Gender as a Critical Variable
in the Methodology of the
Farming Systems Informal Survey
Mary Hill Rojas, John S. Caldwell, and Angela M. Neilan
Office of Women in World Development
Department of Horticulture
and Extension Division
Gender of respondents and team members can affect results substantially.
Interviews with only male respondents will tend to focus more on technical
details and less on contributions of different family members. Male respondents
tend to use singular pronouns, making contributions of others invisible, while
fema le respondents tend to use plural pronouns, submerging their own
contributions in a group effort. For cultural reasons, female respondents may
respond less to male inte rviewe rs. This lack of response makes an accurate
assessment of women's needs on the farm more difficult. Separate interviewing
of male and female respondents by male and female interviewers may also be
necessary to determine the degree of differences or convergence of goals and
constraints of different family members.
Gender as a Critical Variable
in the Methodology of the
Farming Systems Informal Surve)
Mary Hill Rojas, John S. Caldwell, and Angela M.
Office of Women in World Development
Department of Horticulture
Virginia Polytechnic Institute
Rural women around the world have been called invisible laborers. (Gross,
1982.) Several reasons have been cited for this invisibility. First are
stereotypes which view women as economically inactive. "Essentially, in this
view, women don't 'work'; or if they do, they shouldn't."' (Tinker, 1979: 53.)
For example, a 1977 draft of a United States Agency for International
Development agricultural policy paper suggested that one measure of development
could be a reduction of the number of women working in the fields. (Tiniker,
1979:53.) Terminology such as "productive" to describe women's market value
and "non1-produtive" for use-va lue wo rk also has perpetuated the myth of
women's economic inactivity. (Zeidenstein, 1979:312.) Similarly, in rural
extension, the farm household, the traditional domain of the woman, has been
seen as the "consumption" unit; the farm firm as the "production" unit.
National statistics also contribute to women's invisibility. Statistics
generally reflect only the activities of the modern cash economy. For example,
data in Africa have shown only 5% of women work in agriculture; whereas in
reality 60 to 80 % of the subsistence agriculture is done by women. This is
uncounted work as it falls outside the modern sector. (Tinker, 1979:3.)
According to the United States census, only 5% of farmers are women. The
census allows for only one individual to be named primary farm operator. Most
often the man of the farm is named. (Kalbacher, 1981:1.) Nevertheless, in a
national survey by the United States Department of Agriculture of women on
farms, 55% of the women considered themselves a primary operator of their
farm. (Jones & Rosenfeld, 1981:236.) The implications of such data errors on
policy and programs is obvious.
One approach to rural development used extensively in international
settings is Farming Systems Research and Development (FSR/D). This approach
not only looks at agricultural yields but the social response to agricultural
production and new interventions. It is an approach that recognizes the need
to consciously consider the role of rural women in development. (Shaner,
1982:281.) The initial phase of FSR/D is a sondeo or informal survey conducted
by interviewers of the farm families in the research area. This paper, based
on data gathered from one such sondeo, provides suggestions for FSR/D prac-
titioners on how to avoid biasing sondeo data through a more careful con-
sideration of gender in the interviewing process.
The Virginia Tech Farming Systems Research and Extension (FSR/E) Project
in southwest Virginia was funded by the Office of International Cooperation
and Development of the United States Department of Agriculture. One objective
of the project was to analyze the participation of rural farm women in agri-
culture and to generally describe their roles in relation to the total farm
system. Only small, limited resource farms were used. The project looked at
the farm household, under-valued in rural development, as an integral part of
the production of the total farm rather than only as a consumption unit
separate from farm production. The ultimate goal of the FSR/E project was to
focus on the interrelationship of the farm household and farm firm in order to
provide realistic models for rural development both domestically and inter-
The first phase of the project was the informal survey or sondeo
conducted by a multidisciplinary team of both men and women. Forty-seven farm
families were interviewed. The sondeos were semi-structured interviews which
sought demographic information on the family, information on the activities of
household members, and an evaluation of the problems, successes and goals of
the farm as perceived by the farm family. As much as possible both the men and
the women of the farms were interviewed. However, often this was not possible
as one or the other, most frequently the woman, tended to hold off-farm jobs
and was not present. (Table I)Those people interviewed were encouraged to
talk at length. The interviewers later wrote up the interviews as a prose-style
report. This approach oriented the research team to the area and produced
initial data helpful in formulating questions for further research.
