Women on Finnish Dairy Farms: Hard Work in the Midst of Traditions and Changes

Article excerpt

Abstract: This research focuses on the work, working conditions and role of women on dairy farms in the context of agricultural change and traditions. The qualitative, case study sample is comprised of work observations and interviews of women on ten dairy farms. The women typically worked on the farm as a consequence of marriage or courtship with a farmer, and most selected 'farm entrepreneur' as their professional title. Women were involved in a wide range of different work tasks, mainly in cattle barns and at home. It was observed that whereas men operated machinery in cattle barns, women performed physical, manual work tasks. One of women's tasks was to monitor and take care of the health and living conditions of farm animals. Nearly all the women considered work with animals and being 'close to nature' rewarding, but half assessed the workload as too heavy. General strategies used to avoid exhaustion were to employ salaried workers, utilise networks and/or use contractors. Nearly all respondents had experienced some kind of problems related to organising absence from farm work during sickness or holidays. To improve women's work situation and facilitate their valuable contribution to agriculture, this article concludes by offering a number of suggestions to inform future research and practices.

Keywords: agriculture, women, dairy farm, working conditions, Finland

During recent decades, agriculture has undergone restructuring in many parts of the world. The process of globalisation, changes in the international markets for agricultural products and emerging neoliberal policies have all changed the operational environment of agriculture (Alston, 2004; Bock, 2006). For example, since Finland joined the European Union (EU) in 1995, one in three farms have ceased agricultural production and the average size of the remaining farms has rapidly increased (Väre, 2010). However, the production volume has remained approximately the same because of more efficient production methods, enlarged farms and the use of new technology (Heikkilä & Nurmikko, 2005).

Due to the northern climate and still rather small average farm size, Finland has a challenging starting point for competition in agricultural commodity markets, which are predicted to undergo further change worldwide towards greater market orientation (Niemi, 2010a). The changes have also had social consequences, as the farming population has become marginal, the social status of farmers has declined and simultaneously they are struggling with the integration of modern and traditional norms and ways of life (Elger, Wonneberger, Lasch, Fuhr, & Heinzel, 1995). Traditions demonstrate certain norms; they are elements of socialisation processes and products of common agreement (Hobsbawm, 1983; Otto & Pedersen, 2005). During periods of social change the invention of tradition 'occurs with particular frequency' (Otto & Pedersen, 2005, p. 14). Agriculture is still based on family farming with most (90%) farms being privately owned (Kyyrä, Mattila, & Väre, 2011). In terms of working hours, dairy farming is the most labour-intensive production sector in agriculture, and farm family members perform nearly all (89%) of the working hours (Tike, 2011).

In this article we will focus on the work, working conditions and role of women on dairy farms in the context of agricultural change and traditions. First, we review earlier research literature on the work and role of women on farms and then we introduce our qualitative study. This article is based on a research project on women's occupational safety and wellbeing at work on dairy farms conducted during the period 2007-2009 by MTT Agrifood Research Finland (MTT = Maa-ja elintarviketalouden tutkimuskeskus). Gender-sensitive research is needed within the agricultural sector because women have an important, but too often un-recognised, role on farms. Women's accounts of the reality of life on farms are not the ones that are usually presented. …