The role of farmers in conserving the landscape and as protectors of natural resources has been officially acknowledged in the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) since the beginning of the 1990s. The McSharry reform in 1992 led to the widespread implementation of agri-environment measures in the CAP through Council regulation 2078/92/EEC (some more targeted schemes were supported by CAP funding under Article 19 of the Farm structures regulations from 1987–1991). Since then, voluntary agri-environment schemes (AESs) have become a key policy instrument for conserving and enhancing the environment. In the last Council regulation on rural development (1698/2005/EC) these measures remained compulsory for the member states (EU Commission 2005), underlining their continuing importance in agricultural policy. The importance of AESs is also reflected in the total area of land covered and the expenditure for these measures. In 2002, for example, 30.2 million ha were covered by AESs in the EU-15, which is equivalent to a 24 per cent share of agricultural land enrolled in AESs in the total utilised agricultural area. At the same time, Community expenditure on agri-environment measures increased dramatically from under €50 million in 1993 to nearly €2,012 million in 2003 (EEA 2005).
Given the widespread uptake of voluntary agreements, the length of time of their existence and their visible impact on some European landscapes, the changes induced may be expected (and certainly hoped) to be more than physical. As Lowe et al. (1999, p. 271) asserted almost a decade ago, ‘it would reasonably be expected that there would already be discernable changes in farmers' attitudes, and even farming cultures, from participation in agri-environmental schemes’. However, a substantial body of evidence from across Europe suggests that voluntary agri-environmental measures may not be effective in inducing permanent change in farmers' attitudes and behaviour.1
For example, Schmitzberger et al. (2005) observed that, despite reports that conservation attitudes are becoming more positive amongst larger numbers of farmers, the desire to produce ‘tidy landscapes’ in Austria remains dominant and continues to conflict strongly with conservation objectives. In Finland, Herzon and Mikk (2007) could find no indication that 12 years of agri-environmental measures had increased farmers' understanding of biodiversity or the practical measures required to enhance it. Aughney and Gormally (2002) found that, despite almost a decade of the Rural Environmental Protection Scheme in Ireland, there was no significant difference between participants and non-participants in valuing conservation. Schenk et al. (2007, p. 72) found that farmers adopting subsidised traditional conservation practices in Switzerland were driven mainly by the economics of farming and that participation ‘does not mean they have necessarily changed their minds about the necessity of nature conservation measures’. In The Netherlands – where voluntary management schemes have been running since 1981 –Kleijn et al. (2004, p. 724) showed that biodiversity was not being enhanced by management agreements and theorised that the continued production-based motivation of farmers played a ‘critical role’ in this. Finally, in a rare longitudinal study, Macdonald and Johnson (2000) found in the UK that the positive attitudes of farmers to wildlife habitats in 1981 was reflected in their later uptake of AESs, but found no evidence that attitudes themselves had been changed by participation.
In general, while these studies provide evidence that AESs can change environmental attitudes (and doubtless for some farmers this is the case), they have not resulted in the broad environmentally concerned farming culture that Lowe et al. (1999) predicted should be discernable. In many cases where farmers have adopted schemes they have done so predominantly because of a combination of commercial interests and because the schemes themselves often involve very little adaptation of existing farming practices (Harrison et al. 1998; Wilson and Hart 2000; Schmitzberger et al. 2005). Alternatively, adopting voluntary agri-environmental measures out of conservation convictions – the ‘active adopters’ of Morris and Potter (1995) – may be a result of pre-existing attitudes and values (Potter et al. 1991; Macdonald and Johnson, 2000). Thus the schemes act as a facilitator for the expression of existing attitudes rather than agents of attitude change and, as Wilson (2001) asserts, there remains a discrepancy between the messages espoused at the policy level and the values of those enacting policies on the ground.
