Exploring Farmers' Cultural Resistance to Voluntary Agri-environmental Schemes



Studies throughout Europe have suggested that voluntary agri-environmental programmes often engender very little change in attitudes towards productivist agriculture among conventional farming communities. This study examines why this may be so, using case studies from Hessen, Germany and Aberdeenshire, Scotland. By constructing a conceptual framework based on Bourdieu's notions of capital we explore how farming activities are able to generate symbolic capital, and compare this with the symbolic value of conservation work. We find that voluntary agri-environmental work returns little symbolic capital to farmers as, by prescribing management practices and designating specific areas for agri-environmental work, such schemes fail to allow farmers to develop or demonstrate skilled role performance – thus inhibiting the development of embodied cultural capital. We conclude by suggesting that entrepreneurial production-target based agri-environmental schemes may be ultimately more effective in changing long-term behaviour.


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.

On the other hand, some studies have suggested that once farmers are engaged in AES work their motivation can turn from a predominantly financial one to one based on an appreciation of tangible environmental improvements (Bager and Proost 1997; Morris 2004). Similarly, Fish et al. (2003) found that over 90 per cent of land managers involved in the Environmentally Sensitive Area (ESA) scheme sympathise with its conservation goals and compared this to Morris and Potter's (1995) results where the concern among land managers was highly variable. They concluded that motivations for ESA participation are changing (although they acknowledge that this alone is not sufficient to prove an evolution in land manager attitudes).

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.

In this study we explore the relationship between conservation-oriented behaviour and the contemporary production-led farming culture using Bourdieu's (1983, 1998) systems of capital as a conceptual framework. The objective is to investigate not only how farmers culturally value environmental and production components, but also how these cultural valuations are constructed as part of the everyday lived experience of the farmer. Of particular concern is how the practices associated with conventional agriculture generate the symbolic capital that supports contemporary production-led farming cultures and how this compares with practices associated with AESs.

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.


To investigate this issue we conducted a cross-cultural study in Hessen (Germany) and Aberdeenshire (Scotland). The advantage of investigating two geographically distinct areas is that it both allows us to examine a wider variety of behaviour and its cultural meaning and improves the probability that the meaning is related to the performance of the behaviour itself, rather than local historical identities (as, for example, the Reiver identity in the Borders (Gray 1998) or the ‘barley baron’ identity in Bedford (Burton 2004)). At the same time, similar AESs were operating in both study sites. In Aberdeenshire the main agri-environmental scheme was the rural stewardship scheme (RSS), a programme intended to encourage long-term sustainable environmentally friendly farming practice in Scotland. Applicants are required to select a number of management options for promoting bird-life, species-rich grassland, moorland, wetlands, field margins and boundaries, arable areas, and/or woodlands and scrub, and to come up with a farm-specific management plan. To qualify for payments farmers are required to ‘manage specified areas of land and undertake capital works in accordance with the requirements of the options you have chosen’, while at the same time ensuring that they follow certain general environmental conditions and the standard of good farming practice over the whole of the farm (Scottish Executive 2004).

In Hessen, the principle agri-environmental programme at the time of the study was the Hessisches Landschaftspflegeprogramm [Hessen countryside care programme] (HELP) which aimed at protecting biotic resources on farmland.3 This scheme comprised five measures; namely HELP 1 and 2, environment compatible grassland cultivation; HELP 3a–d, extensive cultivation in areas in danger of abandonment; HELP 4, conservation of corridors of typical fauna and HELP 5, maintenance of special habitats and scenery (Degenfelder et al. 2005). As with the RSS, management options are determined at a regional level and applied to designated areas of land that are entered in the scheme. Thus, agri-environmental programmes operating in Hessen and Aberdeenshire conformed to the purchase model of voluntary agri-environmental schemes, where the farmer is paid for performing a predetermined set of activities on a specified parcel of land.

The selection of respondents followed a snowballing methodology (Milestad and Hadatsch 2003; Lobley and Potter 2004) with each of the surveys starting at two different points in order to minimise the extent to which the sample reflected the views of only one social circle of farmers. In Scotland this resulted in interviews with a number of relatively large farmers around Buchan on the north-east coast and smaller farmers in the Ellon area of Aberdeenshire. The distribution of the Hessen survey was more widespread. The only sampling framework placed on farms was that they were required to operate mixed arable/livestock production systems in order to ensure that the farmers would have experience with the symbolic meanings associated with cereal and livestock production and that approximately half should be involved in AESs. All the farms were family farms. Thirteen Scottish and 12 German farmers were interviewed in total, of which eight Scots and five Germans were personally involved in agri-environmental work. Both sets of interviews were transcribed and analysed using MAXQDA qualitative analysis software.