Many comments in the reports indicated that the inclusion of women in the
total interview process is very important if rural women are to give voice to
their concerns and provide accurate data for the FSR/E project. For example,
the county agriculture technicians who went with the interviewers to the farms
often assumed that it was the man on the farm with whom the interviewers
wished to speak, even though the interviewer, in this case, was a woman:
When he found...her husband was not there...Dave [the technician] was
ready to leave but I asked [the farm woman] if she could speak to me and
(Karagianis, Smyth Co., Interview with L.S.)*
Also, when the woman was not present for the interview, her role on the farm
was often unclear.
I really did not get a "feel" for the women's work. The mother was not
spoken of much nor was the son's second wife, even with direct questioning.
(Rojas, Washington Co., The "B" Farm, pA4.)
For cultural reasons female respondents may not respond as frequently as
the man in a mixed interview session. Therefore, even when both the man and
the woman weree present, the interviewer needed often to assure the woman's
participation in the interview:
* All quotes are from the interviewer's prose reports. Therefore, it is the
X. did not come out into the kitchen where we were talking, and just
* responded from the next room when I asked for her opinion. Perhaps she
thought the interview was supposed to be just "men's" talk.
(Caldwell, J., Lee Co., The "D" Farm, p. 1.)
In fact, had I not watched when X. came near to where I was standing, -I
doubt that any responses would have been obtained from her. The initial
expectation of the two appeared to be that I was here to talk with K.,
(Caldwell, J., Lee Co., Farmers K. and X.T., p.1.)
These last responses also indicate the importance of including a woman on
the interviewing team. Female respondents may respond less, or differently, to
male interviewers, making more difficult an accurate assessment of both their
needs for technology changes, and the impact of technology changes, on other
work that they perform. Therefore, it may be helpful to interview the woman
alone using a woman interviewer to avoid errors and misconceptions in the data:
When [Farmer B.] said that his wife didn't do farm maintenance, she said
that she helped with fences....
(Caldwell, J., Smyth Co., Farmers B. and C., p.3.)
At times the men were reluctant to speak of women's roles:
B. [The agriculture technician] said afterwards that he sensed that F.L.
resented the repeated questioning about his wife's part in farm work. B.
seemed to imply that running a farm was a matter of pride for a man.
(Caldwell, J., Smyth Co., Farmer L., p.6.)
It also was clear from the research that one reason the labor of rural
women remains invisible is that often language excludes them. It has frequently
been noted that the word "farmer" automatically conjures up a male image. If a
farmer is a woman, we are forced to say "woman farmer" for clarity. Therefore,
our language assumes the man is the primary operator on a farm. Yet over half
of farm wqme~n interviewed in a national survey considered themselves a primary
operator on their farm and only 2% were found not to contribute to farm
related tasks beyond the household sphere. (Jones, Rosenfeld, 1981:38.)
All of the interviewers involved with the farming systems sondeo in
southwest Virginia were aware of the problems of language and at times bent
double trying to correct the language inequities. They carefully noted that
Farmer B. was male rather than assuming his masculinity; they attempted to
integrate the household into the word "farm" to avoid the production-
consumption dicotomy; they called husband and wife heads of household rather
than automatically designating this role to the man only. It was an uphill,
often confusing battle, but one which was considered important in order to
gather accurate data.
Nevertheless, the interviewers often slipped back into old habits such as
in this interview with a husband and wife who farmed 3 acres of vegetables:
"Mr. and Mrs. C. work together in growing vegetables. .. Mr. C. feels
his farming is going very well. .. Financially I believe Mr. C. is
doing very well, but he could expand his farming. .. (Harris, R.,
Inteview with L.C., Lee Co., p.2)
Somewhere in the interview Mrs. C. had become invisible, although both she and
her husband were the farmers. Again, with such erroneous reporting, the
implications for policy and programs are apparent.
The use of pronouns also enhanced the women's invisibility. When the
women responded to questions about the farm they often spoke using the third
"She said, 'They have 30+ beef cattle. .. They usually grow a lot of
(Karagianis, V., Smyth Co., Interview with L.S., p.1.)
