Working the Land and Ploughing the System- A Qualitative analysis of farmer's strategies to deal with systemic barriers and their initiatives to make farming practices more sustainable
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The agricultural sector in the Netherlands is facing an unprecedented challenge. The current state of agricultural production exceeds the limits of the Dutch ecosystem and is not ecologically sustainable. At the same, a transition to more sustainable agriculture is hindered by systemic barriers that prevent farmers from switching to more sustainable farming practices. This research examines what the systemic barriers that Dutch farmers encounter in the process of making their agricultural practices more sustainable are and how they strategize to overcome these barriers. It investigates how farmers define sustainability and what sustainability initiatives they attempt. Through the use of qualitative methods, in the form of semi-structured interviews, as well as desk research in the form of policy analysis, this thesis puts forward six systemic barriers identified by farmers and relates these barriers to the wider policy context. The barriers are directly or indirectly related to Dutch agricultural or environmental policies. This thesis argues that farmers define sustainability not just as the ecological aspects of sustainable agriculture, but the socio-economic aspects. Farmers are not easily inclined to take a risk by changing their practices and must still be able to make ends meet. The thesis further shows that farmers undertake several types of initiatives, which are divided into two categories. These categories are initiatives that involve, firstly, ones that take place on the farm and secondly, lobby initiatives to change the agricultural system and policies. Several initiatives farmers undertake on their farms are presented to provide insight into the possibilities and initiatives found in the Netherlands. Further, lobby efforts taken by farmers are illustrated to show what sort of strategies are being used to counter the systemic barriers. It becomes clear that farmers are often involved in making and changing policy, through the lobby efforts of the organizations, associations or unions, or on their own. This makes it difficult to distinguish a clear top-down/bottom-up separation. In reality, farmers are often involved in policy decisions and appropriated to the language of policy makers. Their involvement in lobby efforts is important because it has a farther-reaching impact than initiatives on their own farms. However, sustainable farmers must compete with the existing lobby of conventional farmers, which is challenging to overcome. Nevertheless an increase in sustainable agricultural lobby efforts can be witnessed and is an interesting avenue for further research. Possible follow-up studies could focus in more detail on upcoming lobby efforts and their strategies.