Yet, as a number of commentators have observed, to ensure that improvements are widespread and permanent it is essential that farmers not only make subsidised environmental improvements, but that these are accompanied by a major attitudinal shift (Morris and Potter 1995; Beedell and Rehman 2000; Wilson and Buller 2001). While studies in the past have suggested that intrinsic rewards (such as independence, doing the work you like, lifestyle and a healthy environment) explain farmers' non-profit-maximising behaviour (Gasson 1973; Schroeder et al. 1985), more recently (following the ‘cultural turn’ in agricultural studies) researchers have looked towards the cultural value of farming activities to explain such behaviour (Burton 2004; Yarwood and Evans 2006). This acknowledges the existence of other forms of capital in everyday farming activities and suggests that the most effective means of guaranteeing a lasting attitudinal shift is for that shift – and accompanying environmental behaviour – to become embedded in the farming community at a cultural level.
Cultural capital in agriculture
Voluntary AESs are predicated on the ‘provider gets principle’ (Blöchliger 1994; Hanley et al. 1998) which describes the underlying concept that society has to compensate farmers who produce positive externalities. This assumes that farmers have the right to carry out the most profit-maximising activity on their land, irrespective of the external costs and benefits of doing so (Pretty et al. 2000) and assumes a like-for-like exchange of economic capital between the farmers and the government. While it is arguably possible to calculate the financial loss accrued by farmers for land-use or management changes, studies of the social value of crops (Burton 2004) and livestock (Coughenour 1976; Yarwood and Evans 2006) suggest that farmers experience more than financial losses when changing their farming activities.
To conceptualise non-economic rewards in farming, it is useful here to introduce Bourdieu's (1983, 1998) theory of capital as a framework. In proposing an extension of ‘capital’ beyond its limited role in mercantile transactions, Bourdieu argues that our focus on economic capital has been due largely to the unambiguous immediacy and transparency of economic exchanges, and that, consequently, this has meant that that other forms of accumulated labour (in particular, capital in an embodied state) have tended to be neglected. In an attempt to redefine capital and propose a ‘general science of the economy of practices’, Bourdieu (1983) consequently proposed the existence of capital in three fundamental forms: as economic capital (material property), social capital (networks of social connections and mutual obligations) and cultural capital (prestige). These concepts of capital have gained recognition over the past decades and are now accepted relatively uncritically in the sociological literature – particularly social capital, the enhancement of which forms the focus of much rural development policy. As an extended discussion of the systems of capital is beyond the scope of this article we present here a partial explanation of the theory, focusing on cultural capital, and urge the reader to consult the considerable volume of literature on the issue for further understanding (Bourdieu 1977, 1983, 1998).
Cultural capital exists in three forms: in institutionalised forms such as educational qualifications, in an objectified state, as in the possession of high status cultural goods, and in an embodied state in the form of long-lasting dispositions of the mind or body. By providing qualifications from formalised institutions, institutionalised cultural capital offers individuals a certification of cultural competence, which is consistent and thus directly comparable across a range of agents. It is present in agricultural organisations such as breed societies, which are able to define the qualities of a particular breed and acknowledge farmers through formal certification and awards (Holloway 2005; Yarwood and Evans 2006). Objectified cultural capital incorporated in material objects is visible in conventional farming cultures, largely through symbols of production – for example, large grain silos in the USA (Rogers 1983), modern machinery (Holloway 2004) or the presence of quality livestock or crops (Burton 2004). A key aspect of objectified cultural capital is that its value is not in the object itself (which could be obtained through a simple financial transaction), but is instead dependent on its use in accordance with a specific purpose, as actioned through the embodied cultural capital of the agent.
