How Big is a Farm? Who is a Farmer?

Sharon January 26th, 2008

Well, the game of post-riposte is winding down over at TOD, 400+ comments, etc… on my response to Stuart Staniford (his original essay linked at the top of mine or in my last post) #node/3541#more, complete with Staniford’s response to me, and back again…. Fun and all, but back to work.

One of the problems in this discussion is the question of “how big is a farm?” That is, when we talk about “farmers” who are we actually talking about? What’s “agriculture”, and what’s “gardening?” Where does “homesteading” “smallholding” “horticulture” and “subsistence farming” fall in the mess?

BoysMom was helpful enough to ask about that in comments, and I thought it had been long enough since I covered this topic that it would be worth discussing it here. Is part of the problem of discussing “relocalization” that our definitions of “farmer” vary so widely that we’re talking past each other?

I have a strong opinion on this subject (gee, could you have guessed?) I think (and yes, all the real farmers yell at me, and I don’t entirely blame them), that “farmer” should be the umbrella term for remunerative food production. That is, I think you are a farmer if you grow food for sale, for barter or as a large portion of your own personal economy - that is, I think we call them “subsistence farmers” for a reason. If farming either provides a significant part of your income.

My criteria for this is simple - we don’t live in isolation - the word “farmer” should mean something across national and cultural boundaries. That is, a “farmer” in India, and a “farmer” in Canada should be able to recognize one another as fellow creatures with a shared profession, and art. As we are speaking now, the word “farmer” as it is used in the rich world erases the vast majority of world farmers out of the language, and that shouldn’t be acceptable to us. As important, it gives us a mistaken sense of what agriculture actually is- even what agriculture was. In the 1940s, a large amount of victory garden literature spoke of “garden farms” - that is, home gardens that operated, like farms, to both supply the subsistence needs of the family and to serve the large public interest by freeing up food to be sent overseas.That is, it isn’t that long even in North American history that a “farmer” has been a guy with a thousand acres. And in the rest of the world, it may never work that way:

You’ll note from the first paragraph, even the experts have a hard time with the naming problem - and so they just call them “farmers.” (My computer does not permit me to use PDFs, and for some reason I can’t copy text from the html format, so I’m afraid you’ll just have to look back).

That is, the World Bank and the UN FAO have essentially deemed as farmers anyone who calls themselves a farmer, sells food, or subsists primarily on their own food. The distinction they make is “small farmer” vs. “large farmer” - but all of them are farmers.Right now, the majority of the world’s farms are small farms. The average farm size in Africa and Asia is 1.6 hectares (for those who are accustomed to acreage measurements, a hectare is about 2.5 acres - thus, the average farm size in Africa and Asia would be a bit under 4 acres). This means that there are a whole lot of farms much smaller than 4 acres.

95% of all farms in many parts of the former Soviet Unions are under 1 hectare, and that they provide the majority of all agricultural production, a total of 52% of all food eaten in the region.The US, as of the last Ag Census, contained 66,ooo+ small farms under 2 hectares. Which just goes to support Kiashu’s well taken point

that about half of the world’s food already comes from small farms. Add to that Helena Norberg-Hodge’s observation that *2 Billion* people live almost entirely on subsistence agriculture that is low input and largely organic (because they can’t afford not to be), and we can see that agricultural norms are simply different than what we Americans and Canadians think of.

The claim that large farmer are essential to produce grain turns out also to be false - in India, 40% of all food grains are produced by small farmers in parcels under 2 hectares, and not totally dissimilar data is found in other developing nations. It may well be more efficient to produce grain in more centralized areas, by some definitions (the distinction here between efficiency of land and efficiency of labor would apply in some cases), but for those who immediately leap to the conclusion that we’d never have any grain if we didn’t have big farms, this is a useful observation.

