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. A challenge for research is to make women's work on farms more visible and to present the contribution of women to agricultural production. In addition, the distribution of work tasks, and therefore the exposure to health risks, often differs between farm women and men. Although the number of women working on farms has decreased, those women who remain are responsible for a greater share of food production than before because of enlarged farm size (Väre, 2010).
In developing countries, women represent nearly half (43%) of the agricultural work force (FAO, 2011). In Europe, farm work has enormously decreased during recent decades (Morris & Little, 2005). During the past 10 years in Finland, the number of people working in the agricultural sector has decreased by 30%, whereas performed working hours have decreased only by 13% (Kyyrä et al., 2011). Within the EU, women in rural areas are ageing, but their contribution to the total working hours on farms is almost one-third (31%) (European Parliament, 2003). In 2007, women accounted for one-third (34%) of all insured farm entrepreneurs in Finland (Farmer's Social Insurance Institution Mela, 2010). In Australia, women contribute nearly half (48%) of the farm income when household work, voluntary work and work outside the farm are also included (Teather, 1997). According to results of Statistics of Finland for the years 1999-2000, the annual working time per year of female farmers, 1,728 hours, was the second greatest among all the socio-economical sectors after other female entrepreneurs (Pääkkönen & Hanifi, 2011). …