Cautious Entrepreneurship: Strategies and Business Orientation of Small-Scale Farmers in the Alternative Food Economy

Cautious Entrepreneurship: Strategies and Business Orientation of Small-Scale Farmers in the Alternative Food Economy

Raffaele Matacena (University of Milano-Bicocca, Italy)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-9837-4.ch004


Employing qualitative empirical data collected in Italy and England for a doctoral research on small-scale primary food producers in the alternative food economy, this chapter provides an interpretation of the peculiar nature of the entrepreneurialism that characterizes those small-scale farmers who entrust their economic reproduction (at least partially) to short, direct supply chains and alternative food networks (AFNs). The chapter summarizes the strategies implemented by farmers to ‘go alternative' as well as the subsequent transformation of growing and business practices that such a process entails, for then comparing the researcher's empirical results with four studies on farmers' entrepreneurialism. Issues of care, trust, change-orientedness, risk-taking, lifestyle, and autonomy are discussed, and farmers' entrepreneurial spirit is found to be cautious, due to the interplay of a traditional farming business orientation, a more pronounced relational disposition, and the characteristics and requirements of the alternative economy in which farmers are embedded.
Chapter Preview


In the critical scenario that currently affects the global and local food systems, processes of food ‘re-socialization’ (Kneafsey et al., 2008; Sage, 2011; Goodman, DuPuis, & Goodman, 2012) and ‘re-localization’ (Hinrichs, 2003; Mount, 2012) are increasingly being spurred by new organizational structures aimed at re-embedding food production, distribution and consumption practices within the frame of local and sustainable systems. The reference is to short food supply chains, which can either take the form of a non-intermediated exchange between producers and consumers, or be organized and managed by organizations of citizens or businesses of various kinds. In general, these initiatives have been labeled alternative food networks (AFNs): they are food chain organizational schemes – in most cases horizontal – setting up and managing short circuits to re-valorize local, traditional and sustainable production. These novel economic infrastructures provide farmers – especially small-scale family farmers, for they are seen as the bearers of a much more societally-desirable productive model – a whole new set of commercial opportunities, contributing to the construction of what is defined as the alternative food economy. In many localities, indeed, farmers’ markets, purchasing groups, box schemes, food coops, and CSAs – which are the most common types of alternative food procurement schemes – are increasing their weight in the local foodscape, proposing their small localized economies as increasingly viable alternatives to the long chains of the conventional food system.

As a consequence, in the last two decades a great effort in research has brought about a robust literature on alternative food networks and the phenomena of re-localization (among many others, see for example: Feenstra, 1997; Renting, Marsden, & Banks, 2003; Kirwan, 2004; Watts, Ilbery, & Maye, 2005; Higgins, Dibden, & Cocklin, 2008; Jarosz, 2008; Kneafsey, et al., 2008; Goodman, et al., 2012; Psarikidou & Szerszynski, 2012; Barbera & Dagnes, 2016; Grivins, et al., 2017). However, the productive component of these networks remains relatively unexplored, i. e. the productive-entrepreneurial archipelago which is mobilized by these networks and which finds in them (at least potentially) a new center of gravity.

Aiming to contribute to filling this gap in research about agriculture and AFNs, the author carried out his doctoral investigation with the purpose of advancing the knowledge of the social and economic world of small-scale farmers selling their products through short chains and AFNs-related commercial circuits. The study was conducted between 2015 and 2018 in Italy and England, where the author scrutinized the innovative practices farmers realize to seek viability for their businesses, while keeping under control the variability of the forms and expressions of ‘alternativeness’ assumed by the different experiences within and between the two countries. The research also addressed the innovations and transformations that the emergence of these novel economic platforms is prompting at the level of the farm unit, and therefore adopted the farmer/producer’s perspective as the standpoint for the analysis. This also allowed for an empirically-rooted evaluation of the peculiar nature of the entrepreneurialism that characterizes those small-scale farmers who entrust their economic reproduction (at least partially) to the alternative food economy, which this chapter takes as its objective to portray and interpret.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Farmers’ Markets: Open-air or covered street markets where vendors are also producers of the food they sell.

Box Schemes: Operations that deliver fresh fruit and vegetables, often locally grown and organic, either directly to the customer’s home or to a local collection point. Typically the produce is sold as an ongoing weekly subscription and the offering may vary week to week depending on what is in season. The delivery system can be either managed by the farmers themselves, or by a specialized company that collects and re-sells locally-grown produce.

Conventional Food System: Those types of food production and distribution which have come to dominate the market, manifesting a heavy reliance on industrialized methods of food production, processing and distribution, long or very long supply chains, and an imperative toward operational efficiency. In the conventional food system the power is concentrated in the hands of a restricted number of large corporations.

Alternative Food Economy: The set of organizations, infrastructures, actors, social groups and their interactions, that come to create and run systems of exchange of food between producers and consumers, expressing a certain degree of detachment (at times combined with ideological/political opposition) to the mainstream food procurement modes of the Conventional Food System (see definition). The alternative exchange is generally based on direct or minimally-intermediated chains, and charged with different values usually referring to ecology, support for rural producers, economic and social sustainability.

Alternative Food Networks (AFNs): Organizations of citizens and other social actors that create and manage short chains of food exchange (see supra ). AFNs are important components of the Alternative Food Economy .

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA): A system in which a community of individuals pledge support to a farm operation, so that growers and consumers provide mutual support and share the risks and benefits of the growing activity. Commonly, the members of the community cover in advance the anticipated costs of the farm operation and farmer’s salary. In return, they receive shares of the farm production regularly throughout the growing season, usually through a periodic fresh food box scheme. In addition to the risk reduction, thanks to such initiatives growers receive better prices for their crops, gain some financial security, and are relieved of much of the burden of marketing.

Purchasing Groups: Organizations that set up to carry out collective purchase and distribution of locally-grown foods, most commonly with ethical purposes, of social solidarity, environmental sustainability and food quality. In Italy, the phenomenon of solidarity-based purchasing groups (where they are called GAS – Gruppi di Acquisto Solidale ) is well consolidated and object of many academic studies. In addition, in recent years new forms of web-based business-oriented purchasing groups are diffusing in several European countries, often managed by a for-profit ‘mother’ company (an example of which is the increasingly successful French company LaRoucheQuiDitOui! , known in Italy as L’AlveareCheDiceSì! ).

Food Coops: Solidarity-oriented grocery shops managed by social enterprises, which are usually owned by their own employees or run by their own members through a rotation of volunteer work shifts. They usually don’t aim for profit, but to realize equitable systems of local food exchange. Since decisions about how to run a cooperative are not made by outside shareholders, cooperatives often exhibit a higher degree of social responsibility than their corporate analogues, and they typically offer natural and local foods.

Complete Chapter List

Search this Book: