Working Papers



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Amanda McMillan

"Ghosts of farming past and future: Narrative and the graying of agriculture"

Abstract PCS 11/13/12

Of the remaining 2 percent of Americans who claim farming as their primary occupation, the fastest growing demographic is aged 65 and older. Sociological research concerned with the abandonment of farming as a 'livelihood strategy' primarily focuses on economic factors influencing aging farmers' decision-making about the future of their farmland. Yet economic pressures account are only a
small component of the stories farm families tell themselves as they wrestle
with significant land tenure decisions. Drawing from Boltanski and Thevenot (2006 [1991]), Geiryn (2000), and Vaisey (2009), I apply theories of narrative, motivation, and justification on a revision of Salamon's classic study of farmer decision-making in Wisconsin.

Salamon's research, conducted in the midst of the late 1970s' economic boom, posited that farm tenure decisions among Midwestern farmers of German heritage were motivated by ethnically-derived, rather than entrepreneurial, values. Now, as the survivors of the 1980s Farm Crisis reach retirement age and the new generation of farmers is sparse, I am recasting Salamon's research to explore if her typology of ethnically-derived values still emerges in farmer's narratives of past and present, one generation after her original study.

Through the analytical lens of intergenerational farmland transfer, I am inquiring
after the family narratives told by German heritage dairy farmers. I am interviewing Wisconsin farmers about the history of their land and what they plan to do with the farm in the future. As intergenerational succession brings to the surface values, narratives, and identity claims normally submerged beneath
everyday activities, economic explanations of graying farmers' decisions
regarding the transmission of their farms are proving too one-dimensional. My ongoing interviews indicate that while decisions may not be explicitly motivated by ethnic heritage, Wisconsin farmers of German heritage tend weigh their succession plan options against expectations of generations past and those yet to come. In light of current economic pressures facing an aging rural population, this revision of Salamon's research could add nuance to economically-driven support programs currently serving retiring and beginning farmers.