WOMEN, MIGRATION AND THE
DECLINE OF SMALLHOLDER AGRICULTURE
An Exploratory Study
Elsa M. Chaney
Martha W. Lewis
This Paper was prepared for the Office of Women in Development, United
States Agency for International Development, under AID/OTR 147 80 -94/95.
The views and interpretations are those of the authors and should not be
attributed to USAID or to any individual acting on its behalf.
I. INTRODUCTION: THE DECLINE OF SMALLHOLDER AGRICULTURE AND
Smallholder agriculture in developing countries is declining with disas-
trous effects on nutrition because small cultivators produce many crucial food
items in the diets of the poor. The decline is accelerated by the outmigration
of male farmers and the increasing burdens on the women left behind. They
must not only manage the household and care for the family, but also provide
the family food and produce the cash crops. Remittances from family members
who have migrated may be irregular and inadequate, and at times may cease.
There is some evidence that women -- most often left without secure
title to land, credit, inputs and extension services -- may find the workload so
onerous that they take their children and also leave the rural areas for the
towns. Not only is the food supply in some countries seriously endangered by
migration, but the existence of the small farm sector itself is in jeopardy. In
some regions, there are increasing numbers of abandoned farms and unused
agricultural lands; in others, the encroachment of large farms has swallowed up
small farm operations. Often large farms do not produce food to be eaten by
the people of the region or nation, but rather food and other products for export.
Developing nations can ill afford to lose the crucial contribution small
farm systems make to food supply. Agricultural policies sensitive to food and
nutrition of the poor must address not only the general problems faced by
small farmers, but in particular must devise strategies to encourage and en-
hance women's contribution in this sector. Lack of understanding of the roles
women perform, and lack of support and services to women left behind on the
land as men are forced to migrate because of insufficient farm incomes,
exacerbate the decline of smallholder agriculture in many world areas.
A. Smallholder Agriculture: Smallholder agriculture is the production sys-
Sector in Trouble tem evolved by rural families living on the
land to provide their basic human needs of
food, clothing, shelter, security for the young and the old, and other family
supports. It is a complex set of interdependencies based upon a variety of con-
tributions: from family members -- physical strength, judgment and experience,
intuition and imagination, light labor and heavy labor. Production above family
needs is sold, bartered for other kinds of food or family needs, given away or
fed to animals to be converted into animal protein food.
The "family" on the small farm is not always the stereotypical family:
father, mother and children. Often elderly parents and other kin live in the
Chaney and Lewis Page 2
the household, and studies show that in many developing countries up to one-
third of the families are headed by a female adult.
The smallholder agricultural system is in trouble on a number of
fronts. There are natural calamities such as drought, hurricanes and floods
that so weaken the structure -- often surviving on a delicate balance of human
and material inputs -- that the family gives up and the unit goes under.
The emergence of large landowners and/or capital-intensive systems
can saturate local markets with increased production from expensive fertilizer,
mechanization and technology inputs, driving the small producer out of the
market. Development models of the past twenty years have reenforced this
trend. In the press for export earnings and increased yields, more emphasis
has been placed on crops that grow well in mechanized or extensive systems;
little or no resources have been invested in research, marketing and proces-
sing, or improved seeds and fertilizers for the crops grown on small farms:
preeminently food crops, and particularly the foods of poor people.
The smallholder often is unable to take advantage of modern agricul-
tural techniques. Competition from the big producers may push returns below
costs of production for the smallholder family, allowing it no return for its
labor and often no margin above costs. As agriculture around it modernizes,
the small farm loses ground. Costs of inputs -- fertilizer, improved seeds,
better tools, irrigation, etc. -- are high, and particularly so for the small
Inflated land prices, created by the larger farmer expanding and by
land purchases financed with cash remittances from family members working
off the farm in another city or country, inhibit the smallholder from perhaps
"rationalizing" his or her own farm size to a viable unit. At the same time,
high land prices may induce the family to sell out and move on.
Insecure land tenure undermines the smallholder in a number of ways.
It can be a disincentive to longterm land improvement such as terracing and
other soil conservation practices, development of irrigation capability and
planting of tree crops. Firm tenancy or land ownership are usually require-
ments for agricultural production credit as well as credit for land improve-
ment. No one wants to put time and money into land that can be taken away.