But aren’t all small farmers poor? In a 2004 analysis for the _Handbook of Agricultural Economics_, Eastwood, Lipton and Newell observe that in developing nations, small farmers tend to be disproportionately taxed, while in developed nations, they tend not to receive the benefits of agricultural subsidies. That is, small farmers tend to get the worst of both worlds, with both poor and rich nations tending to disadvantage them economically. That’s not to say that the economic disadvantages of agriculture as we do it now (which apply to most North American and European farmers except during ethanol booms) don’t make farming a difficult choice - but it does suggest that just as agricultural policy has driven farmers in the US out of business for decades, agricultural policy is also working in many cases to impoverish farmers in the poor world. FAO agriculture economists Binswanger, Deinenger and Feder, for example, conclude that generally speaking larger farms in the poor world are dramatically less efficient than smaller, family farms, but that policies favor them so strongly as to elide much of this difference. That is, in both the rich and the poor world, we work very hard to keep our small farmers poor. It is interesting to try and imagine what a systematic set of agricultural policies that supported small scale, diversified agriculture would do to the present equation of poverty and size.

Interestingly, it seems that in both south Asia and the former Soviet Union, the trend that economic development generally creates towards larger farms seems not to be the case - that is, the Handbook of Agricultural Economics cited above notes that as of 2004, neither Russia nor south Asia seems to be following the pattern of getting bigger as they get richer. In Russia, the authors speculate, it may be because of the powerful impact of the 1990 collapse of the Soviet Union, where consumers now associate small farms with food security. In Asia and parts of Latin America (Brazil and Argentina have steadily increased farm size, while smaller nations have declined, implying that averages are not as much to the point here as the articulation of two seperate trends), where farm sizes actually seem to have declined in the later part of the 20th century.

So what should we take from all this data? First, that small farms are normal, and that the majority of the world’s farmers are small farmers of less than 5 acres. That is, it is hard to claim that someone farming a comparatively small piece of land is not a farmer, if they constitute a majority - in fact, perhaps it would be more accurate to call many large scale farmers (as some prefer) “agribusinessmen” and leave the term farmer to the majority.

In addition, in many, many nations there are substantial numbers of farms that are pretty much the same size as a suburban lot. The people who farm them are farmers. The average Bangladeshi farms half a hectare. In Barbados, the average piece of land is 1.6 hectares. In China, 0.67 hectares, in India 1.34 hectares. Lebanon 1.2, Japan, 1.2, Egypt 0.95. And of course, averages mean that many, many of these farms are quite a bit tinier.So it must be that farming isn’t about land size.

Even in the US this can be true - in her glorious book _The Earth Knows My Name:Food, Culture and Sustainability in the Gardens of Ethnic America_, Patricia Klindienst notes that there is no clear boundary between those who call themselves “farmers” and those who call themselves “gardeners” - some of the gardens are bigger than the farms, in fact. That is, even in America, there are thousands of small farms, being worked by thousands of small farmers, and size doesn’t seem to be the defining factor.

So perhaps what matters is what you are doing on your land, not how big it is. How should we narrow this one down - the tax purposes model is, I think, insufficient to offer us an overarching definition that crosses borders from the rich world to the poor (I once read that in at least one US state, one way to be a farm for tax purposes is to own a cow - period, and in that state (which one I’ve forgotten) there are a number of people keeping cows in their garages, buying their hay, and accepting a tax write off, but this may be purely anecdotal).

One obvious way to distinguish between farmers and gardeners would be by economic remuneration - that is, if you sell farm products, you are a farmer. But this model effectively removes from the language the millions, perhaps even billions of subsistence farmers who sell little or nothing off their land. These people live their lives as farmers, with all the benefits and disadvantages that applies - we cannot erase them from the language. In most cases, they are taxed in their countries as farmers.

Such subsistence farmers exist in the rich world as well - there are not a huge number of subsistence farmers these days, but they do exist, and I know a few. They grow their own food, cut their own wood, hunt, and work off the farm or sell enough to pay the land taxes. One of my neighbors, Paul, is a subsistence farmer, living from his half acre garden, two deer a year, a couple of wild turkeys and enough work as a substitute teacher to pay for taxes and beer. He jokes that he works as a teacher 5 days a month, and grows and hunts food the other 25, but when the government asks him what he does, he’s a teacher.

