Call for Papers: ESSHC 2018 Panel - Income strategies of farmers in times of economic downturn

RHN 67/2017 | Call

Organiser: Pieter De Graef, University of Antwerp, Belgium

4-7 April 2018, Belfast, N-Ireland

Deadline for proposals: 25 April 2017

Call for Papers:
Rural History Panel at the ESSHC 2018 in Belfast
Specialisation or diversification? Income strategies of farmers in times of economic downturn

Present-day agriculturalists are confronted with low and volatile prices for their produce and income disparity with other social groups remains a key issue for the next Common Agricultural Policy. The liberalisation of world trade is not without guilt in that respect. In the past, farmers also faced periods of declining prices and thus reduced income possibilities due to a decline in food demand (as a result of a falling population rate, e.g. in the aftermath of the Black Death) or to a major increase in the supply of food imported from other regions (like the impact of the Agricultural Invasion with European markets being flooded with lots of cheap cereals from America leading to the Agricultural Depression in the final quarter of the 19th century) or simply because of higher levels of surplus extraction by the state or by landowners.

Joan Thirsk argued that precisely in these periods of falling prices of mainstream food crops (cereals), phases of ‘Alternative Agriculture’ flourished as farmers sought and found other ways of adding to their income by growing alternative crops (such as hops, rapeseed, industrial crops, market gardening) or livestock (dairying, poultry keeping, raising pigs). However, some farmers didn’t decide to diversify their farming strategy by means of alternatives for the main food crops and increasingly specialised in these staple foods. It was often in such a context that technological innovation further advanced, because the innovative techniques were likely to spur production, so that the average fixed production costs lowered.

Yet, many questions remain unanswered with respect to the adoption or non-adoption of alternative income strategies. This session aims to focus on cultivators – in both the sense of large farmers and smallholding peasants – who were confronted with adverse economic conditions and study how these farming families adapted their income strategies to this situation, either by diversifying their farm produce or specialising in mainstream agriculture. Interesting questions/issues to address would be the following:

  • How does farm size relate to the possibilities/likeliness to diversify farm produce? Did the large commercialised farms automatically favour specialisation and cost reduction by technological innovation and extension of their farms (i.e. economies of scale) or did they favour some side crops such as fruit and vegetables? Did smallholding peasants as such stick to a diversified income strategy or did some of them reorganise their farm production towards specialised, high(er)-valued crops or dairy?
  • How many of their total acreage did farmers devote to alternative crops? What was its impact on farm labour? On fertilising patterns?
  • What is the role of the distance to the city and the urban demand in their choice to diversify or specialise? Does a dense urban network of many cities at short distance (like the Low Countries) have a greater impact on the adoption of alternative crops than countries with only a few urban hotspots? In other words, can we clearly distinguish ‘peri-urban’ agriculture from countryside agriculture in regions with or without a dense urban network?
  • What is the role of market integration in the diversification of farm produce? 18th-century paved roads and 19th-century railways connected cities with an ever larger hinterland, which enabled countryside farmers to have more direct access to urban demand? What type of farmers responded to these opportunities?
  • What about the role of regional structures of agriculture? Did cultivators in areas of large-scale commercial business agriculture react differently upon the challenges than those families in areas of small-scale commercial survival farming? Did landowners interfere by setting higher rents when new opportunities were open to grasp?
  • Did path dependency of previous investments hinder a shift towards alternative forms of farming?

If you are interested please contact Dr. Pieter De Graef (University of Antwerp): Closing date for panel submissions via the ESSHC website is 1 May 2017.

ESSHC 2018 Website: