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GENDER ISSUES IN FARMING SYSTEMS
RESEARCH AND EXTENSION
Economic and Normative Restraints
on Subsistence Farming in Hondurasl
Eunice R. McCulloch
Social Science Research Center
Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition
Mississippi State University
In the last few years the farming systems approach, the study of
pertinent resources such as soils, water, seeds, livestock, labor, etc.,
available to the farmer within a particular environment and how he manages
these resources, has become the predominant way in the agricultural
disciplinesto evaluate farming methods and the potential for improvement.
These methods of analysis are not as useful when dealing with the
economics of subsistence farming. Farmers who grow crops primarily for
food operate according to a different rationale than do those who expect a
monetary profit, however small.
Along the Pacific coast in Central America, in southern Guatemala, El
Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, there are large areas where the
principal crops are maize, sorghum, and beans and these are usually
intercropped (Hawkins, 1984). Many of the farming families in these areas
attempt to subsist on very small farms and are very poor. Family members,
particularly small children, are often malnourished.
Discussion based on research conducted during 1981-1983 for
USAID Project No. AID/DSAN/XII-6-0149, MSU3.
In assessing such systems, which operate largely outside the market,
farm outputs must be gauged in other than monetary terms and social and
cultural factors assume a larger role than might otherwise be the case.
The approach discussed here was developed for research on the
INTSORMIL project in Southern Honduras. Of concern is how cultural and
economic factors contribute to the adaptation which has evolved, one which
Ruthenberg (1976) would describe as a "low level steady state". This is
also a condition he sees as one to be avoided. Our analysis strengthens
this negative view. Such a subsistence system appears to be in
equilibrium in that the food supply is barely adequate to sustain the
population but this occurs at the expense of adequate levels of nutrition.
Although actual starvation is not a problem, food shortages and
particularly shortages of certain essential nutrients have a notable
impact on the health of family members with a resultant high mortality
among infants and young children. In addition to the limits of food
production, food habits and intra-household distribution patterns appear
to be significant factors affecting population numbers.
THE AREA AND PEOPLE
In the southern district of Choluteca where the Choluteca River plain
cuts through a valley of fertile alluvium, mountains as high as 3,000 feet
border the valley. Vegetation consists of deciduous tropical forest and
savanna. Annual rainfall is between 60-80 inches with a marked dry
season, little or no rain falling between the months of December to April.
Mean annual temperatures are between 79 to 82 degrees Fahrenheit but it
gets very hot in March and April, often over 100C F.
In this southern province, farms range from large commercial sugar
cane plantations or cattle ranches made up of thousands of acres to the
smallest minifundia. On the latter, farmers strive to simply provide
enough food for their families. Official records are somewhat incomplete
concerning production on these small farms since most of the produce does
not enter the market.
The field research under discussion centered around three village
locations. Two of these, El Corpus and Guajiniquil, were in mountainous
areas. The other, Pavana, was on the lowland plains.
The life style of these small farmers is characterized by a
meagreness of material possession. The houses they occupy are built of
adobe or of poles or boards with intersticed dried mud or of poles only.
Roofs are usually of baked clay tiles or, less common, of thatch. The
houses have earth floors, usually only one room and one or two small
square windows. Kitchen areas are found on one wall of the house or in a
separate lean-to structure. The main room is often divided into separate
areas by a partition made of slats and cardboard which is often "papered"
with pages of old magazines, newspapers or even grain sacks. Furniture is
scarce. There is usually one or two wooden folding chairs; there may be a
crudely built wooden table and a bench and a wooden bed with a twine
platform on which straw mats are laid. Every house has one or two
hammocks which are used for sleeping, resting during the day, or lulling a
fretful baby. Food is prepared at a roughly constructed work counter. A
large tin or clay olla (pot) of water is at hand. Cooking utensils
are few, consisting of one or two clay or aluminum pots,-several plastic
containers and baskets, a grinding stone and a clay or iron comal (a
slightly rounded pan) for cooking tortillas on the raised hearth stove
which is constructed of dried mud.
