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Isabeau Coopmans, Erwin Wauters, Joost Dessein

ILVO – Flanders Research Institute for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

Topic: Understanding processes of farm demographic change on family farms - the case of the Flemish Dairy Sector

Keywords: Farm demographic change, resilience, family farms


The resilience of family farms is reflected in how, and to what extent, farming families cope with the increasingly complex challenges and changing environment in which they operate. The ultimate outcome of resilience in this context is the intergenerational survival of the family farm. Although it is clear that the major trends describing farm structural change in most of European regions are the decline in total number of farms and the increase in average size of farms, there is a need for research that aims at understanding how demographic dynamics relate to these aggregate trends. Thus, to assess in a comprehensive way what factors influence the resilience of farms, and to determine how this resilience can be enabled, one needs a profound understanding of processes of farm demographic change. Farm demographic change in a region can be defined as the combined effect of changes in farm numbers – as a result of farm entry, farm exit and farm transfer of individual farms – and changes in the distribution and characteristics of labour force on farms. This paper aims at a better understanding of the processes of farm demographic change, taking into account the different influencing drivers. These entail a historical, a socio-cultural, a political, an institutional and a human resource dimension. The results allow to identify opportunities for increasing the resilience of farm demographics and entry into the sector.

An in-depth investigation of farm demographic cycles in the context of the Flemish dairy farm sector was performed. Eight farms that are in a different phase of the farm business life cycle were selected. For each farm, several farming family members that play an important role in the current/future farm specific challenges were interviewed, resulting in 18 interviews with in total 22 respondents involved. A semi-structured interview outline was used. Interviews were transcribed and coded using NVivo-software. The approach of clustering interviews with different types of respondents around specific farm cases was used to gather the needs and opinions of (potential) successors, the incumbent generation, as well as other family members who influence the strategic farm decisions regarding farm demographic and structural development. This approach also allowed us to create a more in-depth understanding of each farm case and each respondent, bringing the specific context of each farm business situation into account.

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