Farmers’ Identity and Farm Type Determine Their Perception of Social Sustainability

How do farmers experience social sustainability on their farms? As an Agroscope study shows, this depends on farmers’ identities and farm types.

There is lack of consensus on the definition of farm social sustainability. Little is known about how to measure it and how socially sustainable farms are despite the fact that social sustainability is an important pillar of overall sustainability. A mixed-methods study was conducted by Agroscope in 2022 to examine the context dependence of farm social sustainability. Qualitative interviews were performed along with an online survey of 354 Swiss farm managers. The study identified the most important aspects of social sustainability to farmers, which varied based on their main type of farm enterprise (i.e. dairy, crop, and other livestock production) and identities (i.e. productivist, conservative, passionate caretaker, or forward looking). The study also examined their experiences of social sustainability on their farms.

Different social aspects are relevant for each farm type

For dairy farmers, social sustainability is closely related to economic aspects. They aim to generate an income sufficient to sustain their families and operate their farms. Therefore, they wish fair prices for their products. They also seem to positively associate social sustainability with the need to have family farms and ensure farm succession. These aspects are also relevant for other animal production farmers. However, these animal-production farmers tend to feel discouraged and to believe that social sustainability is unachievable on their farms due to regulatory restrictions and animal care requirements. In turn, crop production farmers seem to positively link social sustainability to environmental care. They also consider work–life balance to be crucial for having a good social life. However, they feel that a lack of public appreciation of farmers hampers public support of their role as farmers and hinders a positive experience of social sustainability. Finally, the study suggests that pensions and social security are important topic among all farmers, regardless of their main enterprises.

Forward-looking farmers have greater experience of social sustainability

Statistical analysis of the survey established four different types of farmer identities in Switzerland. Productivist farmers focus on production and consider environmental damage as negligible. Conservatives are traditional farmers who are cautious about taking risks and adopting new technologies. Passionate caretakers have a moral and emotional connection to farming and wish to ensure the continuity of family farms. Meanwhile, forward-looking farmers are interested in innovation and optimising revenue while taking care of the environment.

Farmers who are forward looking appear to have a better experience of social sustainability on their farms than other farmers. They also have a better relationship with stakeholders and receive more public appreciation. In addition, their social lives are better, and they experience good labour conditions and rights. Farm innovation could facilitate social sustainability in agriculture, while a greater experience of social sustainability promotes farm innovation. The question arises of whether and how to improve social sustainability experiences among all farmers and how to transfer innovative farming practices and mindsets from forward-looking farmers to other farmers.


  • Social sustainability varies between main farm enterprises and is experienced differently depending on the identities of farmers.
  • Extending the practices and mindsets of forward-looking farmers to other farmers could help improve the social sustainability of all farms.
  • Meaningful social sustainability indicators need to be adaptable and tailored to the type of production, accounting for different levels of importance and farmers’ perceptions of social sustainability.
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