Unlike neighboring Guatemala where Indian groups have retained local
customs, dress and language, the people of Honduras have merged into a
more homogeneous ethnicity exhibiting both Spanish and Indian traits and
the universal use of the Spanish language. Western clothes are worn; in
the countryside, women wear simply cut dresses, usually of polyester,
often with an apron. Men wear cotton shirts, work trousers and straw
hats. Men, women and children go barefoot much of the time but women also
wear plastic scuffs and men work shoes. The work shoes may be leather or
plastic molded with mock laces and tongues to resemble leather shoes.
Men's hair styles are short and similar to those in the United States.
Unmarried girls have loose shoulder length hair, married women wear their
hair long and pinned up.
The predominant household grouping is the nuclear family, although it
is common to find young single women with babies continuing to live with
their parents. Extended families are also quite common, as are households
with some other relative residing with a family. Marital alliances are
usually extra-legal; that is, few couples have had religious or civil
ceremonies. Nevertheless, such alliances are fairly stable, the
cooperation of both man and woman being essential for survival. For this
society, the basic unit of production and consumption is the household.
Two different technological systems were encountered during the
study. The farming techniques used were governed by the terrain but both
systems were primitive.
In the mountains, farmers were using only a planting stick and a
machete as they have done for generations. The planting stick, or
chuzo is a long pole with a blade set into the end. In this
particular area, cultivable land available to the small farmers was scarce
and very little land or crop rotation was practiced. Land was prepared by
cutting brush and weeds that had grown since the previous season and
sometimes burned when dry. Burning was being discontinued on the advice
of government agricultural experts in an effort to halt serious soil
Several methods of seeding were practiced. Maize was planted first
in a diagonal pattern by dropping seeds in a hole made with the planting
stick. Sorghum was usually planted between the maize plants when the
maize was a few inches high or it was planted at the same time in the same
hole or hillock. Occasionally, sorghum seeds were simply broadcast.
Beans were planted among the maize and sorghum a few days after the
initial planting. Cutting weeds or cultivating is done using a machete.
Herbicides.may be used to control weeds if the farmer is working a
considerable amount of land and can afford it. Fertilizer and
insecticides are too expensive for these farmers to use. In El Corpus,
but not Guajiniquil, some of the farmers were organized into a liga
In the lowlands around Pavana, the level terrain permits the use of
oxen and plow. Wooden steel-tipped plows, carved from large pieces of
timber, are used for planting. Only a few farmers own teams and they are
hired to do this work. Sorghum and corn are interplanted without beans.
Because both insects and weeds are worse here, few people grow beans.
And, because fertilizer is not used and legumes are not grown, soil
fertility is low. There were two ligas in Pavana. One of these, the
Esperanza de Pavana, was experiencing almost total crop failure and
did not have the resources to replant the sorghum crop which was urgently
needed. This cooperative had previously had assistance from government
sources but was not being aided at this time. Members were dispirited and
work was ineffective. Both groups were cropping land that had been in
pasture until a few years previously. The Esperanza land had been
cultivated for two years and still retained a measure of fertility but the
Central farm land had been continuously croped for five years and soil
fertility had become greatly diminished.
Farm sizes for these subsistence farmers were small, ranging from .5
to 5 manzanas2 (approximately .9 to 8.5 acres). The cooperative
leagues assigned plots of from 1 to 2 mz. to each household depending
largely on household size and available labor. One manzana apparently
was considered the amount of land that could reasonable be worked by one
adult male. Labor appeared to be the determining factor in the
cooperatives since the harvests were divided communally.
THE SUBSISTENCE CONDITION
Even though data collected indicate that similar arguments could be
made for both lowland and upland farming systems, the remainder of the
discussion will focus on the upland intercropping of maize, sorghum, and
2One manzana 1.7 acres or .7 hectare.
One manzana = 1.7 acres or .7 hectare.
It is fairly obvious that such small farms with primitive technology
are not going to produce much in the way of cash income even if the
primary goal were other than food production.
In order to evaluate this type of system, an approach which looks at
production in terms of providing adequate nutrition for family members
appears reasonable. Existing cultural factors such as dietary preferences
and food habits need to be included. Surpluses as cash income are
considered to exist only after basic food needs were met.
A schematic diagram of what such a farming subsistence system might
look like for a population such as has been described is shown in Figure
For this population, household size ranged from 3-13 persons with an
average of 7 persons. Labor averaged approximately 1.2 man-labor units
Land in crops averaged 1.1 mz. per household. Average yields are
shown in Table 1.
