Food Part 5: Smallholdings & Technique

If you look at stats on the percentage of women who own agricultural land around the world, by the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN) this is how it looks:


Western women don’t seem to fare too badly, looking at this graph. But let’s break it down. First of all there is no data for Russia and parts of Africa, the places where women are more likely to grow their own food.

But we have to take other factors into account too. This graph only shows data of farms with large acreage. The FAO do not take into consideration smallholdings when calculating this data– in other words smaller plots of land, and the type of sustainable horticulture that I mean when I talk about women being self sufficient. The website states:

“some countries adapt a threshold for minimum size of the holdings included in the census (often due to implementation constraints), leaving out holdings that fall below a certain value. If women are more likely to manage agricultural holdings below the threshold, this could potentially reduce the percentage of female agricultural holders captured by the agricultural census.”

Going back to smallholdings. Having less than two hectares (ha) is usually regarded as a smallholding in a developing country. 80 percent of all African farms (33 million farms) fall in this category. But in many parts of Latin America a small, predominantly subsistence farm is ten ha. Bangladeshis would regard this as a large commercial farm.

It is a very male idea to think that the acreage of land is what is important when it comes to producing food. Vast acres of monocrops is the patriarchal dystopia we see today in the Western world, and it is the model the food conglomerates are imposing on third world countries. “Monocrops” basically means one particular crop grown in repetition over a large expanse of land.

Monocrops were imposed on us by men when they took control of production, and are a colossal fail, from start to finish. If there is a drought or disease the entire crop is wiped out. The investment and labour in the crop is wasted. This is why patriarchy is obsessed with GMO. GMO seeds are important to people who are relying on the one crop that they have invested in because the losses are so huge if the crop doesn’t yield that year.

They try to grow more and more of their crop over larger spaces. Forests are felled, swamps are dried, woodlands destroyed, all to make way for the agricultural monopoly and the requirement of more land to make it work. And so on ad infinitum. It’s as stupid as fuck, basically. And this farming method doesn’t bring in enough food to feed the population.

In addition, you can yield better quality and quantity crops with less land, depending on which part of the world you’re in. You might own hundreds of acres in Western Europe and not be able to grow very much, and you can own half an acre in your backyard in another country and grow plenty of food for yourself and the market. Climate, soil, indigenous crops– all of these factors are important when it comes to quantifying food production. I don’t know what made my European ancestors travel North where the climate is harsher and food doesn’t grow as well. Maybe it was tribal warfare. But the fact remains that crops just don’t yield as abundantly in Western Europe. Now if, like the Russians, Western Europe had retained its traditional knowledge of the land, this wouldn’t be a problem. You could make do with the available food. The Russians know everything about their land. They forage for mushrooms in summer, create an array of dishes with them, pickle them for winter. They even drink Birch tree sap– which tastes like a Spring day in a glass. But because in the West most of that died with the wise women, and women’s land was usurped anyway, Western patriarchy is now trying in vain to rely on monocrops to feed its people. Well it can’t, hence the vicious exploitation in non-industrialized countries.

Even when women are the growers on land owned by their husbands (farmers in everything but name),  while this still makes them dependent on men, and not self-reliant, the fact is that it is the women who retain the cultural knowledge required to grow the food. I gave an example of the Seed-Keepers in India. Their husbands may well own the land but the knowledge of the crops and seeds is passed down the female line because, according to them, “women are better at these things”. Though women’s labor is being exploited, men are dependent on the women for said labor, as well as their knowledge, experience and skill, and therefore the food. Farming and horticulture work in family smallholdings actually gives women a certain economic leverage. I am not, of course, talking about women who are employed as pickers and growers for international supermarket chains here.

Subsistence farming on smallholdings.

Subsistence farming is widely practiced by many tribes of the tropics, especially in Africa, in tropical South and Central America, and in South-East Asia. It is better known as shifting cultivation.

Shifting cultivation is also practiced in many places around the world including Central America, Africa,  Venezuela, Brazil, Zaiire, Malaysia,  Indonesia,Phillippines, tauhgya in Burma, Thailand,  India and Sri Lanka. The people are nomadic and use Slash and Burn agriculture, where they rotate the location of their crops. They use land for a few years, then leave it fallow for a few years as they relocate. Because ownership of the land is not really part of these cultures I’m not going to focus on those who practice shifting cultivation. But it’s still good to look at a few of the many varieties of farming that exist around the world.

Gordon Conway has an excellent article on Smallholdings.

