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The conflicting roles of a farmer: peasant, producer or entrepreneur?
The conflicting roles of a farmer: peasant, producer or entrepreneur?

The identity of a Finnish farmer is a balancing act between the roles of peasant, producer and entrepreneur. Many farmers, though acknowledging the pressure towards entrepreneurship, still think of their profession as a lifestyle that is passed on from one generation to the next. More and more, however, are introducing various forms of enterprise on their farms.

In his doctoral thesis Research Scientist Jarkko Pyysiäinen of MTT Agrifood Research Finland studied the attitudes towards entrepreneurship in the farm context of farmers, municipal decision-makers and experts in the agriculture sector. What he found was that while decision-makers rarely question the desirability of entrepreneurship, farmers tend to harbour reservations.

"Farmers are unsure of the desirability, or indeed the plausibility, of entrepreneurship in the farm context. Farmers saw the family farm, a family-oriented lifestyle and primary production as values in themselves; entrepreneurship was even seen as being a threat to these," Pyysiäinen notes. 

The material for the thesis study comprised individual and focus group interviews of farmers, municipal decision-makers and agriculture sector experts, which Pyysiäinen analysed using qualitative methods of discourse analysis. Carried out between 2004 and 2007 and predominantly targeting farmers, the interviews totalled 50.

New business operations should not be too new or alien

Of the interview locations, two were in eastern, one in western and one in southern Finland.
There were no regional differences between farmers' general approaches to entrepreneurship. According to Pyysiäinen, the most notable differences depended on the type of farming and on the existing business operations in the region and on the farms.

Farmers still commonly relate to a peasant identity, which delimits the development of new business operations. New business operations were viewed positively if they were not seen as posing a threat to the traditional identity and to conventional farm operations. If they were seen as being too far removed from these, the thought was rejected.

"Forms of business supporting primary production on the farm, such as farm tourism and the upgrading of primary products, were seen as natural and attracting alternatives. On the other hand, operations were more likely to be deemed unsuitable if the competitive situation or the nature of the customer relations relating to the business operations involved an increased need for cooperative effort with external actors and networks," says Pyysiäinen, by way of illustration.

Excessive workload feared

The interviews also revealed that farmers relate readily to independence and freedom, attributes traditionally associated with entrepreneurship. This helped to view entrepreneurship in a positive light.

The threats associated with entrepreneurship included an excessive increase in workload and the need for added sales and marketing efforts. Marketing, sales promotion and product development in particular were seen as stealing working hours from primary production, and also involved the risk of being thought of as being "just for the sake of it".

"This presents major obstacles for the promotion of farm enterprise, which is largely based on networking and various projects. These might feel alien to farmers," Pyysiäinen points out.
 
Focus on farm resources and networks

The interview material for the study indicated that decision-makers also acknowledge that the methods for promoting entrepreneurship and the reality at the grass-roots level do not always meet. These were nonetheless seen as necessary for creating new income opportunities for farms.   

Pyysiäinen stresses that the means for promoting farm enterprise should not be too straightforward, but should leave room for various ideas and initiatives. What is essential is to examine each farm individually. Farmers' ambitions towards autonomy should also be respected.

"Few farmers are ready to consider entrepreneurship from scratch. Consideration should be given to the farm's existing resources and social networks and the way of life connected with them. These provide the framework for operations on the farm and form the starting point for the development of entrepreneurship in a meaningful way," Pyysiäinen emphasises.

The doctoral thesis of Jarkko Pyysiäinen (M.Soc.Sc.), "Constructing and negotiating entrepreneurial agency. A social psychological approach to entrepreneurship discourse in the farm context" will be reviewed at the Faculty of Social Sciences of the University of Helsinki on 10 December 2011. Professor Stephen Reicher from the University of St Andrews in Scotland will act as opponent, with Professor Karmela Liebkind from the University of Helsinki as custos. 

More information:
Research Scientist Jarkko Pyysiäinen, MTT, tel. +358 40 672 1997, firstname.lastname@mtt.fi


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