‘Hell or high water’: Good farming and environmental care as contested practices in the implementation of Nitrate Vulnerable Zones in Wales

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This paper explores how dairy farmers attempt to navigate prescribed principles and fixed practices of environmental care in the context of Nitrate Vulnerable Zones (NVZ) and the EU Water Framework Directive. In contrast to agri-environmental schemes, farm-level compliance with NVZ regulations often involves substantial investment costs for the farmer. Drawing on a case study of Wales, we consider why controversial practices of nitrate management exist on farms and how, through a combined narrative of vulnerability and care, certain practices are legitimised. Such narratives seemingly involve an attempt to redefine ‘good farmer’ identities within conventional agriculture, whereby the act and declared commitment to administering ‘good care’ becomes separated from a responsibility for the outcomes of some farming practices. In exploring why such a limited framing of the good farmer and good care are being pursued, we look at the role of environmental regulation (specifically NVZ regulation) in shaping this response. We conclude that a distancing of responsibility for the outcomes of poor care does not, necessarily, equate with an actual absence of caring about, or a failure to care for the local environment. Moreover, rather than symbolising a logic of being resistant to change, for many farmers it represents a perceived inability to change. Such is the growing disconnect between conventional systems of farming practice and the environmental state of many traditional family farms that, rather than being at ‘cross-roads’, these farmers have instead seemingly reached a ‘dead end’. Our analysis is supported by three data sets (compiled between 2016 and 2018): responses to a questionnaire sent to 1,000 farmers in Wales; semi-structured interviews with industry stakeholders (combined with farm site visits in the case of farmer respondents); and, analysis of responses (n=258) to a Welsh Government-led national public consultation on the proposed expansion of the regulation of NVZs in Wales.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)146-154
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Rural Studies
Early online date18 Mar 2021
Publication statusPublished - 1 Apr 2021

Bibliographical note

NOTICE: this is the author’s version of a work that was accepted for publication in Journal of Rural Studies. Changes resulting from the publishing process, such as peer review, editing, corrections, structural formatting, and other quality control mechanisms may not be reflected in this document. Changes may have been made to this work since it was submitted for publication. A definitive version was subsequently published in Journal of Rural Studies, 83, (2021) DOI: 10.1016/j.jrurstud.2021.02.012

© 2021, Elsevier. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/


Coventry University Pump Prime funding award of £10,000.


  • Care
  • Dairy
  • Environmental regulation
  • Good farmers
  • Nitrate vulnerable zones (NVZs)
  • Responsibility

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Development
  • Sociology and Political Science


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