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The Bioeconomy in the Daily Lives of Farmers

Students of cultural anthropology observed the daily work of farmers who follow bioeconomic practices – and are presenting their findings in an exhibit

Freiburg, Jul 13, 2023

Students of the University of Freiburg’s bachelor’s programme in cultural anthropology have been conducting research on the bioeconomy in agriculture since summer 2022. They cooperated closely with farmers in South Baden, who photographed their daily lives over the harvest season in accordance with the photovoice method. The students used the pictures as a basis for entering into a conversation with the farmers. This led to essays, which are now on display along with the photographs in an exhibit which will run until the end of August at the “House of Farmers” of the Baden Agricultural Association (Badischer Landwirtschaftlicher Hauptverband – BLHV). The exhibit reveals in a very concrete way the complex economic, political, and personal fields of tension in which the farmers live in view of bioeconomic challenges. In addition, the students designed large-format posters with pictures and quotes from the project, which were hung for a week at various locations in Freiburg and Stuttgart. The idea was to raise awareness for the situation of the farmers and to stimulate reflection. The findings of the project are available on a dedicated project website. Verena Krall from the Office of University and Science Communications found out more about the background of the project and its development in an interview with the project directors Dr Sarah May and Lea Breitsprecher as well as Samuel Walliser, a member of the student research group.

One of the student-designed posters. Photo: Sarah May

What motivated you to conduct the research project?

May: We’ve been conducting research on the bioeconomy, the approach of replacing fossil raw materials with bio-based raw materials, for quite some time already. It became ever more apparent to us that there are still open questions regarding the concrete agricultural implementation of the approach: How should these materials be produced? How can the people involved accomplish this at all? In my perception, the topic of agriculture is particularly polarizing in social debates: You hear everything from ‘They’re beacons of hope’ to ‘They’re doing everything wrong’. As cultural anthropologists, we relished the opportunity to dive in deeper, to detect nuances, and to describe the perspective of some of the actors.

Breitsprecher: The term bioeconomy is strongly politicized and linked to strategies. What we wanted to understand above all was: What does this look like in reality? What obstacles do the farmers face? How is the transformation already happening in concrete terms?

Walliser: For us students, it was above all an opportunity to be part of a research project for the first time. Getting to try out the photovoice method was particularly interesting.

How, exactly, did the project proceed?

May: After we came up with the idea for the photovoice project on the topic of bioeconomy, we submitted an application for funding to the foundation ‘Innovation in der Hochschullehre’. We were successful in their new funding line ‘Freiraum 2022’ with our intention to combine research, teaching, and transfer even at the bachelor level. Once we had received approval, the BLHV put us in contact with farmers who are implementing the approaches of bioeconomy on their farms. Then, in the summer semester, we held a kick-off meeting with the students in which we explained briefly what the project was about and developed guidelines for the use of the cameras. Then, the students set off with this knowledge.

Walliser: Our first meeting with the farmers in summer 2022 was about getting to know each other. We also gave them the cameras right away and asked them to photograph their daily lives – the instructions were formulated as openly as possible. We got the pictures back at the end of semester break. We all took a look at them, asked ourselves what could be interesting. And we took that as a basis for developing interview guidelines and went back to the farms with them. The interviews, along with the selected pictures, then formed the basis for our essays, Instagram posts, and the posters.

How did the cooperation with the farmers go? Were there challenges?

Breitsprecher: It’s often the case in our research that one encounters supposedly closed life worlds that have their own routines and cycles. Farmers are under particular pressure in summer due to the upcoming harvest, and their workdays are very full in any case. Without the contact via the BLHV, it might not have been possible at all to conduct the project at this time.

May: In my opinion, one reason why the farmers participated was because they saw taking photographs as an interesting, low-threshold approach to doing research. Photovoice is intended as a method of empowerment. The farmers themselves were able to show what’s important in their daily lives and document problems that tend to be overlooked. Their feedback indicates that they found the project and its findings enriching.

What developed perhaps only over the course of time?

Breitsprecher: As far as communication is concerned, we kept adding new formats. The students should definitely be emphasized in this regard, as they introduced several formats on their own initiative. For example, it was initially not planned to put the pictures and essays on display here at the institute and in the House of Farmers. The idea came from one of our student collaborators.

May: I was also very pleased with the great commitment of the students, especially since the project was also risky. Research-based teaching is only rarely implemented at the bachelor level, because conducting a research project in the space of a semester simply involves a lot of effort and requires a good structure.

Walliser: At the beginning, we were all very unclear about how exactly things would work and how much work we would ultimately have to put in. Now the seminar is long over, but I think that almost everyone who participated did something extra for the project later on, such as making recordings of the essays or writing Instagram posts.

Photovoice is a highly descriptive approach, but can you provide a concise summary of the results?

May: Since farmers and students of cultural anthropology worked together on this project, they were able to show characteristics of daily life in present-day agriculture: how farmers acquire technical know-how, how they form regional networks for economic and collegial reasons, how they keep their soil fertile, and what they think in this context about nature and biodiversity – and also what they think about the future of agriculture, about whether and how green growth can work. This also includes ensuring that all parts of society have more knowledge about agricultural work. This was our intention with the website and the interventions: not to be advocates of ‘agriculture’ but cultural anthropologists who bring knowledge and action into non-agricultural everyday life through quotes and photos.

Were there surprising moments and results?

May: For me, it was surprising to see what photos the farmers took. There were beautiful sunsets, flowers, and dogs were very often visible on pictures of farms. Others parked all their tractors next to each other just to show their fleet. Pictures that are especially interesting from an ethnographic perspective are those that show people at work, people in large machines, or people on the field, or blurred ones taken on the spur of the moment from the tractor. It’s of course also interesting to consider what wasn’t photographed.

Breitsprecher: There were surprises again and again at the micro level. What is depicted on the photos is often small things that are representative of larger issues. In one group, for example, a meadow of wildflowers was a recurring element, which then revealed aspects of biodiversity and economic management, but also the question of political subsidies that are not effective here.

Walliser: One photo, for example, had a t-shirt with a picture on it: It showed a person armed with a pitchfork riding a pig, and above it the words ‘Power to the Bauer’ (power to the farmer). Our interview was then, appropriately, about politics and bureaucracy. 

What do you hope to achieve in terms of the public impact of the project?

May: My idea with the posters was to provoke irritations. These pictures, together with the quotes, are more about raising questions than explaining something. There’s a QR code that opens the website, where one then starts to read and understand. For me, the irritations represent an important moment of pause in urban everyday life.

Walliser: In this context, I also think it’s great that we can draw attention to our small, rather unknown field with the posters in the city.

Breitsprecher: Yes, and thus also to the approach that’s central to cultural anthropology or ethnography: namely, taking a fresh look at everyday things in an unbiased way and asking what is actually going on.

Verena Krall