We cannot say that having a non-agricultural job is a criteria for ceasing to call someone a farmer either - according to the USDA, 71% of all US farmers of all sizes have either an off season, or off farm income, or a household member who provides an off farm income. In _Ending Hunger In Our Lifetime_ ed Runge, Senauer et al notes that this is true of many poor world farmers as well - not quite 80% also do seasonal or off farm work, or have a household member who does so. The numbers are oddly similar. In fact, Peter Rosset in _Food is Different_ tracks the ways that farmers subsidize consumers and their own agricultural practices, and notes that in general, farmers subsidize cheap food more than governments do - that is, because farming is not merely a job but a culture and a way of life, farmers will do almost anything to keep their land - including sending family members off the land to allow those who farm to growing corn or rice or beans at low prices. See:

A farmer is not someone who never does any work off the farm, then. She is not someone (btw, “he” is a “she” - the majority of the world’s farmers are women - and many poor nations have long traditions of agriculture and land ownership in women’s hands) who owns a lot of land, or necessarily sells much or any food in the market place.So what does distinguish farmers from gardeners? Not much.

Perhaps, then, we should think about the distinction linguistically. “Gardener” derives from a the french, and means “an enclosed space” - that is, its linguistic focus is on limitations. A “garden” linguistically speaking, is seperated from the space around it by cultivation.

“Farm” and “farmer” on the other hand come from the same root as “to form” and imply creation. The oldest English forms of the word, going back to Beowulf and the Domesday book, also meant “a banquet or feast” - that is, farms and farmers are linguistically tied to bountifulness, to eating, to abudance and plenty, and also to the power of creation - by implication to the power that created “terra firma” - that is, the linguistic implication is that farming is acting in G-d’s image, creating plenty.

My own take, is that as valuable as the word “gardener” is, the kind of agriculture we’re trying to create is more appropriately described as “farming” than as gardening - that is, a truly sustainable agriculture happens not in boundaries, but across them. Is a permaculture garden a bounded space, or do its lines blur into the trees and wildlands around it? Is an agriculture designed to create mixed use pasture for wildlife and farmed animals about its fences, or about what can pass through them? Is a family living in part on what they grow and what they forage and harvest from untended spaces in their town or city tending a garden, or farming their community?

It isn’t that gardening isn’t a good word, it is that I think farming is a better one.All of the other terms offer some kind of subset of the above. It isn’t that I have any objection to someone calling themselves a smallholder, a gardener, a homesteader or an edible landscaper, it is merely that there exists an umbrella term that serves, not just because it is accurate, but because it describes so well what we must become.



6 Responses to “How Big is a Farm? Who is a Farmer?”

  1. Arielon 27 Jan 2008 at 12:52 am

    hey sharon,

    (you should probably erase this comment after reading it)
    congrats on your new blog. a tiny tiny typo - the link to Eating Cheap is missing “/” between the month number and the article name

    should be 2007/11/how-to-eat…



    saying thanks for all your amazing and beautiful work from israel
    (how’s your hebrew? my friend tami has a great website going, about urban ecoliving called
    she is truly the guru of ecolife in telaviv for me..)

    i dont know where i’d find the time, but would u object to hebrew translations being posted in hebrew of some of your articles? i would include the links and such, i just feel you have so much to give, and frankly many ppl are put off by reading texts in english (even though most of us understand it just fine)…

    im ariel, and can be reached at

    avid reader of yours for the past 6 months…

  2. Arielon 27 Jan 2008 at 1:33 am

    another typo:
    My Next Talk:

    February 16, 3pm, I’m giving a class on the basics of food storate - why and how at my friend Joy’s place, the Old Corner Store in Gallupville, New York.

    I think it should say “food storage”, not “food storate”, right ?



  3. yooperon 27 Jan 2008 at 2:20 am

    Hello Sharon! Perhaps another way to “guage” a farmer, is how long have they been doing it? At least that’s what a lot of the good ‘ol boys who gather at the feed mill, think. With time comes experience, with experience comes knowledge..

    Congrats on the new blog!

    Thanks, yooper

  4. Joon 27 Jan 2008 at 2:44 am

    I like your new blog–am off to check out some of the news articles & links now!

  5. Katieon 27 Jan 2008 at 9:35 am

    Hi Sharon,
    I like your new blog, though I will admit to missing Casaubon’s Book’s title and simplicity. I don’t mind putting up with the adverts to read what you have to say if it will help support you.


  6. Connieon 27 Jan 2008 at 5:17 pm

    Great new blog, Sharon! I’m a long-time lurker, coming out of the cyber-mists to wish you mazeltov! Thanks for all you do.

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