Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

The Persistence of Family Farming: A Review of Explanatory Socio-Economic and Historical Factors

Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

The Persistence of Family Farming: A Review of Explanatory Socio-Economic and Historical Factors

Article excerpt


Within the present European model for agriculture, family farming is mentioned as a cornerstone (Blanc andPerrier-Cornet, 1993). However, the persistence of the family structure in farming is not evident and even inconsistent with predictions made in literature. Karl Marx (18181883) was among the first to predict a further concentration and scale increase of farm structures and thus the gradual disappearance of peasant agriculture in capitalistic societies. Family farms would be absorbed by the large farming industry using modern technologies and employing hired labor (Gasson and Errington, 1993;Orwin, 1930; Schmitt, 1991). Also the Fordist model of industrial development was used to explain further scale increases and industrialization of farming (Boyer, 1989; Sauer, 1990). However in some West European countries, there was a fragmentation of land holdings into smaller family farms, and only at the end of the nineteenth, beginning of the twentieth century, the small family farms started to expand. Instead of the development of a main stream modern 'industrial' farming model, we observe today a wide range of multifunctional family farming models (Machum, 2005; Morell and Brandth, 2007; Van der Ploeg, Long and Banks, 2002).

The available literature focuses mostly on a limited number of aspects to explain the persistence of the family farm, but within this article we want to enlarge the scope and review the main arguments and rationales that have been used to explain the existence and persistence of family farming: the socio-economic rationale on the one hand, and the historical rationale on the other hand. Although the persistence of family farms may also be discussed from philosophic, sociological or other point of views, we limit our analysis to the two most common but complementary explanations used.


The family farm is a cornerstone of the European agricultural model on which the present Common Agricultural Policy is based, but also in the agricultural landscape of the United States of America, family farms are of major importance (Table 1). Despite of the variation in size, outputs and production methods, Western family agriculture apparently represents some characteristics, linked to availability of space, the common needs and preferences, and the historical and cultural background of farming, which are important enough to survive and to be preserved.

Based on a literature review (among others Brandth and Haugen, 2007; De Haan, 1993; Gasson and Errington, 1993; Knutson, Penn and Flinchbaugh, 1998; Loyns and Kraut, 1992; Small, 2005) a definition of family farming encloses following elements:

* Both business ownership and managerial control are in the hands of family or nearfamily members;

* Business ownership and managerial control are transferred within the family over different generations;

* A majority of the labor is provided by the operator and his/her family;

* A substantial part of the capital is furnished by the operator and his/her family;

* The family obtains a major share of its income from farming;

* The principals are related by kinship or marriage;

* The family lives on the farm;

From sociological perspective, the family farm is associated with family virtues, such as solidarity (Szydlik, 2008), continuity and commitment; from economic perspective, the family farm may be identified with entrepreneurial skills, choice, risk and individual achievement (De Haan, 1993). The interaction between these two perspectives entails that family fanning is more than a professional occupation. It reflects a lifestyle, based on beliefs and traditions about living and working. The family may be seen as the interface between the farm and the non-farm environment, filtering energies, resources and ideas between them (Arkleton Trust, 1985).

The family goals will differ among households because the family is not a 'natural' unit but a cultural one, which is subject to considerable variation in form, value and articulation within the wider socio-economic system (Gasson, Crow, Errington, Hutson, Marsden and Winter, 1988). …

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