The interview was structured around a series of cards which, through preliminary interviews in the Scottish study, categorised the main farming activities. These incorporated both front-stage (tractor-work, animal husbandry, farm maintenance, selling produce, conservation work) and backstage (paperwork, machinery maintenance) activities. The farmers were asked to order these in terms of the extent to which an activity was able to display their skills to other farmers and the accessibility of the display to other farmers. The purpose of ordering the activities was not to obtain a ranking, but to encourage the respondents to discuss why one activity may be more skilled or visible than another. This analysis focuses on the two central nurturing roles of the farmer – the production of livestock and cereals – and compare this with conservation work. For further details see Burton et al. (2007).

Production activities as symbols of ‘good farming’

The issue of how farmers obtain symbolic capital from agricultural activities has been the subject of previous research, both in terms of their appreciation of cereal production (Burton 2004) and livestock (Yarwood and Evans 2006). Both these studies assert that when viewing agricultural activities (or more accurately, the results of those activities) farmers' understanding of the skills involved in production provides them with a unique perspective on their appearance. This is also commonly found in the landscape architecture literature, where, unlike the general public, farmers have consistently shown a strong preference for features typical of intensive agriculture (Berg et al. 1998; Brush et al. 2000). There is something that farmers see in these landscapes that remains unclear to those without an understanding of the ‘field’ farmers operate in.


Asking farmers about the skill involved in their everyday activities provides new insights into the agricultural realm. There are three central ‘skill’ features involved in agricultural production – motoric, mechanical and managerial. Motoric ability is the ability to deftly control machinery in order to plough straight or prevent damage to crops and buildings. Included in this is the ability to handle the sheer monotony of some of the farming tasks (like ploughing large fields) and ‘attention to detail’. Mechanical ability incorporates the technical maintenance and setting of machinery (for example, keeping machinery running or setting the plough at the correct depth). Managerial abilities are less straightforward, but concern the general ability of farmers to ensure that they are performing the right tasks (at the right time) to maintain the farm, land, crops and livestock in ‘good condition’.

All symbols of good farming ability relate to some extent to the economic efficiency of the farmer – that is, all originate from the concern that farm management should involve minimising waste and maximising production. For example, in a newly ploughed field farmers may look for visible signs that the furrows have been turned over correctly, as this minimises the regrowth of weeds and limits disease transmission – Farmers 4 and 7, Scotland; Farmer 17, Germany). Similarly, even furrows on the landscape ensure that sowing depths are regular and consequently plants are likely to emerge evenly (Farmers 8 and 5, Scotland; Farmer 20, Germany).

The spring (or autumn) emergence of new plants is the most symbolically important time of year as it enables farmers and others in the same ‘field’ to assess how successful they were at soil preparation and drilling (Farmers 4, 7 and 9, Scotland, Farmers 15 and 20, Germany). Features such as failure to drill to the correct depth, blockages in the drilling lines caused by poor maintenance, drilling at the incorrect depth for the seed variety, using the wrong seed dispersal rates, overlapping of drilling and so on become evident with the emergence of the crop, each potentially creating a distinctive feature in the field.

As previous studies have suggested in a number of different cultural contexts, one of the key elements of good farming at the landscape level is the production of parallel lines (Burel and Baudry 1995[France], Egoz et al. 2001[New Zealand], Burton 2004[England]). Parallel lines are central to the efficiency and ease of farming (Burel and Baudry 1995) as they prevent the overlapping and underlapping of field treatments such as seed drilling, and pesticide and herbicide application. Of the ‘straight lines’ in the field, the most symbolically important are the ‘tramlines’– gaps in the crop lines created during sowing for tractor and implement wheels. These have an important economic role in that they reduce the possibility of crushing crops, double-dosing or leaving areas untreated and, consequently, for optimal efficiency tramlines need to be both parallel and equidistant.

The visibility of tramlines means that these are one of the key areas in which farmers gain (or lose) symbolic capital and this introduces a keen element of competition in the community. For example, Farmers 15 and 20 (Germany) observe:

When I drill at night then sometimes it happens that I fail to drill straight lines. It annoys me for the rest of the year. Really it annoys me for the rest of the year. I have one field of 8 ha that I drilled partly in the dark because I thought that if it rained I wouldn't be able to get on the field. And I got the last 3 ha a little crooked. I'm really looking forward to combining this field because then I won't have to see the crooked lines any longer.

