Older farmers focus more on the long term than their younger colleagues. Farmers just starting out tend to focus on short-term profit, while older farmers are more interested in sustainable farming, with an eye to the long term. Jesús Rosales Carreón came to these conclusions in his PhD thesis. He will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 14 June 2012 for his research into farmers’ knowledge of sustainable agricultural practices.
Making the shift to sustainable agriculture is one of the greatest challenges facing the Dutch agricultural sector. The debate about sustainability is still mainly taking place at a conceptual level. Rosales Carreón investigated sustainability at farmer level. He interviewed eighty crop farmers from the provinces of Flevoland, Groningen, Noord-Brabant and Zeeland about their knowledge of sustainable agriculture and how they applied this in daily practice.
Rosales Carreón created ‘mind maps’ in order to chart the ‘mindset’ of the farmers with regard to sustainability. To do so, he divided the terms that the interviewed farmers brought up into three categories: people, which meant, for example, consumers’ opinions and the consequences for future generations; planet, concerning, for example, fertilizers and soil conditions; and profit, which could include such matters as production costs and crop yields.
Rosales Carreón discovered remarkable differences in mindset among farmers concerning sustainability. Of the group of farmers he interviewed, seventeen could be considered as belonging to the ‘sustainability vanguard’. These farmers knew their way around sustainable farming practices and participated voluntarily in the sustainability project ‘Veldleeuwerik’ (skylark). ‘All members of this vanguard named soil fertility in their mind maps’, says Rosales Carreón. ‘Of the rest this was less than half. This is quite a striking difference, as soil fertility is crucial to all farmers.’
Concepts that Rosales Carreón categorized under ‘people’ were the ones least often mentioned by farmers. Relatives, further training, colleagues’ opinions, their social environment and public opinion scored lowest. Rosales Carreón: ‘It’s interesting that public opinion ended last in the study; it’s in society, in particular, that you see increasing concern about the impact of farming on the environment, in both senses of the word. This is where the public and farmers diverge.’
The level of education of the farmer in question also proved to have an influence on his or her mind map. Although those with a higher education (research university or university of applied sciences) and those with a lower one (intermediate vocational education or secondary education) scored the same on cooperation, Rosales Carreón found differences in the time perspectives that they thought in. Rosales Carreón: ‘Farmers with a higher education had a mindset that was more focused on profit aspects such as cost control. Yet they were also more focused on the future than farmers with a lower education.’
It is striking that Rosales Carreón found a shorter time perspective among the younger farmers (average age 33) than among the older group (average age 55). Rosales Carreón: ‘Younger farmers tend to focus on the present, while the older farmers spoke about periods of 10 to 15 years, for example when discussing investments which would only become profitable in the longer term. This is a troubling conclusion, given that the transition to sustainable farming requires a long-term vision, in particular from young farmers. In our study we did not look at the causes of these differences, but it would be an obvious move to look at the agricultural schools and degree programmes. These will probably often include the subject “sustainability”, but it would be interesting to examine the effectiveness of the related course units and classes.’
It is important to view matters from the perspective of agricultural practice, according to Rosales Carreón: ‘Farmers’ knowledge of and attitude towards sustainability is often overlooked, yet any development in agriculture will have to come from these very farmers.’ He therefore advocates a more social approach towards farming: ‘Annual agricultural reports include figures on crop yields, the pesticides, herbicides and fungicides that should be used and give product prices, but the social component is completely lacking. This should also receive attention.’ Incidentally, the methods he developed to determine the mindset related to sustainability can also be applied to others than farmers. Rosales Carreón: ‘In future, we would also like to determine the mindset of other actors in the agricultural sector. And of course our method can also be applied in other sectors.’
The department where Rosales Carreón conducted his research – Systems, Organisations and Management (SOM) at the University of Groningen – has already integrated social sciences with business and agricultural studies. Within the SOM department, social scientists, including Rosales Carreón’s supervisor Prof. R.J.J.M. Jorna, collaborate with biologists, chemists and business scientists, investigating innovation and sustainability in the agricultural sector.
Jesús Rosales Carreón (Mexico City, Mexico, 1974) studied chemical engineering at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. After having worked in the business world for eight years, he moved to the Netherlands to do a Master’s degree programme in Environmental Studies at the University of Groningen. He conducted his PhD research within the Systems, Organisations and Management (SOM) research group of the University of Groningen. It was funded by BLGG AgroXpertus. Rosales Carreón will receive a degree in economics and business sciences. His supervisors were Prof. R.J.J.M Jorna, Prof. R.J.F. van Haren, and Dr N.R. Faber. His thesis is entitled: Mind and soil – Knowledge Aspects of Sustainable Agriculture.
Contact: Jesús Rosales Carreón, j.rosales.carreon rug.nl, tel: 050 363 3372
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