The paradox of alternative farming

The paradox of alternative farming
International researches have long sounded the alarm about the high suicide rate and poor mental health of farm workers. Financial insecurity, high workloads and loneliness have been identified as some of the reasons for the problems. Although farmers who have shifted their focus from industrial farming to direct-to-consumer farming have found solutions to many problems, a recent analysis by PPK researchers shows that they face new challenges.

In Hungary, around 2010, alternative food networks (e.g. box communities, shopping communities) began their conquering journey, the essence of which is that small producers and customers commit to each other, so that consumers receive seasonal vegetables and fruits, mostly produced without chemicals, directly from the farmers. One form of this is community farming, where the producers adjust their production to the number of registered members during the contracted season, and the harvested crops are transported on a weekly basis to delivery points close to the members' residences, ensuring a weekly ration of vegetables for a family of 2 or 4. This is a great advantage for both parties, as the customers receive local, high-quality goods, and the stability of the customers means predictability for the farmer, while they can share their risks with the consumers. (See our previous article for more benefits). At least that's the point of the model. No one has yet investigated how this new organizational form puts pressure on small producers.

Recognizing this, Liliána Birtalan, a PhD student at ELTE PPK, and her colleagues set out to explore the difficulties and mental burdens of Hungarian farmers committed to sustainable production. With their article published in the BMC Public Health

were the first in the region to raise awareness of the pressing problems facing the sector.

For this reason, they chose an exploratory research methodology and conducted semi-structured interviews with Hungarian community farmers. Based on the interviews, they identified three problem areas that are a major source of stress for farmers: autonomy, opportunities for direct transfer of crops and social relationships.


By becoming independent from the larger market systems and putting their own ideas about sustainability and healthy lifestyles at the forefront of production, farmers are also in the position of having to define all farming mechanisms themselves (e.g. In community farming, there is no standardised process for farming methods that has been tried and tested by others, which means that farmers tend to have too high expectations of themselves. They want to farm well, to produce as many different and healthy crops as possible for the consumer, but trying to find the optimal decision seems to be fraught with a number of personal and financial problems.

In community farming, it seems that it is not enough to "just" be good at the job.

Many of the participants in the survey highlighted that their job goes beyond growing, harvesting and transporting healthy crops: they also need to keep community members informed and educated. All the efforts are in vain if the customer does not know how to store sweet corn properly, for example, so that its nutritional value does not deteriorate.


Most of the farmers pointed out how much pressure they feel when they have to fill the boxes with the right quantity and quality of produce week after week. All their actions are centered around a certain time, the day of delivery - they harvest and pack on that. Dense communication and programs surround the given day, and then they have to somehow relax this extreme workload, and they can already prepare for the next equally hectic handover day.

The researchers were also surprised by the significant emotional aftereffects of these weekly events. For the producers

the feedback they receive from consumers is of huge importance,

as this is automatically linked to the perception of their work and expertise. So, even if there are several positive reviews, if there is only one negative one, it can set back the motivation and emotional state of farmers for days.


Alternative farming can also cause significant changes in farmers' social relationships. Farmers themselves need to build a community of consumers, which also requires new skills and abilities on their part. This includes sometimes having to go beyond their comfort zone to deal with different moods of customers, or even to decide whether to part with a member who happens to be uncooperative, at the risk of their financial security.

The analysis of the interviews also revealed that, after daily communication with urban, highly educated members, many find it difficult to make the transition when they return to their immediate small community. "Those who spend most of their day advising intellectuals on food as a respected member of a group find it hard to accept that the local community where they produce is almost oblivious or questioning their community organic work," points out Liliána Birtalan. Moreover, the lack of standardised processes is also reflected in this aspect: there is no model for how farmers can find a balance between work and family, while the former imposes a huge burden on them beyond the basic activity.


In exploring the personal experiences of the interviewees, the research team concluded that alternative farming does not provide a comprehensive solution to farmers' dilemmas. Stable motivation and mental well-being of farmers are essential for sustaining and successfully running community farming, while the reality shows that they face a level of challenges in terms of mental well-being that need to be addressed as soon as possible to reduce, for example, career drop-out.

As the research team pointed out, the difficulties faced by farmers are mainly due to the fact that community farming tasks require a number of different roles, which may even be conflicting:

producers are at once farmers, community organisers, group leaders, trainers, entrepreneurs and service providers.

And most organic farmers do not have the diverse knowledge or skills needed to do this. Researchers see a need to set up specific skills development programmes for farmers and to introduce farmer-to-farmer exchanges where they can learn from each other the process management skills required in community farming. Last but not least, training and sensitisation of consumers was also mentioned as a solution, as both the way of operating in community farming and the consumer communication attitude and responsibility are very different from those in supermarkets.

The study by Liliána Ilona Birtalan, Imre Fertő, Ágnes Neulinger, József Rácz and Attila Oláh can be read here.