Of course there are farmers who can't do straight tramlines! And that's the reason why one is annoyed, you see it for about one year ... and when you had a bad day when you were sowing, then you get comments like ‘you've been to the fair last night’ or something like that. And then you obviously get annoyed when you see the field again.

In Scotland, similarly, Farmer 1 describes how important the production of straight tramlines are to his son:

You see the tramlines from a distance, and if they're straight, that's good work.... My son, you know, his tramlines are just like that [indicates parallel lines], you know, and that's how he likes to do it and that's a nice bit of work. And if they were like that [indicates non-parallel lines], he'd be most unhappy.

The creation of crooked tramlines clearly represents a social as well as an economic loss for the farmers involved, as the level of discourse of ‘annoyance’ and ‘unhappiness’ at crooked tramlines does not reflect an actual economic loss to the farmer, as a slightly crooked 3 ha block out of 8 ha is unlikely to cause Farmer 15 economic difficulty. Key to this is the social stigma attached to poor performance, as observed in Farmer 20's neighbours' comments that ‘you've been to the fair’. The one redeeming feature of crooked tramlines is the seasonality of the display, as farmers are able to remove the offending fieldwork annually through ploughing and prepare the land for a new (and, they hope, improved) performance. The satisfaction Farmer 15 suggests he will feel though this process may provide a strong driving force for maintaining activities such as fieldwork that fit into this pattern of seasonal renewal.


Livestock represent the embodiment of cultural beliefs about the nature of good animal husbandry practices (Yarwood and Evans 2006). At the farm level farmers are able to customise their animals to suit the specific environmental conditions of the farm, for example, by breeding hardy sheep varieties with hefting instincts for upland grazing regimes (Gray 1998; Burton et al. 2005). In this instance the driving force for change is the economic potential of the animal – the efficiency with which it handles local conditions and provides a return to the farmer. However, once established, the genetic variations can be highly prized as a symbol of the farm family's success (Convery et al. 2004). At a broader social level, the genetic composition of the animals (including their size, colour and form) can become institutionalised through breed societies where requirements are socially established and hierarchically enforced (Yarwood and Evans 2006). Once breeds are formalised, the symbolic value of ‘pedigree’ animals is increased relative to their ‘commercial’ counterparts (Holloway 2005), thus providing breeders with institutionalised cultural capital from those in the same ‘field’.

For many farmers in our study the institutionalised ‘pedigree’ of the animal was a peripheral concern compared to the appearance and, critically, the condition or health of the animal. Appearance was important in terms of the practical requirements of food production. For example, concern was displayed in Scotland that store cattle had ‘good hips, back end, a nice back’ (Farmer 4) or ‘a dirty great big backside’ (Farmer 2). In general, however, symbols of good farming were not associated with form, but rather the nurturing of the animal as evidenced in its condition. Of particular interest to farmers was the coat, which should be ‘very smooth and shiny’ (Farmer 23, Germany) or contain a ‘nice bloom’ (Farmer 13, Scotland), and the eyes should be ‘bright’ (Farmer 1, Scotland). The second symbol of good condition was how the animal moves, as two of the German farmers observed:

[I]f it looks cheerless and doesn't come joyfully to the feeding station and when it lies ... if it lays its head down, then you notice that something is wrong. (Farmer 23)

With the cattle you can tell it from the whole posture.... They look apathetic and turn their ears to the back in a strange way. (Farmer 15)

Recognising animal condition from such apparently insignificant cues as an ‘apathetic look’, ‘the way it lies’ or the ‘shininess’ of the eyes has critical economic implications, as it enables farmers to respond to potentially costly problems such as disease outbreaks or nutritional requirements (Boivin et al. 2003). The considerable social importance of developing this visual appreciation of the health of the animal was evident from a local axiom in the German case study site where a number of farmers observed ‘Das Auge des Herrn mästet das Vieh’ or ‘the eye of the farmer feeds the animal’ (Farmers 14, 20, 22 and 23). The condition of the animal is thus directly linked to the skill of the farmer. Farmers in both case studies were aware of this and some made efforts to display to their neighbours a positive image by placing their best cattle in fields that are visible to others. Farmer 4 (Scotland) generalises about himself and the community:

F: You would put your best beasts at the roadside fields, yes, definitely!

I: Why would you do that?

F: Because people would notice them ... I would say 75–80 per cent of farmers would admit that they put the best ones to the roadside.

Thus, as with cropping, the symbolic value of quality livestock is obtained through shared understandings of what represents good (and efficient) nurturing activities gained through common practice.