Moreover, insecurity about future tenancy discourages proper care of the
soil and water resources, further undermining the productivity of that land
and the natural resources of the country.
B. Smallholder Agriculture in If agricultural modernization were producing
Third World Economies adequate food supplies, and if all people had
sufficient purchasing power to achieve good
nutrition levels, concern for the demise of the smallholder might be just a
sentimental exercise. However, much of the production from large, modern
Chaney and Lewis Page 3
agricultural enterprises in developing countries goes into export, and export
earnings are spent on imported luxuries for the middle classes -- liquor and
food, automobiles and gasoline, fashionable clothes and other consumer goods.
There are serious economic implications for the Third World countries
because smallholdez agriculture is declining. This is the sector that produces
the bulk of the kinds of food poor people eat. Here is the potential to produce
for the urban masses through concentration on indigenous resources of land
and labor without resorting to expensive imported inputs necessary in modern
A vigorous smallholder sector also means that savings in foreign ex-
change can be achieved through reducing food imports -- both luxury and
staple foods. And with some small farm production, modest amounts of for-
eign exchange can be earned. When there are more farm families with incomes
and purchasing power, internal markets for manufactures and craft products
produced by urban workers in Third World cities can develop in the rural areas.
C. World Food Supplies Global food supply has been growing, and some
And the Poor agricultural experts see technological break-
throughs bringing even greater increases.
Nevertheless, the poor still are vulnerable because their access to food is
governed not only by the world supply, but by their own (and their government's)
purchasing power, especially as prices rise. Most expectations are that the
period of cheap world food prices (which held except for short periods of world
drought as in 1973-74) is about to end. The great surge in corn production
achieved with the introduction of hybrid seed and short-season varieties has
leveled off. The recent period of abnormally good weather seems to be running
its course. Costs of all inputs are increasing, and the supply of good land and
mineral fertilizers is decreasing. Moreover, in the developing world the demand
for food is not inelastic as in rich countries. There is growing demand for food
from new industrial wage workers and their families receiving remittances --
new arrivals in the market economy.
World food reserves available for food aid have never been adequately
rebuilt since the drought of 1973-74. There are conflicting opinions on what
constitutes an adequate reserve to meet emergencies and still not depress world
prices to the point of creating disincentives to production. Whatever consti-
tutes an adequate reserve, there are limits in political will and ability of rich
countries to provide food through disaster aid, concessional sales, food-for-
work programs and the like.
Periodic failures in "world market" crops because of drought, disease
and disaster precipitate steep price rises for all food; even local foods are much
more expensive, at least while the crisis lasts. Increasing costs (and uncer-
tainties) of transport because of the rise in oil prices -- as well as unrest and
war in oil producing regions -- ultimately will factor into food prices.
Chaney and Lewis Page 4
Degredation of the world's resources of productive land has awesome
implications for food supply. The worse destruction is on hilly or marginal
land where poor people farm. The Sahara is moving south at a rate of some
3 1/2 miles per year. Topsoil long ago has eroded off the hillsides in the
slash-and-burn agriculture of the Caribbean and Central America, and the
subsoil now is being washed away. Salts are building up on irrigated land,
and fossil ground water supplies are waning. New lands opened to replace
lost acreage are less productive and more fragile. Disturbing and deforest-
ing them creates new erosion problems of serious consequence.
D. Smallholder Food Production: In this discouraging picture, small-
A Safety Factor holder agriculture can provide a food
security factor -- a crucial supplement
to purchased food, imported food and food aid. In smallholder "mixed farm-
ing systems, a combination of crops are grown to satisfy a variety of food
needs, not one or two cash crops which may fail. Small farms utilize a set
of survival techniques learned over generations experiencing the vagaries of
weather and history.
There is an appropriateness in the developing world of a food produc-
"tion system that emphasizes human labor increments where labor is abundant.
Smallholder production can reemphasize the wide variety of traditional foods
and condiments, and counter the faddism of "modern" foods -- often less
nutritious, more expensive processed foods which have to be imported.
