Did Ms. Macdonald have a farm?

Blind spots and participant recruitment in agricultural research

By Amy Clare & Julia Feiler

“Alright, now we need to recruit participants for the farmer focus groups.”
“Let’s make sure we have a mixture of demographics, age, type of livestock, organic and conventional farming and equal gender representation.”
“Great, let’s do it.”

How hard could it be to find a wide range of farmers in Bavaria, Germany’s agricultural hub? In this reconstruction from an earlier meeting, we (Amy and Julia) and our project leader Prof. Dr. Ruth Müller, were clear in our goals – we needed to find a diverse range of farmers to participate in our focus groups where we would discuss the possibilities of the gene editing technology CRISPR-Cas9 in livestock agriculture. This was one of our objectives as part of a project for The Research Association for Animal Health through Genomics (FORTiGe), in which we also conducted focus groups with other publics, including generalized “lay” publics. We were seeking farmers with different profiles and experiences to gain insights into their perspectives on gene editing applications in livestock agriculture. We were eager to witness how – within a focus group setting – farmers would construct arguments, which kinds of perceptions would emerge, and how their lived experiences would interact with this topic. Initially our main concern was that farmers might not want to participate because of the subject matter. Gene editing in agriculture, and green biotechnology more broadly, has a controversial history in Germany and we were aware that this may become a barrier. It turns out, we were naïve (green if you will) about a few other aspects of agriculture that our research would surprise us with. 

In some cases, our suspicion about the agricultural sector’s apprehension over green biotechnology was justified. Some organic agricultural centers refused to display our call-for-participants poster out of concern that their clientele would associate their center with gene editing technologies, and not shop there anymore. However, compared to these commercial centers, small-scale farmers responded differently and were eager to join our research.  During the recruitment process, we learnt that although the farmers were interested in discussing the topic of gene editing, finding a time for focus groups that would suit their schedules was quite the task. They told us that they are often pressed for time. This lack of time stemmed not only from the responsibilities that came from running a farm, but from inadequate economic gains from farming. Many of these farmers had multiple jobs to keep their farms afloat, which meant finding a time to sit down for three hours to discuss gene editing would be a large sacrifice out of their limited time away from work (and we are incredibly grateful to those who took time for us). Coming from Science and Technology Studies, Gender Studies, and Medical Anthropology, it’s fair to say that none of us were experts in agriculture and its infrastructures. We began to humbly realize that, although the technology may be controversial, for these farmers the technological factors were not as significant compared to their concerns over the societal and political circumstances which structured their daily lives. This was our first lesson in learning the complexities of the agricultural context. 

In early March 2020 (AKA pre-Corona times in Germany), we had managed to assemble enough farmers to hold a focus group. We’re sure this lacks suspense: but once late March arrived (along with a pesky pathogen) the focus group quickly transformed into phone interviews due to public health concerns. While conducting these interviews, with our wonderful teammates Maximilian Braun and Marco Ninow, we realized that we were missing women farmers. We had different ages, education levels, all types of livestock, but where were the ladies? Sure, old MacDonald had a farm but what about his sister Ms. MacDonald?

We contacted a farmer’s association for women who live in rural areas in Bavaria and work in agriculture and organized an interview with one of the directors. From this, we gained insights into the roadblocks we were facing when it came to equal gender representation. She explained that our difficulties likely stemmed from structural factors: for instance, historically in Bavaria only men could inherit farms from their parents and this resulted in few female farmers (Landwirtinnen) in general, and many men would train in agricultural education while few women would. Additionally, on many farms there is a gendered division of labour where men frequently manage animal husbandry and its technical aspects, while women do other tasks. Slowly this pattern is changing she said, and more women are becoming farmers as they begin to inherit familial lands and attend agricultural colleges. We continued our pursuit of the elusive Landwirtinnen, and after another six months women made up one third of our study group.

Reflecting on the process of the FORTiGe project, we’ve recognized a few takeaways when engaging in the field of agriculture (or an unfamiliar research setting). Firstly, we realized that our focus on technology, although it served as an avenue into understanding a more complex life world, was not as topical as we first thought. Heading into the focus groups, we had imagined that the technology itself would take a central position and be a deterrent due to its controversial history. However, this wasn’t necessarily the case. Instead we learnt that farmers (especially small- mid-scale) in Bavaria are focused on a variety of different issues and that technology is a small fraction of their daily concerns. We saw that operating a farm in Bavaria comes with a dependence on consumers whether through farm-to-table or larger market chains. Combined with tightening restrictions on environmental protection and competition with imported products, farmers find themselves in difficult economic situations in which they work additional jobs to sustain their farms. Learning this, we came to see farmers as a vulnerable population. This realization meant that we needed to shift our modes of engagement, adjust our expectations and cultivate humility.

For instance, we found that the rigid structure of a focus group, which would have requested farmers’ physical presence for a particular length of time was incompatible with their lived experiences and time constraints, and also unfair to ask of them. By switching to phone interviews, although this wasn’t necessarily a conscious choice, we could speak to farmers at a time which suited them. In some ways, the interference of the Covid-19 pandemic likely improved our participant recruitment since phone interviews were more compatible with farmers’ schedules. 

Regarding our difficulty finding women farmers, if we were to do the project again we would make sure to interview the director of the women’s farming association much earlier. We thought conducting interviews with our (scientific and agricultural) project partners, and revising literature would be sufficient to get a grasp of the field before conducting focus groups. But we realized our blind spot: we did not speak to enough individuals embedded within agriculture to truly get a grasp on how this complex lifeworld operates, and how the structures (formal and informal) of agriculture work. We needed to learn more about the culture of agriculture. Through this interview, we began to better understood the lens through which farming in Bavaria is conducted from a key stakeholder in a main target group (Landwirtinnen) we wanted to speak with. 

For others who may be conducting research in domains more foreign to their own experiences, we recommend in-depth research of the culture of the field – for example speaking to academics who may work on the target field could be advantageous. We say academics because turning to your research population (especially if it is a vulnerable population) to ask them to explain their field is potentially putting another demand on already strained resources. Speaking to fellow scholars in the area can mitigate the blind spots you may not know you have, before you’ve determined your methodology or time frame for data collection. Within STS, researchers are often trained to primarily engage with actors within academia, however following technologies outside of the lab and into different spheres of society requires openness to learning about these lifeworlds empirically as well as engaging with new sets of literature (e.g. agricultural sociology). While these may be localized learnings, we hope they can be helpful for others who may be delving into research in a new or unknown field, or even working in agriculture as well. And for those who are working in agriculture, if anyone does hear from Ms. MacDonald let her know we’d love to speak to her.  


Dr. Julia Feiler is a postdoc at the Munich Center for Technology in Society (TUM). She wrote her doctoral thesis in Gender Studies and Sociology. Her research interests are (Feminist) Science and Technology Studies and biopolitics. 

Amy Clare is a PhD candidate at the Munich Center for Technology in Society (TUM). Her research interests are feminist science studies, xenotransplantation, & veterinary anthropology.