AESs as symbols of ‘good farming’?

As the previous two sections have established, skilfully performed farming behaviour generates symbolic capital for the farm family and thus contributes to their social position within a community of like-minded farmers (that is, farmers who share an understanding of the skills required to produce agricultural goods). The issue for AESs is clear. If environmental attitudes and behaviour are to become established in the culture of conventional agriculture, then AESs must also contribute towards the generation of cultural capital on the farm – that is, to become embodied in the habitus they must enable farmers to enact and display skilled behaviour. In our analysis we identified two key components of voluntary AESs that can influence their integration into the farming culture; the prescription of field management requirements and the designation of specific areas of land for agri-environmental work.

Prescription of field management practices

Voluntary AESs are voluntary in that participation, management options and area entered are optional. However, as the government is effectively contracting a service from farmers, specific management requirements (such as when fields are allowed to be mown and the use of inputs) are generally codified and prescribed. Some researchers have consequently observed that while such schemes are voluntary they ‘do not promote any voluntary actions for environmental protection; they just force farmers to follow the standard rule’ (Kaljonen 2006, p. 214). Further, as Deuffic and Candau (2006, p. 574) observe of voluntary AESs, ‘there is no reward for doing anything more than the minimum necessary to qualify for the subsidies’. Skills are involved in the setting up of the AES – for example, erecting fences, determining how best to make use of the land or maximising the subsidy return, but, once the scheme is established, the famer's ability to display skill through conservation work is limited. For example, when asked what he found satisfying about conservation work Farmer 12 (Scotland) replied:

There's not so much work in that, really, because it's all being done through this scheme. And the work on it has stopped.

In terms of their ability to display ‘good farming’ skills to other farmers, a conservation project thus becomes a static display in the landscape – radically different from the renewable seasonal display possible with cropped land uses. This use of compulsory management practices in voluntary AES results in a general lack of interest in agri-environmental work in a community. For example, Farmer 22 (Germany) observed when asked how conservation areas are assessed for evidence of skill by his colleagues:

Well, by now many of them take part, they take part because of the money you get. So, nobody says ‘What's growing on this meadow?’ Nothing grows there! By now they all know about the HELP money and that one isn't allowed to fertilise. Only natural things can grow there, and nobody comments about it.

This is potentially problematic in terms of conservation becoming part of the farming culture. As Tsouvalis et al. (2000) suggest, tacit information gleaned within farming communities is socially established into local ‘knowledge cultures’. This knowledge is an important economic commodity for farmers as, in a rapidly changing and increasingly competitive industry, quickly adopting new techniques or responding to disease or other environmental threats can make the difference between success and failure. However, it is also an important social commodity. Bourdieu (1983, p. 187) observes

any given cultural competence (e.g. being able to read in a world of illiterates) delivers a scarcity value from its position in the distribution of cultural capital and yields profits of distinction for its owner

and, indeed, studies have suggested that innovativeness is prized in farming communities, as ‘Even though every innovation is judged on economic grounds to a certain degree (by it's potential adopters), every innovation also has some degree of status conferral’ (Rogers 1983, p. 217 – also see Gasson 1973; Wilson 1997). By linking payments to production processes rather than outputs, however, voluntary AESs are limiting the ability of farmers to act entrepreneurially or introduce innovative ideas into conservation management. There is no advantage to be gained over other farmers in AES management, no market in valuable information and therefore, limited incorporation of socially established knowledge in conventional farming cultures.

Conventional farming activities also have a critical role in defining the identity of farmers, distinguishing them from other social groups through the performance of unique, socially meaningful ‘identity enhancing instrumental activities’ (Coughenour 1995, p. 387, Burgess et al. 2000; Burton 2004). The nurturing role of the farmer has long been seen as a key to defining self-identity, and can be embodied in the appearance of both crops and livestock (McEachern 1992; Young et al. 1995). Activities associated with AES management however, do not correspond with these nurturing skills and thus cannot serve to differentiate between farmers and non-farmers, as Farmer 23 (Germany) suggests with reference to HELP management:

Anybody can do it, yes. Because all you have to do is to harvest, you also could mow the field and take it to the next waste disposal place.

By removing much of the skill requirement for managing land, AESs thus both fail to allow farmers to perform identity-enhancing behaviour (around which their self-identity and self-esteem are based) in any significant way, and fail to distinguish a cultural boundary between farmers and non-farmers – a critical group-identity reinforcing role of everyday activities (Cohen 1982, 1985). This could contribute to the important role that restrictions on land management practices can have in the rejection of AES involvement (Williams et al. 1994; Schenk et al. 2007), as it suggests there is a social as well as an economic cost.

