics that aimed to overcome the shortcomings of more structuralist approaches. Van der Ploeg’s renewed attention for the cultural embeddedness of farming, in combination with insights from Benvenuti’s TATE (Technical Administrative Task Environment) approach and Longs’ interpretation of actor-network theory, allowed to unravel farm level agency more comprehensively. Since then other agricultural scholars started more and more to incorporate farming styles aspects in their work, albeit often by making use of more fashionable policy notions as integrative and multifunctional farming and -most recently- nature-inclusive or circular farming.

Nowadays the significance of diversifying farm-level responses to contemporary globalizing food chain dynamics and urbanizing societies seems to be widely accepted and recognized. In relation to specific agri-environmental sustainability concerns as soil-, water-, mineral management and animal welfare, as well as, probably even more important, their farm-level integration potential. Particularly its eye for the multi-faceted backgrounds and origins of these diversifying responses makes that farming style theory still continues to be a source of inspiration for agricultural and rural development scholars and students.

Further reading: Van der Ploeg, J. D. (2012). The Genesis and Further Unfolding of Farming Styles Research. Historische Anthropologie, 20. 2012(3), 427-439 https://doi.org/10.7788/ha.2012.20.3.427