Before.considering other farming enterprises and outside resources,
the nutritional value of the crops produced will be discussed. It is
maintained that livestock raising, vegetable and fruit production, and
outside economic opportunities are not sufficient to have an appreciable
impact on overall nutritional status.
Staple items in the diets of these farmers are maize, sorghum and
beans, the crops grown. Sorghum and maize are consumed almost entirely in
the form of tortillas. Although preferences may be expressed for a number
of unaffordable food items, many members of this population must rely
solely on tortillas and beans for sustenance for much of the year. During
one phase of the field work research, which was during the planting
season, it was documented that 8% of the families had tortillas and salt
only and 51% had only tortillas and beans.
Household composition and yearly nutritional requirements were
computed in terms of the age-sex categories given in FAO tables (FAO/WHO,
1973). The requirements for the average family of 7 are given in Table 2.
Nutritional Output of Cropping Activities
A linear programming model was used to assess the cropping activities
in terms of the nutritional constraints previously computed and other
constraints. Normative constraints included all of the maize grown (1430
Ibs.) since maize is preferred to sorghum for tortillas; all of the beans
(264 Ibs., less than 1 lb. per day); and 50 Ibs. of purchased oil for
refrying beans. Sorghum production was free and land entered at 5 mz.
but was not constrained. Activities included the cropping of sorghum,
maize and beans at average intercropped yields and purchased oil.
Several runs were necessary and the constraints were relaxed on
scarce nutrients before a reasonable solution could be obtained. Table 3
summarizes how well the subsistence activities are fulfilling nutrition
requirements. The only surplus the farmer produces above household needs
is 594 Ibs. of sorghum (worth only $47.52). This means that daily grain
consumption of 7.7 Ibs. of grain3 and .7 lb. of beans would
theoretically provide the calories and proteins needed. However, aside
Informants gave 8 Ibs. as the daily consumption of grain.
from the deficiencies of Vitamin A, riboflavin, ascorbic acid and calcium,
calories are the limiting factor and low crop yields or crop failures mean
that although some of the surplus sorghum might be used to offset a
calorie shortage,serious food shortages would most likely prevail.
So far it has been shown that the cropping activities are capable of
providing basic calorie and protein requirements. What of the other
influential factors such as livestock and vegetable production, outside
income, other necessary cash purchases, food furnished by food for work
programs, food preferences and beliefs, and intra-family food distribution
patterns? These will be briefly discussed in turn.
Most of the households kept a few chickens and a pig or two. The
major contribution to the regular diets were eggs but not enough were
produced to constitute a major item. Chicken were eaten only when there
were important guests or occasionally by someone who was ill. Pigs were
only raised to be sold when money was needed for emergencies. The farmers
could not afford to keep beef cattle or milk cows.
Gardens and Orchards
A few of the families in the population studied had fruit orchards.
These most often consisted of a few mango or banana trees. Occasionally
production was sufficient that fruit was sold but this was not a regular
or dependable source of income. A few families had very small plots of
field peas near their homes and the cooperative had a small patch of
It was apparent that the small amounts of such produce, both
individually and cooperatively grown, were insufficient to supplement the
diets in an appreciable way. One exception, perhaps, are the mango trees
which are plentiful in all areas, growing near houses or along the sides
of the village streets. These were not considered as important dietary
items, but children habitually picked up and ate this fruit which is a
valuable source of Vitamin A and ascorbic acid. It was not possible to
measure the contribution of this type of intake to the diets at the time
of the study, but unless such items are regularly used they are of limited
value in overcoming deficiencies.
Food for Work
Some of the families were receiving commodities from cooperative
sponsors. Beans, maize, and rice were being furnished. These supplies
did not enable the families to eat more as they were provided during a
time of general food shortages. In addition, they were distributed twice
a month but each time lasted only a week.
It was also noted during the research that some of the women were
using the maize to make tortillas for sale instead of using it to feed the
A comparison of the diets of those receiving these subsidies with
those not receiving them showed that those who received the food rations
did not have substantially better quality diets.
Food preferences and beliefs and food distribution within the family
were closely related. Adults most often mentioned meat as the food which
is best for adults and the one which they like best. Beans and rice were
also frequently mentioned. Tortillas were not mentioned but no meal was
eaten without them. Presumably they are well-liked but taken for granted.