Designation of specific areas of land for agri-environmental work

The designation of specific areas for AES work is a key component of many voluntary AESs. However, the results in this study suggest that by effectively taking responsibility for part of the farm, AESs were allowing farmers to disown personal responsibility for scheme areas while concentrating on production (and the accumulation of productivist symbolic capital) in the remaining areas of the farm (Wilson and Hart 2001; Burton and Wilson 2006; Deuffic and Candau 2006). Thus, in Scotland there was a tendency for farmers to assess AESs, not in terms of their conservation value, but on the basis of traditional productivist symbols in agriculture, namely, effective field boundaries. For example:

Well, a lot of the stewardship work is about fences, you know, fencing off water margins and there's been a lot of fencing done as a consequence of stewardship work, and I suppose again, you want to see a well put up fence. (Farmer 1, Scotland)

... nearly everywhere you've got this new fence and a hedge planted. Everywhere. Really fantastic! (Farmer 2, Scotland)

[you think]‘he's gone and left 20 feet of grass at the side and put up a new fence, that's a bit silly’ until you realise, you know, he's on a grass margin within Rural Stewardship and yes, he's got a new fence there and he's taken a scrubby bit of land off round about the outside! (Farmer 3, Scotland)

Although some researchers have suggested that the advantages of whole farm approaches to biodiversity over carefully targeted prescriptions remains ‘unclear’ (Hole et al. 2005), a recent article in the prestigious journal Science (Butler et al. 2007) found that the reliance of bird species on cropped areas is so strong that the ‘margin management’ options will do little to halt the decline of bird species while detrimental conditions persist in the cropped area. Others (Mander et al. 1999; Tilzey 2000) share the view that whole farm approaches are critical for delivering sustainable environmental benefits. Encouraging farmers to think about their cropped areas in conservation terms requires a fundamental shift in attitudes to commercial cropping. However, if, as our study suggests, the practice of zoning off conservation areas and regulating management on these areas is doing little to change general environmental attitudes, contemporary agri-environmental approaches are unlikely to contribute significantly to halting species decline through this route.

Other inherent features of conservation areas: viewing the quality

While the design features of the schemes may not assist the development of an environmentalist farming culture, other features innate to the production of good quality conservation actively hinder the development of significant symbols. One is the issue of tidiness. A cultural preference for ‘tidy farming’ has been recorded across industrial agriculture (Young et al. 1995[UK]; Egoz et al. 2001[New Zealand]; Schmitzberger et al. 2005[Switzerland]; Deuffic and Candau, 2006[France]). Within ordered ‘tidy’ landscapes the practice of roadside farming of symbols is relatively easy, as farmers are able to drive past others' fields and assess (at a glance) basic patterns in the landscape, for example, the regularity of the tramlines or the consistent sheen of an evenly ploughed field. For AESs, on the other hand, reading symbols in the landscape is exceptionally difficult. While the schemes themselves are highly visible (‘The conservation work is naturally also visible, that's for sure’ Farmer 19, Germany, also Farmers 4 and 16) the quality of the scheme is often very hard to assess. Potential symbols of ‘good conservation’ such as the number of bird nesting sites, the diversity of species or the density of hedgerows (Wilson and Buller 2001) are incompatible with roadside farming. For example, Farmer 9 (Scotland), having stated that he has a lot of birds on his farm, observes of his neighbour's ability to view this:

They can see if I've got a lot of geese from the Loch of Strathbeg eating my barley or my grass, you know, but that's about the only thing that would be visible. [laughs]

One of the most pro-conservation farmers in the survey (Farmer 1, Scotland) summarised the problem other farmers have appreciating his conservation projects:

[T]his can be a good conservation project; you know, you might have a great array of wild flowers and wild grasses and all kinds of stuff and wildlife in there, but driving past you don't tend to see that. It can look a bit scruffy, really. But, you know ... so ... I don't think ... there wouldn't be the same comment in the car, ‘That's a good conservation project’ as there would be to see a nicely ploughed field, for instance.

To facilitate the appreciation of the small and complex symbols would thus require a new approach to assessing management practices; one which enabled farmers greater access to non-agricultural areas of the farm (particularly in the Scottish case study area, where access was more restricted). However, even if farmers were able to get close enough to AESs to evaluate them, assessing symbols of conservation still requires farmers to develop a tacit understanding of the processes and difficulties required for the production of conservation. For historical reasons it is difficult to begin this process, as is succinctly summarised by Farmer 1 (Scotland).

