Making the Transition from Conventional to Sustainable Agriculture: Gender, Social Movement Participation, and Quality of Life on the Family Farm1


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    Communication should be sent to Alison Meares, 1703 W. Division St., #2, Chicago, II 60622. I would like to acknowledge the guidance of Cornelia Butler Flora, Rachel Parker-Gwin and Virginia R. Seitz throughout the research process and writing of this paper. I would also like to thank Jan Flora for his helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper and anonymous reviewers for helping me to clarify my thinking. Most importantly I am indebted to the farmer participants whose own contributions to the analysis greatly informed the final writing of this paper. Finally I would like to thank the Land Stewardship Project, the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture and the Graduate Student Assembly of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University for financial and logistical support.


Abstract This qualitative study of a non-random sample of six farm couples in southeastern Minnesota was shaped by a question originally posed by the participating couples: Is quality of life changing in the same ways for women and men as a consequence of the transition to sustainable farming systems? Historically, the family farm has been treated in research and policy debates as a single unit, with little analysis applied to the multiplicity of interests and roles within the family. Some organizations of the sustainable agriculture movement have followed suit and largely ignored women's roles on the farm, despite their importance to farm operations. The social construct of gender has implications for how farmers in this study define quality of life which, in turn, affects participation in the sustainable agriculture movement. Much of what men emphasize in describing quality of life reflects the values the sustainable agriculture movement itself espouses. For their wives, descriptions of quality of life are largely entwined with their highly elastic gendered roles and responsibilities on the farm, in the household, in paid and unpaid work in the community, and much less with their involvement in the movement. Because women's different and important contributions to the farm and family are not institutionally recognized and addressed by the sustainable agriculture movement, the movement's goals, vision, and activities are gender-specific, dominated by men's participation and contributions.