E. Smallholders in Rural Society Smallholder agriculture is valuable
also because it provides the basis for
a healthy rural society. The economic contribution such a society can make
as a local market for modern sector goods and services has been mentioned.
If its decline could be reversed, and if it could be supported and enhanced,
smallholder agriculture might -- with adequate family planning -- stabilize
the rural population and slow down outmigration. A healthy rural society
could prepare the young- who must migrate, giving them the necessary health,
education and emotional strength to be productive members of urban communi-
ties. Here is a strategy to support a reserve labor supply in dignity, and to
prevent premature migration before the urban areas are ready to provide jobs,
housing, transport, health, schools, etc.
A revived small-farm sector could play a key role in political stability,
and prevent further concentration of land resources in the hands of the few.
Finally, small farming provides a family with a "security option" -- people
at the margin often devise a package of survival techniques, which may include
keeping one foot on the land, work at one or two outside employment, barter-
ing and trading and (for'those who have migrated) having a refuge at times of
unemployment or illness and old age.
Chaney and Lewis Page 5
II. ROLE OF WOMEN IN SMALLHOLDER AGRICULTURE
A. "Invisibility"of Women's Contribution There is a growing body of
to Agricultural Production scholarship on the role of women
in Third World agriculture. It
is not our purpose here to document in any detail the range of tasks rural
women perform. There is by now strong evidence in the literature that women
in almost every culture contribute substantially to agricultural production. In
some countries, however, such work is "invisible" because women's status
is misreported as "housewife" in census and other statistics when, in fact,
they may spend more time in farm work than in housework.
In other countries, women carry on agricultural work -- for example,
sorting and storing seed, processing grain, preserving food, shearing sheep --
behind the walls of their compounds. Women's participation rates vary within
world areas and by region, ranging from 60-80 percent of the agricultural
work force in sub-Saharan Africa, to 15-20 percent in the hispanic regions of
Latin America (in Andean areas, they are higher).
SB. Division of Labor by Sex In all but the poorest strata, where agri-
in Agricultural Production cultural and household tasks sometimes are
carried out interchangeably by women and
men, everywhere there appears to be a division of labor by sex. Boserup in
1970 suggested an initial division between extensive (plow) agriculture,
carried out primarily by males, and intensive (hoe) agriculture, engaged in
principally by women. In many cultures, men do clear the land and often do
the initial plowing, while women plant, weed and assist with the harvest. As
agriculture modernizes, a further division appears: men are generally in
charge of commercial crops (to which women may, however, contribute sub-
stantial amounts of labor time), and women concentrate their efforts on the
subsistence crops eaten by the family (although some of these may also be
sold). While "male" and "female" crops may vary by culture, those to be
marketed tend to be perceived as men's, and those destined for the family
table as women's.
C. Definition of Male and Fe- Women also perform a range of tasks which
male Agricultural Tasks are not strictly "agricultural," but which
contribute to the overall enterprise. Women
may, for example, wash and repair the soiled clothes of the fieldworkers (in -
cluding their own); they may carry lunch to those doing field work (including
their own food); they may bring the burros to the field for irrigation; they may
prepare the substantial meals which in many labor-exchange systems are the
compensation for extra harvest hands; they may go to town to buy seed, a new
hoe or machete handle, or to stand in line to pay a tax or secure a document.
In addition, all of the women's household tasks -- and their primary role in
Chaney and Lewis Page 6
bearing and rearing children -- contribute to the production and reproduction
of the agricultural labor force.
Women themselves might not always define these tasks as part of
the agricultural endeavor, and their partners would be even less likely to
do so. Men have a "male-centric" view of agriculture, more narrowly
directed to the task at hand. Agriculture is the actual field labor: opening
the channels for irrigation, plowing and planting and harvesting. While men
may work long hours in peasant agriculture, when female tasks are added to
the women's more narrowly-defined agricultural labor, then women's hours
spent in agricultural work very often outstrip those of men.