It's judged differently. Because we're not so skilled at it, I think, is part of the thing as well. This is all new stuff. This is all stuff that's been inbuilt in your brain from when you were 5 years old, and so we know what we're looking at here [conventional farming], we maybe don't know quite so well what we're looking at here and what the end product's supposed to be [conservation work]. You know? We're not so expert at this. Because we haven't been doing it for – we've only been doing it for 5 minutes; we've been doing that for the last 40 years. So, you know, you might look at it and not really understand what it's trying to achieve, and if you don't understand what it's trying to achieve then you're never going to know whether it's been well done or not.

This again emphasises the requirement that AESs should encourage farmers to actively engage with conservation in order to discover both what the objective of conservation work is (that is, what symbols represent good conservation) and what skills and processes are required for its production. By limiting entrepreneurial experiment and allowing farmers to abdicate responsibility for marginal areas on their farm, current agri-environmental policy may not facilitate the level of engagement with conservation work that is required to produce a change in the culture of conventional farming. As researchers of knowledge cultures have observed (Tsouvalis et al. 2000; Morris 2006) farmers' concepts of conservation are based on their personal local experience with agriculture, as, for example, ‘As a farmer you are close to nature anyway and do most things unwittingly, but it is indirectly sort of nature protection’ (Farmer 17, Germany). That these conceptualisations are not being seriously challenged is evident from studies in the UK (Morris 2006) and Finland (Kaljonen 2006) that suggest that government and farmer understandings of ‘conservation’ are no more better matched now than they were two decades ago.

Production subsidies – a culturally sensitive approach to encouraging conservation?

As observed in the introduction, a concern that two decades of voluntary AESs have failed to change farming culture significantly is emerging from studies across the EU. In searching for an explanation for this phenomenon we have suggested that the fault lies, at least in part, with the structure of many voluntary AESs. In essence, our findings concur with Hodge's (2001) observations that the payment of subsidies for environmental contracts stifles entrepreneurship, innovation, long-term private commitment and management on the scale of the landscape. However, while Hodge's concerns were primarily for landscape management, we contend that in stifling entrepreneurial ‘farmer-led’ development, regulatory area-based schemes also limit the production of symbolic capital by restricting farmers' ability to display status-generating farming skills. This problem is enhanced by a lack of visible indicators of skilled performance in AES management and, at the same time, a lack of historical understanding of the objectives of such schemes and their connection with management processes.

We propose that converting the dominant production-led farming culture to one more sympathetic towards environmental objectives would be greatly assisted by two changes to the current purchase-model approach to voluntary AES arrangements. Firstly, as Hodge (2001) argues, farmers should be allowed to innovate in their conservation practices to determine how specific conservation goals should be obtained and to learn through experience (at the risk of occasional failure) the connection between their management skills and the environmental outcome. Effectively the current AES approach means that everybody acts under defined scheme prescriptions, and consequently once the scheme has been established there is no additional capital to be obtained from possessing higher levels of conservation expertise. There is no need to innovate, there is no need to learn and, importantly, there is no need to discuss with other farmers innovative improvements or new ideas for increasing the conservation provision. Consequently, conservation behaviour is often of little social importance.

Secondly, AESs should limit the use of designations of specific ‘conservation’ areas as this encourages farmers to partition conservation work off from agricultural work and focus on the accumulation of productivist symbols on the remainder of the farm. Where management practices are also prescribed in the scheme this is particularly important. In this case, farmers are able to clearly indicate to others through, for example, the presence of encircling fences (RSS) or simply patches of unmanaged land within an otherwise ‘tidy farm’ (HELP), that they have no responsibility for the management of this area of the farm. Consequently, the area ceases to be relevant in terms of their overall symbolic capital and the farmers experience little social pressure to manage the land well, beyond ensuring it does not harbour pests or diseases that may affect conventional production.

One of the key problems with developing a pro-conservation culture is the ‘messy’ nature of conservation symbols and the relative difficulties farmers have in accessing conservation areas, particularly in Scotland. The current system of judging others' performance from the roadsides works well with ordered ‘tidy’ landscapes where examples of good or poor farming are clearly visible from considerable distances. However, judging the complexity of conservation work requires an approach that works at a completely different scale. The only way of getting farmers off their tractors and out of their cars to look at conservation is through making it interesting and relevant to them, but this is likely to emerge only once they have a greater understanding of what the objectives of conservation are, what indicators of good conservation management exist and how to go about achieving the production of these indicators. While some (for example, Battershill and Gilg 1996) have suggested that education alone would be effective, we contend that the indigenous development of systems of symbolic capital generation and transfer is essential if the attitudes and behaviour promoted are to become meaningful to local farming cultures.

