August 14th 2019

Lock-Ins and Agency: Towards an Embedded Approach of Individual Pathways in the Walloon Dairy Sector

A qualitative study on how the agency articulates with structural dynamics in the individual trajectories of dairy farmers. A model of interconnected and embedded lock-ins, from the organizational frame of the regime to the individual frame.


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As the 2009 dairy crisis drew attention to the situation of dairy farmers in Europe, the extent of strategical power left to farmers in dairy cooperatives of increasing size is a frequently raised issue. Four dairy cooperatives collect 97% of the milk in the Walloon Region (in the southern part of Belgium). Two of them integrated agro-food multinationals.

We decided to analyze the trajectories of Walloon dairy farmers exploring alternatives to the delivery of milk to these mainstream dairy cooperatives. We focused on the territories situated to the east of the Walloon Region, where dairy farming represents 75% of farming revenues. Alternatives consist either of processing milk on farm or in concluding a contract with a cheese processor collecting milk directly from farmers. Our objective was to understand the issues faced in these alternative trajectories and the reason why these alternatives remained marginal. We designed a qualitative case study based on interviews with farmers and local cheese processors. We mobilized evolutionary approaches on the stability and transitions of systems and approaches of change at the farmer level.

It appears that the alternative trajectories remain embedded in a broader dairy context. The lock-ins emerging from this context determine the evolution of the farming model towards intensification and the individual identity and capabilities of farmers. We present a model of interconnected and embedded lock-ins, from the organizational frame of the regime to the individual frame. This model illustrates how the agency articulates with structural dynamics. We propose structural measures in the organization of agricultural education and in terms of support to alternative supply chains that will enhance agency in favor of a change.


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