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Life on the farm is better than its reputation

Austrian sociologists have for the first time explored the self-image of Austrian farmers. Quelle: Shutterstock

“Childhood on the farm is today often seen as a really good and positive time. Everything is to hand – work and family –, thereby relieving the burden of young farmers. The way in which three generations at the farm manage to coexist and live together has improved greatly over the last four decades”, reports Franz Höllinger, a sociologist and the head of the Center for Social Research at the University of Graz. This is the main conclusion of the FWF-funded research project Perspectives for Family Farming in Austria, which the professor carried out together with a team of students.

Social life in focus

The core issue of this basic research project was the question of how different generations perceive their working and living conditions in a family farming business. Farmers from all over Austria responded to a comprehensive questionnaire, and thirty in-depth, qualitative interviews were conducted in Styria. With its focus on the social fabric, the results of the study provide an important empirical basis and a complement to other surveys which usually concentrate on economic aspects, such as Austrian agricultural statistics. Covering both aspects produces a much more comprehensive picture of the peculiarities of farm life and the social changes connected to it.

Tough childhood on the farm

What are the main great changes? A key aspect is the importance of childhood. Only a few decades ago, children who grew up on a farm were given little opportunity to be children. The atmosphere was authoritarian, patriarchal and unforgiving, and the performing of chores was of overriding importance. Education often had to take a backseat, and it was not rare for children to miss classes because they had to help with the harvest. Many farmers’ children had a hard life, as described by the Austrian writer Franz Innerhofer in his novel Schöne Tage (Beautiful Days). The novel paints a gloomy picture of the harsh realities of a childhood on a mountain farm. In many families the style of communication within the family was authoritarian. The father was the central figure of authority with zero tolerance for arguments, with the rest of the family being subject to his regime. “The most exciting thing about this project was to learn just how much the social climate in the families has improved”, says Höllinger in the interview with scilog.

Choice rather than compulsion

Communication on equal terms, talking about conflicts, taking decisions together, being respectful of one anothers’ needs: these aspects make it possible for several generations to experience living together under the same roof as a positive way of life, according to many of the respondents. Höllinger, however, cautions against drawing general conclusions from such positive findings, because it was hard to get access to all segments of the target group, and the sample analysed tended to be more innovative, successful and younger than the average. The study also entailed methodological challenges for the team: “A standardised setting would have been somewhat artificial in this context and wouldn’t have worked. Conducting interviews at the farmhouse and putting questions to husband and wife together, turned out to be more productive”, explains the sociologist. For the men it was easier to talk about the economic situation and developments on the farm, while the women were better at describing the intricacies of living together.

Changing roles for women

The transformation of the women’s role within the family farming business also testifies to these massive changes. Up until a few decades ago, a woman would often be considered as a mere helping family member unless she actually owned and ran the farm herself. “In the past, men had the sole power of decision-making. Nowadays, women have a say in the decisions”, notes Höllinger. According to Austrian agricultural statistics (Grüner Bericht 2015), two thirds of the farming businesses are run by men and one third by women. Höllinger’s survey showed that half of the businesses are run by men, one quarter by women and a further quarter by men and women jointly. This should not be taken to infer that the traditional division of labour has disappeared completely.

Heavy physical work in the fields, or involving agricultural machinery, is still predominantly carried out by men. Housework, childcare, stable work and the processing of produce remain within the women’s domain. “The farmers’ wives we interviewed see this as a very positive thing. They can work in or near the home and take care of the children”, explains the sociologist. The economic pressure to apply business management principles and develop innovative production concepts has opened new domains for women, such as marketing, accounting and direct sales. Quite often they run the operational side of the business anyway, because their husbands have a second job away from the farm.

Beyond the clichés

From an economic point of view, farmers today operate between two opposing poles, as the results have shown. Each farmer has to define his or her own position between a traditional and a modern lifestyle, between the pressure of increasing economic efficiency and the need to be innovative. In many cases, the income from farming activities is insufficient. Many farming businesses therefore combine farming with ancillary jobs and innovative operating strategies (organic farming, direct sales, green-care farming, social farming) in order to create a viable living. Direct sale of produce, in particular, is both an additional source of income and a source for improving one’s self-esteem, because the farmers can determine their own prices and enjoy direct contact with their customers.

Life on a farm is still labour-intensive. Whether the farmers consider their working and living conditions in a positive way also depends on whether family members from the older generations and the children pitch in. Clearly separated living areas also make a positive contribution. All in all, Franz Höllinger has the impression that despite their dependency on compensation payments, farmers have a markedly more positive self-image now than just a few decades ago. “We have come to know the farmers as a very innovative group. Many of them are creative, dynamic young entrepreneurs who are open to changes and new opportunities”, Höllinger concludes. They are open to technological development, particularly if it gives them more independence and the possibility to enjoy more leisure time.

More benefits than drawbacks

Conflicts naturally still exist: communicating as equals and freedom of choice compel the older generation to cede power to the younger generation, and this doesn’t always come easily. By and large, however, the study demonstrates that today’s farmers are much happier with the benefits of a multi-generation business, entrepreneurial freedom, a diverse range of activities and the way they live together than they were 30 or 40 years ago. It does not come as a surprise that this is also having a positive impact on their children’s lives.


Personal details

Franz Höllinger is a Professor of Sociology and Head of the Center for Social Research at the University of Graz. His central research interests are religious and family sociology.


Publications

Franz Höllinger, Anja Eder, Eva-Maria Griesbacher, Sabine Haring: Bäuerliche Lebenswelten in Österreich am Beginn des 21. Jahrhunderts, Leykam Buchverlagsgesellschaft, 2017
Franz Höllinger: Value orientations and social attitudes in the holistic milieu, The British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 68/2, 293-313, June 2017, http://doi.org/gbn55k

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