It has long been recognised that smallholders are in many respects highly efficient.Small farms produce more per hectare than large farms: many studies have shown there is an inverse relationship between farm size and production per unit of land

In other words, the larger the farm, the less efficient it is.

Household labour is the key to smallholder production – usually a family with long experience of the local environment and knowledge of what works and what does not. Because it is ‗on the spot‘ the labour is readily available and motivated, and most important flexible, able to respond immediately to the vagaries of the faming calendar and adaptable to the frequent crises that affect the farm, whether they be pest and disease outbreaks, droughts or floods or slumps in market prices.

What he means is, smallholder production is a humane and even nice way to spend your days. Your work is in your back garden. Before the industrial genocide revolution in Western Europe we probably all pottered about doing a bit of growing this and that, as the mood took us. Sometimes doing a bit more like catching rabbits, deer, wild boar.

You can see this most clearly in the home garden of a smallholding, a traditional system of agriculture that goes back to the very origins of domestication (probably the first wheats were cultivated when the farmer, most likely a woman, brought seed back from the wild fields to sow on the midden by the dwelling).xiv Home or kitchen gardens are particularly well developed on the island of Java in Indonesia, where they are called pekarangan. xv Their immediately noticeable characteristic is their great diversity relative to their size: they usually take up little more than half a hectare around the farmer’s house. Yet, in one Javanese home garden 56 different species of useful plants were found, some for food, others as condiments and spices, some for medicine and others as feed for the livestock – a cow and a goat, some chickens or ducks, and fish in the garden pond. Much is for household consumption, but some is bartered with neighbours and some is sold. The plants are grown in intricate relationships with one another: close to the ground are vegetables, sweet potatoes, taro and spices; in the next layer are bananas, papayas and other fruits; a couple of metres above are soursop, guava and cloves, while emerging through the canopy are coconuts and timber trees, such as Albizzia. So dense is the planting that to the casual observer the garden seems like a miniature forest. But it is not a natural ecosystem it is the product of intimate knowledge and daily care and attention, usually by the woman of the household (Figure 1).

Did he just describe heaven?

The women in question are classed as being “in poverty” because they don’t have much money. But their local economy is such that they don’t rely on consumer goods to live. So it’s a misnomer to declare women who survive self sufficiently on subsistence smallholdings as poor.

Western governments call third world countries “developing countries”. I refuse to use the term “developing” unless I have to. Developing into what? Into the godforsaken mess we have in the industrialized West? There are talks of getting women who own smallholdings “on the route out of poverty”. Working for a wage, they mean.

Read Caliban and the Witch for more information on how difficult it has been historically to convince both men and women to work for a wage. In England people preferred to face death and enslavement by authorities, by becoming vagabonds and vagrants, rather than face working all day for a wage.

Conway explains how in Africa “There have been spectacular failures, especially where inappropriate mechanisation has led to severe soil erosion as in the ill-fated Groundnut Scheme in Tanzania in the 1940s or the export vegetable cultivation in Senegal in the 1970s. Large farms in Africa require experienced management otherwise the costs and the environment can conspire to bring about failure”

At this point in the article, Conway then reverts to type and meanders off into a ramble of how to improve the output of smallholdings in Africa. Reveals himself to be just another dudebro wanting to capitalize on women’s knowledge and experience. Wanting to “improve” something that women have already perfected.

Because smallholdings are often not regarded as economically productive, because any surpluses are sold on the local market and don’t really affect the larger economy, it’s hard to find data on them.

If you are interested in more information about this, I suggest researching country by country. There are lots of articles and resources about female owners of smallholdings and you can find stats from country to country.

For example, here is an article about women’s land rights in India:

Fifteen years ago, Basi behen lost her husband, and soon after, her son. Life became harder. To ensure she was not able to stake a claim to the land that was rightfully hers, her brother-in-law accused her of being a witch. For many women like Basi behen, elderly and without any form of social security, being branded a witch meant being ostracized by the community and left all alone.