D. Women's Preeminent Role What is of primary interest here is the
in Food Production specific contribution women make to family
food production. In many cultures, even
where women take part only occasionally in labor on the field crops, they
have exclusive responsibility to produce the bulk of what the family eats. In
the tropics and subtropics, family food production is carried out in a continu-
ous work cycle, and is an intricate art based on "lore" passed from mothers
Sto daughters since unrecorded times. Every food crop has its own schedule
and place in the rotation; there is no real beginning or end. Food production
involves gathering and preserving the seed for each crop; carefully calculating
the best time and place to plant according to the season and mix of crops;
preparing the seedlings and seed beds; watering, weeding, cultivating, har-
vesting. After that, some items must be processed and stored -- or prepared
for sale -- and the cycle of each crop begins again.
Women until recent times also added substantially to family food pro-
duction through gathering many wild species of fruits, nuts, vegetables and
herbs. In some world areas, women still do so where encroaching cash-
cropping, deforestation, and ecological decline have not destroyed the environ-
ment where such species flourish. In most peasant cultures, women also play
a large role in marketing surpluses both from cultivated and uncultivated
sources as a means to earn cash.
Also missing from most analyses is any consideration for what women
save in terms of family expenditure by the food they grow or gather. Income
conservation is not a concept considered by agricultural economics, and
crops/animals consumed by the family sometimes are not even counted as
family income; only what is sold for cash is calculated in the total. Most
often, these important items in the family diet are contributed by the women.
E. Reappraisal of Small Farm Until the early 1970s, "progress" in agri-
Systems by Planners culture sometimes implicitly included
the notion that women would re-
tire from the fields to their proper domain of the household. When capital-
Chaney and Lewis Page 7
intensive agriculture was at the center of development strategies, such a
stance seemed logical; production would be increased through judicious
applications of modern inputs and technology, emphasizing the efficiency of
capital inputs over antiquated labor-intensive farming methods. Thus, the
woman's labor would no longer be necessary to the farming enterprise, and
the surplus children also could migrate to the cities where new industries
would absorb them.
In recent times, however, planners have been looking once again,
as we have noted above, to the viability of the small farm system. The
swollen cities with their jobless millions, sometimes approaching 40-50
percent of the population, and the urgent need to feed both urban and rural
populations without going broke on food imports, has contributed to a grow-
ing body of thinking about the small farm sector. Many development scholars
and practioners believe such systems deserve reappraisal and study, as well
as assistance, because they could make the crucial difference in a nation's
ability to feed itself.
F. Recognition of Women What is curious in this exercise is the
As Pood Producers virtual absence of recognition for the
role women play in smallholder agricul-
ture, particularly in the production of family food. Indeed, whole books and
entire articles now have been written (and reviewed) on world food supply/
small farming systems without a single mention of the fact that it is women
who produce much of the food grown on small farms. Even men who have
observed these systems at firsthand apparently cannot "see" women doing
Nevertheless, several studies indicate that women are good farmers
and managers when they have the resources they need to support and enhance
their efforts. Indeed, one interesting study demonstrated that women pro-
duced the same amounts with less inputs than men farmers -- they made up
in hard work what they lacked in resources. On the other hand, there also
are indications in the literature that women abandoned and left without
supports may become less efficient, discouraged farmers (as men left with-
out the partnership of women in the agricultural enterprise also are prone to
Women are society's nurturers; they are close to the processes of
growth in the human species, animals and plants. Anthropologists have
determined that women were the probable inventors of cultivation; in times
past, men went out to hunt and often returned empty-handed, but the women
gathered and cultivated upwards of 80 percent of the food consumed by
Women with their acute powers of observation and their centuries of
accumulated experience in growing things are preeminently fitted to care for
Chaney and Lewis Page 8
the wide variety of plants and animals found on the typical small farm.
Modern farming, in contrast, is based on much simpler farming proce-
dures, depending today on near-mechanical prescriptions for planting, fer-
tilizing, irrigating had harvesting (usually) one crop. In contrast, the small
farm appears to the observer -- used to straight rows and exact spacing --
as chaos. The small farmer with a mixed cropping system interplants, using
some varieties as shade for others, and hedging his/her bets against disaster
by including more than one type of the same crop.
