About this Project

What does “sustainability” mean in the context of agriculture? Ask an executive at a large-scale dairy producer, and you will get one answer. Ask the organic cheesemonger at your local farmer’s market, and you will likely get another. Both responses have a point. But then what accounts for the differences? And what can we learn about sustainability from these variations?

The Sustainable Agriculture as Relational Learning Process project (2017–2019) attempts to gain a deeper understanding of the nature and potential of sustainable agriculture by examining farming methods in five of the world’s top dairy-producing countries: the United States, Germany, Ireland, Switzerland, and New Zealand. The researchers are studying the practices that facilitate or impede learning on sustainable dairy farms, and they are paying close attention to how such practices differ across social and political contexts. The researchers are focusing on case studies in each country because that allows them to compare empirical data on the three “ideal types” of sustainable dairy farms—large-scale corporate-industrial, mid-sized entrepreneurial, and small-scale artisanal. Market segmentation differs in each country, and variations in regulatory standards, community values, technological innovation, and global market integration help account for the divergent strategies that sustainable dairy farms in these markets pursue.

To understand how farms and processors pursue sustainability strategies one needs to understand how the very idea of sustainability can acquire different meanings for different groups—and how the meaning can shift according to social, political, and economic conditions. By categorizing sustainability models and evaluating the practices, the researchers aim to identify a broad range of possibilities for sustainable agriculture, and thereby advance our understanding of what it means to be “sustainable.” The project is interdisciplinary in nature, as it draws on debates and methodologies in rural sociology, political economy, economics, and anthropology. It is also the first project to use a comparative value chain analysis as a way of deepening our understanding of sustainable agriculture.

A yearlong Visiting Fellowship provided Susanne Wengle the time, space, and resources to pursue this ambitious research agenda with Gary Herrigel. In the first year of the project, the researchers conducted extensive fieldwork in the United States and Europe. Their goal is to conduct interviews with farmers representing all three sectors across the full range of social and political contexts. Conversations with large industrial processors in California, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Switzerland; mid-sized farms in California, Indiana, and Wisconsin; and several small farms in California, Illinois, Wisconsin, Germany, and Switzerland have already yielded valuable insights.

Early findings reveal expected differences, but also surprising borrowing across strategic and national boundaries. A small Swiss dairy farmer, for example, implemented a pasturing method he learned about from a successful experiment with pasture-based dairy farming among large-scale producers in New Zealand. Several large processors in the U.S. and Switzerland sought to engage their suppliers in ways that both lowered costs and enhanced producer ability to provide decent working conditions with environmentally friendly results. These primarily “commercial” practices resembled value chain governance practices pursued by organic dairy coops considered emblematic of alternative agriculture. Such exchanges have important implications for how the relational learning process is shaping sustainable farming practices across the sample of countries in the study.

The project’s early findings suggest an intriguing message: Many of the oppositions that characterize contemporary debate about sustainability in food and agricultural production should be softened. Alternative agricultural producers are developing new sustainability techniques by adapting methods developed by their conventional and commercial “rivals.” At the same time, the success of small-scale alternative producers is pressing conventional producers to ratchet up their sustainability efforts. Value conflict here appears, at least in some cases, to be creating possibilities for mutual learning across the industry. The next steps in the project’s research will be to determine the conditions under which such mutual learning is enhanced—and to learn what factors undermine, disrupt, or block learning.

Photo: © Martin Belan

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