Eggs, milk and cheese were considered good for adults but there was a
notable lack of appreciation for vegetables.
Data collected revealed a bias against high protein foods and
vegetables in children's diets, particularly avocadoes and other foods
green in color. Milk, eggs and cheese were considered good for children
and children were often given snacks of white cheese on tortillas.
A Complete Low Cost Diet
As part of the evaluation of the farming-nutrition system, a model
incorporating the most common food items was tested to determine the
combination of local foods which could furnish a balanced diet at the
lowest possible cost. The on-farm production of 8 Ibs. of grain (maize
and sorghum) per day and the yearly production of beans were entered.
Other items, oil, rice, eggs and cheese, were forced into the solution at
modest levels to reflect cultural practices. The optimum low-cost model
which resulted included in addition tomatoes, cabbage plantain, banana,
powdered milk and mango. The cost of this nutritionally complete diet was
$1165.54 or $703.54 more than the value of the crops produced.4 If
these items cannot be produced, this amount would have to be earned for
household food intakes to be at the recommended levels of nutrition. The
low cost diet is presented in Table 4.
So far the discussion has been limited to food requirements with no
consideration of other expenses such as clothing, transportation,
schooling, etc. In addition, it has been shown that additional income is
needed for complete diets. What are the opportunities for these farmers
who are largely untrained and not educated?
Small cash incomes are obtained by petty commercial activity and
seasonal wage labor. Women make and sell food items and to a lesser
extent, hand crafted goods such as mats woven from reeds. Men work on
house construction, large commercial farms or sometimes as laborers in the
cities when they do not need to work in the fields.
Wages, however, are set by the government and are low. At the time
of the study, agricultural workers were paid from $2.30 to $2.50 per day.
The highest wage paid for day labor was $3.55 per day.
At $2.50 per day, a farmer could earn about $255 during the dry
season. In order to furnish the amount needed to supplement the diet
($703), a man would have to work 281 days, leaving him insufficient time
to produce the staples for the family diet if no other cash outlays were
made. Wage work, therefore, does not appear to solve the problem of
How does such a subsistence system impact on family size? Nutrition
can be expected to have an effect on child mortality and prenatal losses
if dietary intakes are inadequate either in quantity or quality. In depth
studies of the health and nutritional condition of young children of this
area were conducted over a period of three years.
Wifson et al., (1975) cites studies showing that the incidence of
miscarriages, stillbirths and deaths of the newborns is higher for poorly
nourished mothers. It was documented that 61% of the women interviewed
4The cost of coffee and sugar would need to be added to this
amount since all families drank coffee each day, usually sweetened.
Some of the information in this section includes data from both
upland and lowland areas.
had had children die who were under the age of 5 years. The number of
deaths averaged 1.3 children per woman (with 5 losses for one woman).
Most deaths occurred'before the child was one year old with 40% of the
children having died in the first 10 days. Although other factors such as
sanitation, disease, and the quality of care can contribute to such
conditions, it was observed that babies were highly valued by the people
and were given a great deal of attention.
Prenatal losses were also high. Twenty-eight percent of the women
had lost babies before birth.
The studies of the children (Jones, 1983; Simpson, 1983) included
those who attended a feeding center in El Corpus. Measures consisted of
anthropometric measures of height, weight, upper arm circumference and
triceps skinfold which were used to assess degrees of malnutrition; blood
and hair analysis; parasitic examinations; and analysis of diets.
It was found in 1981 that around 68% of the children (including those
attending the feeding center) were malnourished. Severe malnutrition was
at 57% for stunting and 48% for wasting. Children generally had
inadequate intakes of calories, protein, vitamin A and vitamin C. All
children examined in 1983 for parasites were infected, many with more than
All of these results led to the conclusion that malnutrition among
young children in this population in Southern Honduras is widespread. A
greater incidence of malnutrition among children occurred during years of
poor harvests. Although actual starvation does not seem to occur (only
two cases of kwashiorkor were observed) these children are more likely to
succumb to infections, disease and death than are well-nourished ones.
The argument which has been presented is an attempt to show how very
small subsistence farm operations can reach a low level steady state in
which certain levels of malnutrition become ingrained, at least for some
members of the family. This paper has also attempted to show how such a
system can be evaluted in a relevant way.