Embodied cultural capital is cultural capital in its fundamental state as it involves the labour of assimilation (self-improvement) on the part of the investor and cannot be transmitted instantaneously, as can property or money. In the process of integration, embodied cultural capital helps form the ‘habitus’ of the individual:
a socialised body, a structured body, a body which has incorporated the immanent structures of a world or of a particular sector of that world – a field – and which structures the perception of that world as well as action within that world. (Bourdieu 1998, p. 81)
Because the transmission and acquisition of embodied cultural capital is more disguised than economic capital, it is also more predisposed to function as symbolic capital. Symbolic capital is no particular kind of capital, as all forms of capital can function as symbolic capital, but it is a condition whereby those with a particular habitus are able to recognise shared symbolic significance within the field. This is important because, as Bourdieu (1998, p. 100) observes, ‘for a symbolic exchange to function, the two parties must have identical categories of perception and appreciation’.
In this article we propose that, for farmers, embodied cultural capital is constructed through the performance of everyday activities and is manifest primarily in the level of farming skill possessed by the farmer. Becoming a ‘good farmer’ is a project of self-improvement involving practice (repeated on a seasonal basis) to improve the mechanical, motoric and managerial skills required to effectively manage farmland. The habitus developed is thus a combination of activities that are determined by farm structure (for example, a hill farm will lead to a different habitus from that of an arable farm – see Gray's (1998) work on consubstantiality), the heritage of the farm family (that is, the transfer of skills between generations and the established cultural capital of the farming family) and, most importantly, the personal time investment of farmers themselves in the practices of farming (that is, the opportunities for skill expression, development and embodiment). Transmitting embodied cultural capital thus becomes a matter of the developing ‘identical categories of perception and appreciation’ with other farmers, such that the embodied ‘skills’ can be recognised by others and rewarded with other forms of capital – for example, by generating social capital for the individual through enhanced status.
We further contend that there are three conditions required if a farming activity is able to display embodied cultural capital to other farmers. Firstly, the activity must require a skilled role performance capable of differentiating ‘poor’ and ‘good’ performances; that is, it must embody the level of cultural capital of the operator. Secondly, this skill must, in some way, be manifest in the outcome of the activity – that is, there must be outward signs that an efficacious action has been performed (for example, straight lines in the landscape may reflect motoric skills). Thirdly, these outward signs of skill must be visible or otherwise accessible to other members of the farming community. In the context of a mechanised productivist farming culture, it should thus be visible from the roadsides and be amenable to ‘roadside farming’ (Seabrook and Higgins 1988; Burton 2004).
There is some evidence to support the importance of embodied cultural capital in farming communities. Studies in both Germany (Stoll-Kleemann 2001) and the UK (Burgess et al. 2000; Burton 2004) suggest that farming communities develop their own experience-based rules behind agricultural practices, and that these specific, locally understood practices contribute to the local construction of the mythical ‘good farmer’. The principles of Bourdieu's theory are also acknowledged in the emerging concern for ‘knowledge cultures’ in agriculture – tacit knowledge systems through which, Tsouvalis et al. (2000, p. 913) assert, farmers ‘relate to, make sense of, and socially construct their environments and identities’ (see Kaljonen 2006; Morris 2006). One central feature of knowledge cultures is that they are flexible and subject to frequent revision (Tsouvalis et al. 2000; Morris 2006), being constantly contested and redefined in the community to establish the ‘identical categories of perception and appreciation’ that Bourdieu suggests are critical for symbolic exchange and therefore the foundation of systems of capital.
Understanding how agri-environmental schemes interact with the contemporary beliefs of the farming culture therefore becomes a matter of exploring how the adoption of new practices alters the nature of capital generation within the farming field. If financial loss is compensated by agri-environmental payments but new land uses and activities are unable to generate symbolic capital, then the net result could be that farmers lose significant amounts of capital despite apparently generous financial compensation. Farmers may readily accept payments for changing their behaviour in order to stave off financial problems,2 but unless the new activities are able to generate embodied cultural capital these activities will continue to play only a limited role in the social field of agriculture. Consequently, the sort of ‘subconscious’ action driven by the habitus (Shucksmith 1993) may not be directed towards environmental actions but instead may continue to perpetuate the ‘productivist’ culture that still dominates in many farming communities.