The question then is: how can AESs meet the goal of environmental protection and enhancement in Europe and, at the same time, allow farmers the autonomy to make their own decisions about conservation management? Simply removing the regulations and encouraging farmers to voluntarily become more conservationist is unlikely to work. Although some studies have suggested that, as a result of broader social trends, younger farmers are more environmentally concerned (Ellis et al. 1999; Wilson 2001), even for this generation economic profitability is likely to remain the bottom line for farming, and hard times may result in a reversal of any environmental gains. Another possibility; that of relying on a profitable farming industry to provide environmental benefits, also looks improbable. While it is true that farmers are more able to undertake conservation work when their farms are profitable, and some are certainly inclined to do so, it is hard to imagine that a profitable conventional farming industry would do anything but lead to increased investment in the agricultural side of the business (as observed by Richards et al. 2005).

One possible solution is to mimic symbolic capital production in conventional agriculture by setting species production targets (generally numbers and species of free-roaming birds or wildlife), building on existing small-scale schemes in a number of EU countries (Scottish Natural Heritage 2001) which aim to help integrate productive farming with the conservation of biodiversity and the countryside. By using this approach farmers would be able to see (and measure) the tangible changes resulting from their management practices and, importantly, they would be able to compare these figures with those of other farmers to measure self-improvement (reflecting management improvements).4 Enabling the comparison of results (like ‘My farm maintains X of species Y. How many have you got?’) with the prospect of economic reward for production would encourage farmers to learn more about each others' management practices and learn to value the skills required for managing biodiversity. Although the lack of visibility and understanding still remains an issue, by enabling comparison and attaching a value to higher levels of knowledge of ‘good conservation practices’ a production-based approach could harness the farming community itself as a means of developing and extending knowledge of good practice.

Encouraging indigenous knowledge development may also lead to enhanced levels of social capital and thus help the development of a more co-ordinated approach to agri-environmental schemes. In particular, the use of indicator taxa that are able to cross field boundaries could encourage a greatly enhanced emphasis on conservation management at the landscape scale. Currently there is a concern amongst farmers that unfarmed areas harbour vermin (Mather and Thompson 1995) and consequently, there can be antipathy towards those who dedicate parts of their farm to nature conservation. Employing free-ranging indicator species as a means of determining payment levels (with baseline requirements and safeguards to prevent the development of unbalanced ecosystems) would mean that species transgressing the field boundaries could contribute to the income of neighbouring farmers and thus an engagement with agri-environmental policy may be encouraged rather than discouraged. Further, as more farmers became engaged in conservation provision, non-participating farmers would increasingly be seen as ‘free-loading’ off other members of the community and thus come under increasing social pressure to participate. This would facilitate the development of integrated large-scale co-operative agreements and thereby address one of the main ecological criticisms of existing AES, that is, that species and biodiversity management are not restricted to farm boundaries and require an implementation of management measures at a larger scale (Kleijn et al. 2004; Stevens et al. 2007).


This article does not aim to be the definitive word on the importance of cultural capital to the development of an environmentally friendly farming culture. While the cross-cultural nature of the study helped us to draw generalisable conclusions, there is still much that can be learned from extending this kind of analysis into different contexts (such as hill farming, intensive cereal production and peasant agriculture). In particular, it would be interesting to look at how non-conventional farmers, such as organic farmers, build symbolic capital through their farming activities. Organic systems are not run on the same ‘tidy-farm’ lines as conventional farms thus it is possible that a different system of cultural capital generation and transference has evolved in organic systems based more on the ‘naturalness’ of the production. Further investigation is also required into whether and how the limited number of existing production-based schemes in Europe (Scottish Natural Heritage 2001) are generating cultural capital for the participating farmers and whether and how this is matched by environmental improvement.

In addition, there are many issues that need to be resolved if production-based AESs were to be implemented, not least the World Trade Organisation's insistence that green box agri-environmental payments must be ‘dependent on the fulfilment of specific conditions related to production methods or inputs’ (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade [GATT] Secretariat 1994, p. 62, cited in Beard and Swinbank 2001, p. 142). The only hope for production-based voluntary schemes would be a reversal of this policy. While there is no indication of this happening at the moment, the structure of the green box measures is coming under increasing criticism for not delivering a clear message to farmers. As Edwards and Fraser (2001, p. 316) argue, if the objective is for clear policy ‘It would be beneficial if the green box was truly that – payments passing a test of being positively correlated with environmental improvement’.