Good diet depends not only on producing food, but on producing the
right kinds of food. Women are open to learning to grow the proper food
crop combinations to make a complete diet. Several experiments with
"Family Food Production Programs" are underway, built around growing a
planned cycle of nutritious vegetables keyed to the starchy staple crops found
in many parts of the world. Intensive nutrition and health education are
linked to the teaching of gardening skills to women, with attention being paid
to the nutritional value also of wild plant species.
G. Obstacles to Women's Women not only are accorded little recogni-
Role in Agriculture tion as food producers, but in recent times
the modernization of agriculture has placed
serious obstacles in the path of women who grow food for their families and
produce modest surpluses which add to city diets. First of all, as has been
pointed out many times in the literature, modernization may drive women off
land on which they grow food. Their own partners may decide to put every
available piece of land into cash crops, if credit and inputs become available
through government development programs. Rarely if ever is any money in-
vested in research or assistance on food crops that women grow. Or, as
larger farmers compete successfully for inputs and increase production, they
drive out the small farmer and the women's crops also are lost. Women's
access to land also often is jeopardized in agrarian reform or resettlement
schemes where provision is almost never made for women to participate in
agriculture, even to the extent of allocating them a garden plot.
When women leave aside their work on food crops -- temporarily or
permanently -- to join in the cash-cropping operations, as they often are
called upon to do, they may not be given any share in the income because
cash returns are perceived as belonging to the male. Even when the male
partner is absent, the return from "male" crops sometimes is perceived as
his, and must be kept for him. This does not mean that women never are
allocated a portion of the returns from cash cropping, but the control of the
income normally remains in the man's hands -- or in the hands of a male
relative if the woman's partner is away.
In many cases; increasing income from cash cropping has not lead
to better standards of living or nutrition for the family. For one thing,
Chaney and Lewis Page 9
added income may be used to purchase less-nutritious, processed food. As
more than one observer has noted, consumption in rural households is not
necessarily enhanced by increased income from cash crops. On the contrary,
there now is strong evidence of links between what a household produces and
what it consumes. Whether the cash crops are commodities such as tobacco
and cotton, or food crops such as yam, sugar cane or cassava, several studies
now show that extra family income from improved farm practices most often
will not be spent on family nutrition, but on consumer goods, "store-bought"
food of inferior quality, and alcohol. In contrast, when women control extra
resources of food or cash, they tend to invest them back into the family in the
form of better nutrition and other improvements in the family's living standard,
education and health.
H. Centrality of Women's Role in The small farm operation, whether
The Small Farm Operation strictly subsistence in nature or whe-
ther some of the production enters the
cash economy, in some ways centers more profoundly around the woman and
her tasks than around the man. Women's contribution appears to be more ne-
cessary, and this is nowhere more evident than in the patterns of out-migration
from rural areas in much of the Third World today. It is well established in
the demographic literature that men go first, leaving their womenfolk behind.
While this is partly because some immigration countries do not encourage or
permit the migration of families, there still is some evidence that in the case
of small farms, it is the man who goes off to seek employment in wage labor --
either to another rural area of his own country to do agricultural day-labor on
a large estate farm, or to the urban area of his own or a foreign country in
hopes of finding employment. It is true that women migrants now outnumber
men on migration indices in several world regions; nevertheless, before jump-
ing to the conclusion that most of these women have gone off without their -
partners and families, we need to do much more research on the age composi-
tion of the female migrants and on the composition of the family left behind.
On the one hand, female-dominant migrant streams may be fed by the out-
migration of daughters; on the other hand, when a woman migrates without her
male partner and family, she most often has left behind her elder daughter,
another female relative or a grandmother to look after the family.
From the above discussion, it follows that the first person to migrate
from the smallholder plot often is the adult male. In some cases, however,
young daughters are the first family members to be sent because they have less
claim on the land and can often find work as domestic servants in the towns.
(One study, however, demonstrates that the two eldest sons and the eldest
daughter often are held back by the family.) Daughters who become domestics
are counted on to provide cash for the farming operation from their wages;
they often preserve close links with their families on the land. If sons leave,
as many do, there is a loss of labor; in some cases this may not be crucial if
plots are small, but in other cases some farming operations may have to be
Chaney and Lewis 10
cut back. Indications are that the wife goes only when she has a mother surro-
gate to whom she can pass on her responsibilities; very often adult women
can get jobs in the cities and towns more easily than either youths or adult
men, although such jobs tend to be low-paid and low-prestige.
