Pathways to Transition

Are You a Business, Lifestyle, Family or Learning Farmer?

A new research paper looks at the change in farming culture over the past 5 to 10 years. Although all farmers are different, the research identifies 4 types of logic that guide farming culture, and highlights the important role of participatory research and extension programmes.

Forages for Reduced Nitrate Leaching field visit in Christchurch. Scientists, researchers, farmers and students involved in the participatory research and extension programme (PEP) discuss the results of plantain research at the Ashley Dene Research Station. Image: Dairy NZ

Farming is changing, responding to increasing pressure to adopt new practices that prioritise environmental outcomes. Some farmers more easily take up this challenge while others experience this pressure as a clash with their historic beliefs and values of ‘good farming’, like maximising food production or protecting the family business.

“We all feel a ‘clash’ when we get a sense that others might not believe in or value what matters to us,” explains James Turner, senior social scientist at AgResearch and leader of Our Land and Water’s Pathways to Transition research theme.

“Historically, Kiwi farmers have felt valued for their role in feeding the world, and as the backbone of our country’s economy, and farm management decisions often reflect those values.” However, this role is being challenged by concerns about the environmental impacts of farming being raised in the media and by the public.

A new research paper, part-funded by the Our Land and Water National Science Challenge, has looked at the change in farming culture over the past 5 to 10 years, to identify the different ways farmers respond to pressure and the role of participatory extension programmes in supporting change.


Four types of farmer logic

Although all farmers are different, the research identified four types of logic that guide the farming culture of the 20 Scottish and 52 New Zealand farmers they interviewed:

  • Business – farm profit-oriented goals
  • Lifestyle – continuing farming lifestyle until retirement
  • Family – providing future family opportunities and family cohesion
  • Learning – information collection to stay up to date with recent developments and regulation

One farmer may apply most or all of these ‘logics’ but prioritise and weigh them quite differently to another farmer.

The research provided understanding into how traditional farming culture can be a barrier to change. While external pressure from consumers or policy led farmers to adopt some environmental practices, this pressure alone was not sufficient to change farmers' underlying logic, beliefs or values. This may pose a barrier to sustained change.

The environmental practices that were adopted were mainly aligned with their views on running a profitable business. Paper co-author James Turner says this doesn’t mean those farmers were motivated by self-interest. “It’s not necessarily profit that’s the underlying driver, but what profit allows farmers to do, such as making sure a farm can stay in the family, and putting money into other environmental actions.”

What did create a real, lasting change? Working alongside other farmers, together with researchers and stakeholders.


The important role of extension programmes

Participatory initiatives were found to create change by connecting farmers and giving them space and confidence to experiment with new practices, with new ideas and opportunities introduced by  other experts and researchers.

Specifically, being part of a participatory research and extension programme (PEP) influenced farmers’ “learning logic”, changing it from a linear to a ‘multi-actor’ logic. This expanded their experience of learning, from information collecting to information exchange, integrating the knowledge of advisors, farmers and researchers to create successful on-the-ground solutions.

The research identified the importance of feedback loops. Culture change is more likely to happen when PEPs are testing and developing solutions to issues such as climate change or water quality, where there is also external pressure from policy and consumers.

The 72 farmers interviewed for this research were a mix of farmers that had not participated in PEPs and some that had been part of the Farming for a Better Climate (Scotland) and Forages for Reduced Nitrate Leaching (New Zealand) programmes. The farmers who participated in these PEP programmes became more open to change. Researchers benefitted too, with improved understanding of the farm leading to better aligned research.

“The regenerative farming community is another example of farmers responding to a ‘clash’ in a way that encourages multi-stakeholder learning,” says Turner.

“It’s attracting other farmers and supporting a culture change. For example, New Zealand’s traditional production culture values a neat, tidy farm with no weeds. As some farmers learn more about ‘regen’ practices, they no longer see diverse pastures as messy and unordered, but as a sign of a healthy landscape.”

“Achieving sustained change towards more environmentally friendly farming is challenging,” says lead author Jorie Knook, Lincoln University. “Participatory research and extension programmes can contribute to this change via, for example, bringing together farmers and putting them in touch with other experts.”


Guidance for PEPs to maximise sustained change

  • Align the timing of the PEP (participatory research and extension programme) with other events related to water quality or climate change, for example new emission regulation, or observed changes in soil quality or weather events. This is likely to increase farmer motivation towards change.
  • Form a management board for each focus/monitor farm (farms that host discussion group meetings and are platforms for experimentation and demonstration), consisting of farmers, experts, and researchers. Such a management board can, for example, select and invite the ‘right’ experts for discussion group meetings. This can significantly grow the networks through which participants acquire new knowledge and allow farmers to become active knowledge contributors. The bringing together of new actors will support the development of new practices.
  • Establish a new peer group for farmers. Creating a supportive environment in which farmers can develop new practices without feeling pressure to conform to the existing dominant beliefs and values, such as the Young Farmer Climate Champions, allows the development of a new farming culture.
  • Stimulate all participants to actively share the findings from the discussion groups within their networks. This increases the frequency and regularity of which the new practices and beliefs are used, leading to acceptance as a new aspect of ‘farming culture’.
  • Establish stable discussion groups, that regularly interact during a period (more than 3 years). This is essential in building trust between all participants and is more likely to lead to sustained change.


Farm management practices for the 4 logics

  • ‘Win-win’ measures that have multiple benefits
  • Diversification into a new branch of business
  • Self-sufficient energy supply
  • Minimise business expenses
  • Tidy looking farm
  • Simplify practices
  • Minimise changes to allow staying on the farm if possible
  • Diversification of income
  • Expansion of the farm for enough work
  • Continue practices of previous generation
  • Keep options open
  • Focus on long-term gain
  • Adapt on farm based on regulations and guidelines
Learning – multi-stakeholder
  • Direct knowledge exchange between farmers and researchers
  • Facilitation of knowledge exchange meetings



More information:


Annabel McAleer

Communications Manager, Our Land and Water. Text in this article is licensed for re-use under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

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