But in 2015, this changed when Basi behen met a paralegal worker from a local community based women‘s group, Usha behen. She became aware of her rights to the land and applied for a varsai, or an inheritance document. The process for varsai (inheritance) includes drawing up a family tree, one where women (daughters and widows)are also included. It is then certified by village leaders and if no one objects, in 90 days, the varsai is considered legal. Three and a half months after submitting an application, Basi behen was the proud owner of a land deed in her name.
It is a powerful testimony to the rights of women in a country where millions of women are absent from inheritance documents or are forced to give up these rights later. In India it is estimated that only 12.7% of land holdings are in the names of women, even as 77% women rely on agriculture as their primary source of income.*

Local champions like Usha behen are trained and guided by the Working Group for Women and Land Ownership (WGWLO), a network of non-government and community based organizations (CBOs) that aims to collectively provide rural women greater ownership over agricultural land in India. Between 2014 and 2015, with UNDP support, WGWLO set up 15 Swa Bhoomi (My Land) Centres in 12 districts in Gujarat. These hubs have provided greater awareness to rural women on their rights as land owners, and importantly, provided access to productive resources that can support women farmers.

The Centres run by CBOs, have reached out to 17,000 women like Basi behen and have helped more than 5,000 women secure land deeds in their name. They have also collaborated with the Government of Gujarat’s initiative to update land records. Recognizing that women farmers drive India’s agriculture, these Centres have helped link 9,000 women farmers to government agriculture and allied schemes that have provided access to drip irrigation facilities; bank loans for crops; electric connections for fields; seed kits and pesticide pumps.

The impact of these initiatives would not have been possible without the commitment and perseverance of women like 30 year old paralegal Usha behen who goes door to door creating awareness about women’s rights, government schemes and entitlements, counselling women and helping fill out volumes of supporting documents. “Today, my father-in-law proudly tells people that if they have land-related issues, they should come to me”, she says.

In addition to supporting government campaigns to update land records, the network also collaborated with the State Institute of Rural Development to train more than 500 elected representatives and revenue officials from 400 villages, on women’s land rights. Training provided to over 800 village revenue officials at local self-government centres aimed at ensuring that local governance institutions at all levels, recognize women as the drivers of the rural economy.

It’s a movement that is spreading amongst women in the area. As women gain more awareness and rights, they are taking others with them. Thirty-five year old Pushpa, a mother of two children was thrown out of her house by her in-laws when her husband died. Slowly, but steadily, supported by the land rights centre in her village and with counselling, Pushpa’s name was included in the inheritance document in 2015. She made sure her sister-in-law, also a widow, (pictured here along with her mother-in-law) was included. Today, she says, “I am no longer worried about my children’s future, because I am listed as a land owner, no one can take that away from me.”

* Behen is a hindi word meaning sister ** Data on women land holdings is from the Agriculture Census (2010-11) which states that the percentage share of female operational holders has increased from 11.70 in 2005-06 to 12.78 in 2010-11 (both individual and jointly owned). Data on women in agriculture is from the Statistical Profile on Women; Ministry of Labour and Employment 2012-13.


4 thoughts on “Food Part 5: Smallholdings & Technique

  1. Cherry, you are making a major contribution to radfem theory here. Radfems have spent much too much time dissecting the cultural aspects of male domination and far too little showing how women’s material conditions are where the system originates and maintains itself. I am tired of talking about MD ideology. It’s enough at this point for us to conclude the obvious: that there is an effective ideology in place that “justifies” and “explains” male domination. But we have to go back, as you are doing, to the global system of economic domination of women. It is the forced economic dependence of women that we need to analyze now and you are doing that so very well.

    If it’s all right, since I’ve been studying this too but have not yet done the work of writing, I’d like to add further sources in some comments to come. Anything I can do to help you strengthen this work you’re doing, let me know.

    • Hi Dar Guerra.
      Yes the material ways they oppress us, but also I really want to make the point that western women lost everything in the witch-craze and I’m trying to show how. And for us to be aware, when we try to think of solutions, that this could happen again. That it’s not just a matter of accumulating enough resources to keep our daughters away from men, but that we also need to look at all angles. The separatists have come up with a complementary solution, I agree that their ideas are useful and important– but I’m not sure how they’re going to enact those ideas. Not in the west, not in this lifetime. Western women have lost all power of midwifery, over life and death, over who gets to live and who doesn’t. Not so for other women around the world.

  2. Hi Cherry Blossom, I think I may have found some of the missing data you were mentioning about smallholdings. This data is provided by The World Bank in their outline/objective to “end world poverty” (aka getting self-sufficient people on a working wage) by targeting these countries/areas for the sake of “Enabling the Business of Agriculture”. I would love to hear your thoughts on their report.

    • Hi Sin, that is excellent information. Thank you. Hopefully I’ll be able to do a post on the info you’ve provided. You’ve basically hit the nail on the head about what I’ve been trying to say with the research you’ve found. I’m going to do a few more vlogs on YouTube just reiterating stuff here, then I’ll be able to make a post. Thanks again!

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