I. Consequences of Adult When women are left alone through absence
Male Migration of husbands, fathers or eldest sons, they may
have difficulty coping both with household
responsibilities and work on the land. In cases where they do the bulk of the
agricultural work in any case, such absence may not be felt as so burdensome.
But in other cases, male absence means that women take on unaccustomed tasks
in the cash cropping -- including not only full responsibility for the cultivation,
but the planning and marketing decisions. If they do not get help and support,
women may cut back on agricultural activity or abandon little by little many of
the farm operations.
There are some indications that agricultural productivity is decreasing
in areas of large out-migration of men. Land goes out of production, or the
same land is used over and over again because there is no one to clear new
land. Terraces fall and are not repaired. Waterways and irrigation ditches
silt up and are not dug out; other repairs are put off or neglected altogether.
Sometimes women fall back into just sufficient subsistence production to feed
themselves and their households.
Nor are women always able to get the help they need when they need it.
Reciprocity of labor exchange in the countryside often fimctions on a male net-
work women's networks exchange goods and services, but not work in the
fi. and is in demand on other farms a
same season. Extended family systems -- for example, male relatives left -
behind in the rural areas who are expected by custom to help out their
sisters-in-law or daughters-in-law -- may not any longer fulfill their support
functions. There is the notion that the traditional family and kin network are
strong enough to absorb the shock of male outmigration, but in recent times
mutual help among even immediate family members has broken down.
There are many evidences that women are overwhelmed with work in
the countryside and too poor to take advantage of modern inputs, technology
and training which might lighten their workload. They are left out of credit,
agrarian reform and extension schemes, and in their case -- because they are
alone -- such omission has even more serious consequences than for women
with male partners who qualify for all of these supports.
When women find that they cannot make it, especially in cases where
the absence of the male adult member is prolonged, they may in the end decide
to leave the land themselves. In this way, the last links to the family plot may
be broken, and if the male member does return, he will rejoin his family in
the town or city to which they have gone.
Chaney and Lewis 11
III. CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
A. Smallholder Agriculture and The productive potential of small family
Food Production farming systems is at present unknown
because research and development efforts
have been concentrated on the crops and technologies of larger and mechanized
systems. World food needs demand that greater emphasis be placed on research
and development studies on small farming systems with attention to:
1. Improving growing methods and varieties of crops grown on small-
holdings, with special emphasis on women's crops.
2. Developing appropriate production, harvesting and processing machines
and tools for small fields and terraces -- designed for family use.
3. Designing small systems in which crops grown are food crops the
family needs for improved nutrition;
4. Studying the economics of small farms to measure the value, of foods
and services provided outside the cash economy,
5. Assessing the social and psychological contributions to health and
stability of rural society provided by smallholder farming systems.
6. Describing and analyzing smallholder survival strategies which in-
clude a creative mix of off-farm employment, food production, manu-
facture of items for sale or barter, etc.
When agricultural development projects are designed, consideration should be
given to their impact on small farm systems, national food supply and parti-
cularly the effects on the supply of foods poor people eat.
B. Women's Contribution in Women's contribution in agricultural produc-
Smallholder Systems tion -- especially in food crops -- has been
invisible to economists and planners. Equity
and successful agricultural development demand:
L Modernizing strategies in which the value of women's food production
and processing roles are recognized, and in which they are given
resources -- credit, training, access to inputs, tenure rights --
to strengthen and enhance their productive efforts.
2. Redefinition of census and other survey instruments to capture the
full extent of women's work in agriculture.
3. Mechanisms to foster the organization of rural women so that they
can begin to define their own needs, discover or invent the mechanisms
Chaney and Lewis 12
to help themselves, and pressure the political system for the
support and services they and their communities need.
4. Creation of simple materials on the interface among nutrition
and health, food production, and food consumption.
5. Training of rural workers beyond "home economics" to give instruc-
tion in nutrition and health linked to vegetable gardening and staple
6. Studies of wild foods, their nutritional contribution and role in
family survival strategies.