Gardener? Farmer? Both?

Sharon February 19th, 2009

This is a slightly revised version of an older post, but one that matters to me so much that I think it is worth republishing for the design class.

It can get confusing, when we speak of our gardens or our farms.   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?

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 significant portion of your own personal economy – that is, I think we call them “subsistence farmers” for a reason.

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.  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 thebillions 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.


15 Responses to “Gardener? Farmer? Both?”

  1. Cacotopianon 19 Feb 2009 at 1:32 pm

    I don’t dispute the ties to the old English “feorme” for food and provisions, hence a feast.

    But I think you could also argue that the word has etymological roots in the French, “ferme”, and ultimately the Latin “firmare”, to fix, settle or confirm. Think about the French words for farm (ferme) and the verb to close (fermer). See here

    In English, “farm” also used to mean a fixed yearly amount payable in the form of rent, taxes, or portion of the land’s produce.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that the word still has a lot to do with enclosure and rights to property – the English vocabulary remains tainted by a Norman past in which those who worked the land seldom owned it.

    I enjoy reading your blog very much, Sharon. Thanks for all you do.

  2. Ginaon 19 Feb 2009 at 2:41 pm

    When we decided to try to grow as much as our own food as possible on our 0.2 acre suburban lot we consciously decided to call what we are doing “farming” rather than “gardening”. Our reasoning was that gardening is a hobby and an optional activity, whereas farming is a activity critical to one’s family’s (and community’s) survival. While our farming was not critical when we started we can foresee a number of situations in the future where it will be – perhaps much sooner than we ever initially imagined.

    Initially most of our family and some friends laughed openly at our little “farm”, however, as the economic crisis has deepened and they got a taste of our tomatoes the laughter has been replaced with calls for advice.

  3. Laneyon 19 Feb 2009 at 2:57 pm

    I agree with Gina: farming is critical, gardening is optional. I garden; my parents farmed. When I stand at the window and watch a summer thunderstorm flood my crops, I am not watching my lifelihood and that of my family ripped away. I garden for my sanity and for connection to the land and to practice for harder times and to keep life real for me and especially for the daughter I am raising. I sell blueberries in the summer, but that doesn’t make me a farmer. While there are farmers who have day jobs to keep the farm afloat, their farming is still critical. Perhaps someday my growing will be critical — until them, I’m a gardener.

  4. Philon 19 Feb 2009 at 3:31 pm

    It’s worth reading the UNEP’s “The Environmental Food Crisis”, released this week.

    Needless to say, it doesn’t emphasise Sharon’s kind of solutions.

  5. Tiffanyon 19 Feb 2009 at 5:16 pm

    If asked, I always say I grew up on a farm. And I told my husband while we were dating that I wasn’t sure I would ever be happy not on a farm. However, my great-grandparents, whose land and house I grew up in, were the last ones who were only farmers, though. My parents both had full-time non-farm jobs, but that didn’t mean they weren’t farming, too.

    In one sense, this way of farming is optional. In another sense, farming is as optional to a farmer as music is to a musician. I imagine they could live without it, but life wouldn’t be right.

    Gardening is for flowers.

  6. Jillon 19 Feb 2009 at 8:20 pm

    Growing up smack dab in the middle of farming country, I’ve grown to know farmers as those that raise animals and crops for food. Many have bee hives and bake also. But not all “farms” have farmers on them. Horse farms are a good example. I have to agree with Tiffany and Laney. The farmers I knew made a living at it – the gardeners grow flowers (although some gardeners can make a living at gardening too – I think they call them horticulturists?). I couldn’t begin to compare my little vegetable patch to true farming having seen and lived with farmers all my life. I live on 7 acres and garden about 2 acres of it — but its not a farm. I have gardens. I too am a gardener.

  7. Apple Jack Creekon 19 Feb 2009 at 9:43 pm

    I like Sharon’s definition – it makes us ’small farmers’, which is how I think of what we do. Of course, I live in the midst of REAL farm country – families with two or three quarters (minimum) and herds of cattle, hayfields and grain, and all the equipment and barns and such that go with it. To most of them, I’m an “acreage person” – one of those nutty city folk who want to pretend they are farming.

    But then, there are several of these ‘real’ farmers who have been very encouraging of our tiny small scale efforts – teaching us about keeping sheep, explaining what we need to know about calving, and offering to be on call if we hit trouble.

    To be sure, ten sheep and two cows and a small family garden maybe isn’t much, but we sell both meat and wool, and we consider profitability very carefully in our decision making, so it’s not just “a hobby”.

    I hope that more and more people decide to try this kind of ’small scale farming’. It’s a good way to learn (the smaller scale means risks are proportionally smaller), and you can ‘keep your day job’ more easily while you learn. We really enjoy it, even when it’s hard work … I’d love to see more people try it out.

