The Experience of Existing: small family farms in the Northeast United States

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Research Methods

The research for this paper is based on strategies of qualitative methods found in Denzin and Lincoln (2005). Interviews with farmers and related others were tape recorded, transcribed and coded. The principal interpretive methodology was grounded theory (Glaser and Strauss, 1967). In this work the researchers’ voices are heard. There is a relevant autoethnographic contribution from the second two authors since they have both been farmers. Their farming experiences contribute insight and contextual understanding. Carolyn Ellis, recognizing the impossibility of a participant-observer being truly neutral, advocated autoethnography as a research tool (Ellis and Bochner, 1996). The value and validity of giving explicit recognition to the researcher’s voice has been advocated by feminist ethnographers (Leavy and Yaiser, 2004). As component of general ethnographic methodology it is discussed by Berg and Lune (2012).

I, the first author, was born in a large city, Chicago, and grew up living in apartments without yards, grass or trees. When I encountered rural life in the area where I now live and teach, I was fascinated with it. I had a sociology major that showed me a picture of herself as “Dairy Queen” at a county fair. Possessing the necessary access to farming communities, she partnered with me to make this research possible. The second author is also from a farming family that had farmed for generations in northern Wisconsin from the 19th into the latter half of the 20th centuries including part of his own lifetime. He also worked and lived on a dairy farm in Illinois as a grade-school student.

The research project began in the summer of 2008 when the first author received a grant to work with the third author to travel to farms and interview farming families in western New York and north central Pennsylvania. Most of the interviews took place near Edinboro, PA on the border of PA and NY. The authors interviewed twenty farmers and their families. They also interviewed people who were no longer farming including ten professional people that had grown up on a farm but left for different careers and five owners of non-working farms near Bradford, PA and Olean, NY. The object of these interviews was to collect farmer’s views on how they were managing to continue farming or why they quit farming and what they thought was important to keeping small farming viable.

The authors sought to identify the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats to family farming. In the final analysis only three of the many factors they explored appeared highly significant. This paper focuses on them. During interviews with farmers the authors walked their fields with them, visited their cattle barns and photographed their farming operations, using different kinds of cameras. Photographs were used to help recall the context of the interviews and to compare with existing photoethnographies. Although not central to this paper, using different cameras allowed archival photographs of past farming operations to be compared with those of present day farming operations in the same photographic format to see whether alleged changes were real or effects of photography.

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