Sociology of Small Scale Farming

Woman farmer in Sapa, Vietnam

By 2013, Vietnam had halved malnutrition by investing in small scale (family) farming in just 12 years. Can the same happen in other nations? The United Nations believes so. What are some of the sociological considerations to boost the success of small scale farming? While this agricultural enterprise may be able to help families reduce hunger, it may not necessarily help households rise above the poverty line, unless social issues such as gender inequality are also addressed.

Small Scale Farming

Malawi farmers. Photo: Find Your Feet via Flickr.
Malawi farmers. Photo: Find Your Feet via Flickr.

The United Nations proclaimed 2014 the International Year of Family Farming. The aim was to provide funding to enable families to farm small plots of land so they can grow and sell their own food. CNN reports that Malawi and Haiti have been targeted to help rebuild national resilience.

Economic sociology would be an interesting way to understand this strategy, as economic progress relies not simply on the provision of food, but rather on bolstering several social institutions to support economic growth. As CNN points out, small scale farming programs will provide education on seeding, irrigation and other skills. Schools, electricity and other infrastructure are also needed to ensure success.

Other important sociological factors to consider are local dynamics, particularly local knowledge, social motivations on livelihood and risk.

 Sociology of small scale farming

Sociology of Small Scale Farming Practices

South African researchers W. van Averbeke and SS. Mohamed found that small scale farmers in South Africa adopted three farming strategies depending on their aims and resources. Their research finds that empowering poor families to farm is helpful in managing hunger, but it does not lead to an increased standard of living. The researchers argue that smallholder farming needs to be understood within a “livelihood context.” That is, what are the key motivations, concerns and approaches to risk amongst different groups of family farmers? This depends on their household situation.

The first farming style was connected to the “food farmers” who were motivated primarily by providing food security for their household. This means that they primarily grew crops to feed their family, not necessarily to generate extra income. Their farming style was about minimising risk of their farming investment. They planted crops that matched the local diet, primarily maize. They did not seek to sell their grain until after harvest had been completed and they did not consider doing so until they were sure there was a surplus beyond their family needs. Even then they were reluctant to sell. They only bought the cheapest tractors (which may be a risk to safety), and they only farmed in a small area. These strategies were a means of keeping costs down. This limited their ability to produce surplus stock to sell.

Ecological farming techniques passed onto people living with HIV and AIDS in Hamburg, South Africa. Photo: PWRDF via Flickr.
Ecological farming techniques passed onto people living with HIV and AIDS in Hamburg, South Africa. Photo: PWRDF via Flickr.

This farming style might help to feed poor families, but it provides limited means to lift economic activity. This style of farming may not help pay for children to go on to further study or to invest in other technologies to lift a family out of the poverty cycle.

The second type of farmers would produce crops for food but they would aim to grow the more lucrative white cabbages in both summer and winter to help boost seasonal production costs. They also aimed to recoup costs during summer by selling green maize. These farmers were more inclined to sell their surplus stock or they exchanged this stock at a commercial mill in exchange for a credit note. This farming style led to limited commercial revenue, however, because their resources were split between local and lucrative crops. The focus was on growing crops with limited expenditure on better technologies.

The third type, the “profit-makers,” farmed in order to generate household income. They took greater risks with their stock and invested more resources to produce more harvest. They tended not to grow the most popular local crops. Instead they produced the lucrative white cabbages almost exclusively throughout summer and winter. This crop yielded higher profit but it was difficult to grow in the South African climate. These farmers mitigated risk by actively marketing their product. They also used more expensive private tractor services, which gave them greater flexibility to farm at different times of the year. They also invested in high quality commercial seeds, hybrids and pesticides. You can see a table summarising the three strategies below.

van Averbeke & Mohamed: Smallholder Farming Styles
van Averbeke & Mohamed: Smallholder Farming Styles

The researches note that seeing small scale farming within a livelihood context shows why it’s difficult to generate commercial profit. When most farmers are primarily focused on simply feeding their families, hunger and malnutrition may be targeted. This is important; however, without structural changes family farming doesn’t address other dynamics poverty. People are still stuck in a cycle where feeding their families dominates most of their time, energy and resources. This ensures that poverty continues from one generation to the next.

A better model is one that provides not just the basic tools to farm, such as seeds and low functioning tractors, but also education on how to mitigate farming risks in a variety of ways. Since water conservation is a concern in South Africa and in other developing regions, water management strategies require education and investment. This is no easy feat.

Collective Economic Action

Photo: Oxfam, via Flickr
Photo: Oxfam, via Flickr

Agricultural researchers Sylvain Perret & Joe Stevens show that water conservation strategies are not easily adopted by South African farmers. Their willingness to adopt such strategies depends on  legal issues such as property rights, as well as other factors, such as local education and access to resources. Programs are more successful where they focus on collective community action. This means taking on board local knowledge, and allowing local farmers to develop water technologies themselves, giving them personal practical water conservation experience. This empowers them to see the benefits first-hand.

In Kenya and Uganda, researchers find that introducing new family farming technologies is not enough. Similarly, telling people to cooperate does little, particularly in an environment where scarcity and conflict have eroded public trust. Small scale farming programs that demonstrate the practical benefits of collective community action have greater success. Gender relations also have an impact on the local success of family farming projects.

Gender Issues

Woman farmer in Mwanza District, Malawi. Photo: Swathi Sridharan, via Flickr
Woman farmer in Mwanza District, Malawi. Photo: Swathi Sridharan, via Flickr

Small scale farming is seen as a revolutionary way to increase women’s economic standing. Research suggests that this economic revolution needs more than providing women the tools to farm. Social norms of gender need to be addressed.

In Northern Malawi, small scale farmers may be seen to belong more in the first type of farmers described above. They are largely food farmers who grow crops solely to feed their families rather than to generate income. Martin Whiteside shows that up to 85% of households in Malawi run out of crops months before their next harvest. This demonstrates the precarious nature of this model of small scale farming. In Malawi, family farmers have to resort to ganyu, a form of casual farm labour where poor farmers will work on the land of wealthier farmers in exchange for food or pay. Whiteside notes that ganyu wages are below the poverty line. Moreover, men are paid 38% more than women. This economic model requires regulation, which means state and legal interventions.

Similarly, sociologist Rachel Bezner Kerr shows that women are more likely to have to resort to ganyu, which leaves them vulnerable to exploitation. Whiteside and Bezner Kerr’s research show that small scale farming in and of itself is not enough to address hunger, poverty nor inequality, as it does not yield sufficient crops to feed a family throughout the year.

The practice of ganyu further demonstrates that without proper intervention, investment and education, small scale farming does not guarantee a sustainable food source, nor does it significantly improve livelihood.

How Applied Sociology Can Help

In developing countries, people can see the immediate benefits of growing crops to feed their families. Growing crops to sell as an investment in the future is a more difficult idea to accept, due to perceptions of food risk and a breakdown in public cooperation.  Applied sociological research can help by developing targeted training programs to help foster awareness and trust.

Photo: IFPRI -IMAGES via Flickr
Photo: IFPRI -IMAGES via Flickr

Learn More: Maasai Farmers & Gender Equality


This article first appeared on Sociology at Work’s Google+ page.

Photo credits: 1) Top image by kevin via Flickr. 2) second from the top, original photo by Bread for the World via Flickr, adapted by The Other Sociologist.