  8. ChristyACBon 20 Feb 2009 at 10:06 am

    Awesome post!

    I agree that there is sometimes an awkwardness to describing what you are to others and certain set ideas on what each thing is that is in transition.

    Currently, those of us that I associate with in real life who live as I do, on a suburban or urban lot (mine is .23 ac) who have their backyards working productively while maintaining a suitably bland front to appease neighbors, tend to call ourselves Garden Farmers or Farm Gardeners.

    When I tell people who don’t grow food that I’m a gardener, I’m usually asked what kind of flowers I grow. My response is always, “The kind that grow up into vegetables.”

  9. squrrlon 20 Feb 2009 at 12:05 pm

    Great post. For myself, I’ll call myself a farmer, even on half an acre, as soon as I can manage to actually get produce out of my efforts. Right now, I’m a gardener, and a poor one at that. When I actually have my chickens instead of talking about them, when I actually reliably get honey from all of my hives, and when I actually get more out than I put in to my garden, then I’ll say I’m a farmer. I think the getting out more than you put in…the effectively working with nature…seems like a reasonable stipulation on the definition of farmer. Of course, arguably a lot of the huge “agribusinessmen” don’t really fit that definition…hmmmmm.

  10. ctdaffodilon 20 Feb 2009 at 3:34 pm

    I guess I’m a gardener – We grow enough to put some in the freezer or to can but not enough to survive on – not yet anyway. We only have a 20×20 foot plot assigned to veggies. I would like to have more – but Unless I can get the kids to help more with it – it will fall on me – like all the rest of the house work. We don’t have an equitable way of doing things like that….

  11. Michelleon 20 Feb 2009 at 5:06 pm

    First off, any post that cites the Domesday Book is a GOOD post, in my opinion!

    I enjoyed Cacotopian’s discussion of the etymology of the words, too. I’m enough of a philologist to care about suchlike. (for example, “yard” and “garden” come from the same word; in Northern {Danish influenced} England, the G was softened to a Y sound) I haven’t looked into “farm” yet, but if I end up being able to do my dissertation on Anglo-Saxon agricultural and animal husbandry practices (and women’s roles therein) then I’ll surely tackle that.

    I call myself a gardener for social reasons – it carries the connotation of smaller-scale, not-for-profit, home/family scale growing. Also, it keeps Nosy Nells from poking into my affairs, fussing about my rabbits, etc. But in my heart, I, too, am a farmer!

  12. Lisa Mon 20 Feb 2009 at 7:58 pm

    I thought this looked like a step in the right direction:>.

  13. Plant & Gardening Tipson 23 Feb 2009 at 8:14 pm

    I’m a Gardener. I grow with my grandparents and I grow up with their gardens which are giving me good feeling when I’m planting new plants and taking care of them. And as long as I live, I will never stop loving my garden and I will never leave my garden.

  14. Julien Peter Benneyon 25 Feb 2009 at 7:51 am

    Your point that farm size is not increasing in many countries as they become richer is very interesting. It may reflect the fact that parts of some farms are becoming urbanised or some larger-than-average farms are being converted to other uses.

    However, small farms, at least in relatively cool climates where only one crop can be grown per year, are very inefficient even on extremely fertile soils. It is this inefficiency that accounts for the huge farm subsidies of countries like Japan, Norway and Switzerland. Even though their rich soils are the only natural resource they possess apart from Japan’s and Norway’s equally rich seas (the very factors that make their rich soils destroy almost all other natural resources), without massive farm subsidies every farm they have would be turned into housing or tourist accommodation or other conservation reserves.

    In hot climates where multiple crops can be grown per year, small farms are likely to be much more economic in a free market. Farmers with experience working the soils of the humid tropics should thus be able to produce much more food than those working larger plots, and are also probably more likely to take care of their land than an extensive farmer because more depends on them doing so. Both these factors mean I should say that the absence of increase in farm size in, say, India says little about the economics of farming in cooler regions of the world.

  15. Sharonon 25 Feb 2009 at 8:24 am

    Julian, after extensive studies even the World Bank admits that small farm polyculture is more efficient in terms of total output than large farms – climate notwithstanding. Even in quite cold climates, like mine, it is possible to multi-crop. And more importantly, the whole point of this is that one crop is not grown at a time – monocropping as an ecological disaster. Every study has shown that total output of food and fiber is higher per acre when multiple crops are planted simultaneously – yes, large farms in cold climates out-yield small farms in monoculture – but in total *food* production, small farms practicsing polyculture outyield large ones per acre routinely, 10-100 to 1. It is very hard to do polyculture on a large scale.

    So no, I don’t think it is climate specific.


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