"The wife said they changed because there was more money in dairying."
(CaldwelL, J., Smyth Co., Farmers B. and C., pA4.)
Yet when the man was speaking, the woman was often omitted as in this
interview on a farm where both the man and woman worked full-time off the farm
and both farmed the land:
The peppers were marketed at the local farmer's market. J. said, "I sold
them." However, M. (the woman) and he both sold them. J. also speaks of
"my" land, "my" cattle....
(Rojas, M., Washington Co., Farm IV, p.2.)
Because of this differential use of pronouns, it was often difficult to obtain
an accurate idea of the woman's part on the farm. In this same light, often
the land and its produce was referred to as the man's:
His father's 84 acre farm
(Smith, M., Lee Co., D.B. Farm, p.1.)
His 77 year old father's farm
(Smith, M., Lee Co., B.B. farm, p.1.)
Farmer B. butchers and also gets all the family's milk from his own
(Caldwell, J., Smyth Co., Farmers B. and C., p.2.)
His tobacco brings a good price
(Rojas, M., Washington Co., Farm IVI, p.3.)
S. bought his farm from his father
(Smith, M., Smyth Co., interview with D.S., p.1.)
Yet recent research in neighboring Virginia counties indicate that there is
considerable equity in landownership between men and women. (Kerns, 1982.)
One final note about language. The word "helps" seemed to be key in
determining the farm actors' perceptions of themselves:
1. (the woman) helps out on the farm, doing whatever is needed, including
mending fences, helIping with hay, when it's baled. ..clearing land,
piling brush, setting and grading tobacco.
(Karagianis, V., Smyth Co., Interview with L.S., p.2.)
R. works part-time as an Avon Lady. It takes two days every two weeks,
she said. The rest of the time, she helps out on the farm.
(Karagianis, V., Lee Co., visit to farm of C. and R.T., p.1.)
T. does the canning and freezing. H.C. (the man) helps with the canning
(Harris, R., Lee Co., "Interview with H.C.", p.2.)
In none of these examples is it totally clear whether the interviewer or
the on'e being interviewed used the word "helps," although the latter is
implied. It is clear, however, that the word is used with a traditional
division of labor. The man "helps" the woman with the household; the woman
"helps" the man with the outside farm chores.
Zeidenstein emphasizes the importance of the in-depth and open-ended
interview as a means of ending the "long silence" of rural women in order to
"expand enormously our understanding of rural life." (Zeidenstein, 1979: 312.)
Although exploratory, the sandeos in the FSR/E project partially ended this
silence by providing a voice to rural farm women in Virginia. Ending this
silence is not simply an equity issue. Rather, not to include women in
development, whether it be in domestic projects or internationally, is
economically inefficient. The economic contributions of women are simply too
great to ignore. One way to ensure their inclusion in Farming Systems Research
and Development is to make sure that they are not overlooked in the interview
1. Caldwell, J., R. Harris, V. Karagianis, M. Rojas, and M. Smith. 1982. Data
from interviews of farm families in southwest Virginia; a project sponsored
by the United States Department of Agriculture, Office of International
Cooperation and Development.
2. Gross, S. 1982. The invisible laborers. Upper Midwest History Center
for Teachers, Minneapolis.
3. Jones, C., and R. Rosenfeld. 1981. American farm women: findings from
a national survey. National Opinion Research Center, Chicago.
4. Kalbacher, J.Z. 1982. Women farmers in America. A paper from the Economic
Development Division of the Economic Research Service, United States
Department of Agriculture, Washington, D.C.
5. Karagianis, V. 1982. Development of an extension model for working with
small farm families. In Women's roles in rural United States, M. Rojas (ed.)
Conference Proceedings, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Virginia.
6. Kerns, V. 1983. The pattern of land ownership in an appalachian Virginia
county. A paper presented at the Southern Association of Agricultural
Scientists, Atlanta, Georgia.
7. Tinker, I. 1980. New technologies for food-related activities: an equity
strategy. In Women and technological change in developing countries,
Dauber, Roslyn and Cain (eds.). Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado.
8. Zeidenstein, S. (ed.) 1979. Learning about rural women. The Population
Council, New York.