Structural change in agriculture and farmers' social contacts: Insights from a Swiss mountain region

Victoria Junquera, Daniel I. Rubenstein, Adrienne Grêt-Regamey, Florian Knaus

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

CONTEXT: Farm numbers are steadily declining in Europe and globally while farms become larger and more intensive. Driven in part by worsening macroeconomic conditions, these structural changes and the associated rationalization of agricultural supply chains have affected social relations in rural areas. In turn, farmers' social contacts influence farming decisions. Social and structural changes are thus interconnected, and they affect the resilience of rural areas through their influence on environmental, social, and economic capital. OBJECTIVE: We examine the connection between farm structures and farmers' social contacts in the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve Entlebuch (UBE), a mountain region in central Switzerland with a strong presence of family farms, and explore the implications of social and structural change for rural resilience. METHODS: We conduct a survey of N = 102 farming households and combine it with farm-level agricultural census data and interviews with key stakeholders (N = 13) to analyze farmers' current social contacts and their changes since the year 2000. We use regression and cluster analyses to examine the relationship between (changes in) social contacts and farm-level characteristics. RESULTS AND CONCLUSIONS: Farmers in the UBE have a high, but decreasing frequency of contacts with family, friends, and colleagues and lower, but increasing frequency of commercial and administrative contacts. Workloads have increased by 6% in five years, driven by farm-level expansion of agricultural area (+5%)—including expanding ecological compensation areas—and intensification in managed areas (+3%), leading to parallel processes of intensification and extensification. Since most of these family farms do not hire workers, growing workloads directly impinge on farmers' free time, affecting informal contacts most. Farm managers in larger and more intensive farms have more frequent and more diverse, but also more rapidly declining, social contacts. Our results point to a net loss in social capital as social contacts become less frequent and shift from local and informal to regional and national professional contacts. SIGNIFICANCE: A 17% decline in farm numbers in 15 years reflects the vulnerability of farms in this region. Growing financial strain, workloads, time pressure and the associated erosion of informal contacts contribute to this vulnerability. Policymakers from local to national should recognize the contribution of farmers' diverse social networks towards rural resilience and seek options to maintain and enhance such networks. Beyond direct interventions that foster social capital, policymakers should more rigorously consider the short- and long-term interconnections and tradeoffs between different forms of capital.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number103435
JournalAgricultural Systems
Volume200
DOIs
StatePublished - Jun 2022

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Animal Science and Zoology
  • Agronomy and Crop Science

Keywords

  • Agriculture
  • Farming
  • Social capital
  • Structural change
  • Switzerland
  • UNESCO Biosphere Reserve Entlebuch

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