Another potential impediment is the possibility of an outright rejection by the public of any measures that permit farmers to determine the future of conservation in the countryside. For production-based schemes to work they would need to provide farmers with the freedom to make mistakes that inadvertently lead to environmental damage, purposively remove (or construct) wildlife habitats on their farms as part of standard farm management, or to balance the returns from agriculture against the returns from the environment. Whether the public in European countries such as the UK and Germany would be prepared to cede such authority to the farming community is questionable.

More fundamentally still, however, we contend that the creation of culturally sustainable agri-environmental policy requires politicians and academics alike to re-examine their singular focus on economic-based incentives for agri-environmental delivery. If farmers are to become landscape stewards voluntarily then, as Deuffic and Candau (2006, p. 582) have previously suggested, contemporary AESs must ‘recognise that farmers also need to preserve a way of life, a sense and a value for their professions’ rather than challenging their ‘professional identities’ (Burgess et al. 2000, p. 120). Perhaps by considering the implications of policy for the generation of all forms of capital we can create agri-environmental policies that provide farmers with a sense of the value of their environmental work, rather than using it simply to subsidise the continuation of a production-based culture.

Here we have presented an insight into a system of capital exchange that is not based on the unambiguous immediacy and transparency of economic exchanges, but examines the broader systems of capital as outlined by Bourdieu. Further, we have illustrated that other forms of capital (in particular embodied cultural capital) can contribute significantly towards decisions to change (or maintain) agricultural behaviour and that an understanding of how this process functions may aid in the development of effective and culturally sustainable policy measures. If governments wish to induce sustainable cultural change rather than merely purchasing environmental behaviour, then we require approaches that reward innovativeness and entrepreneurship in conservation provision with ‘prestige’, enable farmers to understand and compare improvements and break down the roadside farming approach to social information-gathering. Constructing such measures is perhaps more complex than simply basing policy on purchasing specified and regulated behaviour but, we believe, it offers a substantial opportunity for encouraging the development of more permanent sustainable agricultural practice in Europe.


We would like to acknowledge and thank the Anglo-German Foundation for the Study of Industrial Society for funding this research, as well as all the farmers who participated in the survey. Thanks also to Christian Kuczera and Heike Fischer for their assistance throughout the project and two anonymous referees for their very useful comments.


  • *

    Corresponding author.

  • 1

    As observed by a reviewer, the objective of regulation 2078/92/EEC is not to change the farming culture and thus, it could be argued, evaluating success on this basis may be seen as unwarranted. We fully accept that attitudinal or cultural change is not a formal objective of voluntary agri-environmental programmes. Rather, the implementation of 2078/92/EEC was primarily targeted at environmental objectives (initially focusing on reducing negative externalities from agriculture and increasingly promoting positive externalities) and the implementation of agri-environment payments was (and is) designed to satisfy the World Trade Organisation green box requirements. While the connection is not explicitly made in the regulation, the assumption that cultural change either is or should be occurring is implicit throughout the academic literature and assessments from the EU itself. For example, researchers have suggested attitudinal change could be used as a measure of agri-environmental scheme success (Wilson and Hart 2001) and in its document, Evaluation of agri-environment programmes, the European Union's agricultural research programme suggests that pro-environmental attitudinal change amongst farmers should be a direct benefit of agri-environmental programmes (Directorate General for Agriculture [DGVI] 1998). Further, there is talk of voluntary agri-environmental schemes essentially acting as a driver (via attitudinal change) of greater receptiveness of landscape-scale environmental improvements (Franks 2003). Thus, while voluntary agri-environmental policy is meeting many of its explicit objectives in terms of scheme uptake and maintaining farm incomes, our concern is that to ensure that improvements are widespread and permanent, a major cultural shift in approach to agriculture is required (as suggested by Morris and Potter 1995; Beedell and Rehman 2000; Wilson and Buller 2001) and the assumption is often made that voluntary AESs will provide this.

  • 2

    Farmers without economic capital risks losing their farm and therefore their ability to generate symbolic capital as well (Coughenour 1976).

  • 3

    Replaced by the Hessisches Integriertes Agrarumweltprogram (HIAP) on the first of January 2007 (Anon 2006).

  • 4

    Morris (2004) suggests that the reappearance of bird species can be an important trigger to changing farmers' attitudes towards AES participation.