The cropping systems are viable in the sense that production is
sufficient to furnish the basic staples for the traditional diet in
sufficient amounts under normal conditions. The average small farm, with
primitive technology, produces just enough to supply the average size
household with recommended allowances of calories, protein and some of the
essential nutrients. However, because some nutrients are not present in
the staple foods in sufficient amounts, additional foods are needed. The
absence of any significant surplus of the crops produced makes the
purchase of additional food difficult. Other food-producing activities,
such as growing small plots of vegetables or fruits, or raising chickens
and pigs, are engaged in on such a small scale that they do not overcome
the deficiencies. In addition, other household needs (such as clothing or
transportation) might be met by selling part of the crop, leading to a
situation where even calorie requirements might not be met.
The levels of malnutrition affect family size in a substantial way
through infant and child mortality and prenatal losses.
Small cash enterprises such as the making and selling of food by the
women bring small amounts of cash into the household. Low wages for men
and the amount of time that can be spared from croppinng activities limit
It seems, then, that economic, technological, and nutritional factors
interact to produce a self-sustaining adaptation at minimal levels of
nutrition, one in which a chronic state of under-nutrition seems
Beneke, Raymond R. and Ronald Winterboer
1973 Linear Programming Applications to Agriculture. Ames:Iowa State
R., L.G.'Elias, A.E. Allwood- Paredas, and M.T. Huezo
Processing of sorghum by lime-cooking for the preparation of
tortillas, in Sorghums and Millets for Human Food, Proceedings
of the Ninth Congress of the International Association for
Cereal Chemistry. London: Tropical Products Institute
1.954 FAO Nutritional Studies No. 11. Food Composition Tables:
Minerals and Vitamins for International Use. Rome:FAO
WHO Monograph Series No. 61. Handbook of Human Nutritional
Requirements. Geneva:World Health Organization
FAO Nutrition Meetings Report Series No. 52, Energy and
Protein Requirements. Rome:FAO
.Futrell, Mary F. and Robert Jones
1982 Use of grain sorghum as food in southern Honduras, Proceedings
of the Grain Quality Workshop for Latin America, April 1,
1982. Mexico City:International Maize and Wheat Improvement
1962 Linear Programming.
1984 Intercropping maize with sorghum in Central America: A
S cropping system case study. Agric. Systems 15:79-99
ICRISAT (International Crops Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics)
1980 Proceedings of the International Workshop on Socioeconomic
Constraints to Development of Semi-Arid Tropical Agriculture.
INTSORMIL (International Sorghum-Millet Collaborative Research Support
n.d. Fighting Hunger with Research. Lincoln,Nebraska:INTSORMIL
Jones, Robert E.
1983 Nutritional Status of Preschool Children in Honduras where
Sorghum is Consumed. Ph.D. Dissertation, Mississippi State
1976 Farming Systems in the Tropics. Oxford:Clarendon
Simpson, C. Kelly
1982 Nutritional Status of Honduran Children in Two Nutrition
Intervention Programs. MS Thesis, Mississippi State University
Wilson, Eva D., Katherine H. Fisher and Mary E. Fuqua
1975 Principles of Nutrition.. New York: John Wiley and Sons
OTHER HEALTH AND --- NUMBER OF DEATHS
Figure 1. Conceptual Model of Subsistence Farming-Nutrition System
Table 1. Annual Average Yields for Upland
Maize, Sorghum and Beans
Total for 1.1 mz.
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Table 3. Subsistence Activities and Nutritional Adequacy
Pounds Produced Land Monetary Value
Activities or Bought Used (mz.) ($)
Sorghum 1,386 .76 110.84
Maize 1,430 1.09 171.60
Beans 264 1.10 132.00
Oil (purchased) 50 0 31.50
Total 1.10,' 445.94
-r~-------r-------- -~----r------- ------- ---
Nutrient Percentage of Needs Met
Calories 100 (Limiting)
Vitamin A 31 (Deficient)
Riboflavin 54 (Deficient)
Ascorbic Acid 5 (Deficient)
Calcium 33 (Deficient)
Methionine plus cystine 226
Phenylalanine plus tyrosine 569
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