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Labor in low-input systems: A bibliography

By Marie-Christine Comte

Even the most enthusiastic booster of organic agriculture will admit that cutting down on external inputs - chemical fertilizers, pesticides and mechanization - inevitably means more "internal inputs," which is one way of saying more plain, hard work. Socially, this can be a good thing in many developing countries, where there is often a surplus of unused or under-used labor. But what looks good to an economist worried about unemployment still feels like a pain in the back and arms for the men and women who actually swing the hoes and jembes.

Their labor would seem a lot lighter if they knew the end result would be a better, more sustainable way of farming, and would bring a profit in the final analysis. Unfortunately, very few "final analyses" have been made. Attempts to quantify the actual labor versus economic returns equation in low-external-input agriculture are about as rare as hens' teeth.

How do such systems affect the management and planning time of a farm family? Is the farmer overburdened by a physical effort he probably can't sustain? Is he - more often she - swamped by the endlessly repeated tasks required to produce natural compost or control weeds and pests?

An overview of the literature provides few answers. Most studies on labor constraints in organic agriculture concentrate on rather narrowly defined economic aspects, rarely if ever on the full social and ecological picture. Nevertheless, some pioneering work has been done, and some hesitant steps have been taken along the route to better understanding.

Background studies

Two studies published in the last 20 years will serve as background for an understanding of the organic agriculture question. The first, Report and recommendations on organic farming/USDA Study Team on Organic Farming, was published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1980 - to a chorus of shock and dismay from proponents of mainstream, high-input agriculture. It is a comprehensive study of organic farming in the United States, Japan and Europe, focusing on the rationales for choosing this method. Some of the findings of the study were that the organic fanning movement covers a wide spectrum of practice and is not limited by size; is motivated by concerns for conservation, health and cost control; uses modem techniques, equipment and management practices, is suited to crop/livestock interdependence and is more labor-intensive, less energy consuming and less profitable - within narrowly defined limits - than conventional farming.

The second work, Alternative Agriculture, a study by the Committee on the role of Alternative Farming Methods in Modem Production Agriculture of the National Research Council published by the National Academy Press (Washington, D.C.) in 1989, was almost equally controversial (see Ceres No. 125, Sept.-Oct. 1990). The first part of the report deals with history and analysis, the second reviews 11 case studies of U.S. farms using a variety of alternative methods for different types of production.

In addition to these two basic overviews, a number of studies dealing directly or indirectly with the subject of labor in sustainable agriculture have been published in the last five years. It is hoped that the following partial list will stimulate researchers and development agents to pursue the subject further and more thoroughly. The need for more work in this area is as obvious as it is urgent.

Smallholders, householders: farm families and the ecology of intensive, sustainable agriculture, by R. Netting, Stanford University Press, 1993.

Compares the efficiency of various agricultural systems and shows that labor aspects are a key element in farmers' choice of a farming system.

Employment and income effects of biotechnology in Latin America- a speculative assessment, by R. Galhardi, International Labour Office, Geneva, 1993.

Deals with agricultural employment and employment creation in commercial farming using biotechnology.

Labor and production barriers to the reduction of agricultural chemical inputs, by M.J. Pfeffer, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1992.

In contrast to labor-displacing technologies, farming with reduced chemical inputs may increase labor demands so that concerns about labor supply may affect farmer adaptability in reducing chemical inputs. Most of the New Jersey farmers surveyed think it is difficult to reduce chemical inputs because additional labor is hard to find, and their own labor inputs would have to increase. Labor supply is less elastic for farmers who hire no labor, and they have less access to social networks that would provide them with sources of additional workers.

Benefits of diversity: an incentive towards sustainable agriculture, United Nations Development Programme, New York, 1992.

Reviews a series of organic agriculture projects in developing countries, ranging from vegetables in Indonesia to groundnuts in Paraguay. It concludes, among other things, that the labor requirements of organic farming are generally higher, especially if they are evenly spread over the year. This may represent a constraint to the adoption of organic farming when there are seasonal off-farm employment opportunities, such as tourism.

ILEIA Newsletter, Vol. 8, No. 4,

Information Centre for Low-External-Input and Sustainable Agriculture (ILEIA), Leusden, The Netherlands, 1992. Each issue of this quarterly newsletter has a theme, and the December 1992 issue is devoted to energy, which includes human and bio-energy. Articles from different parts of the world analyse labor needs for various farming practices.

Ecological agriculture in South India: an agro-economic comparison and study of transition, by A. de Jager and E. van der Werf, Landbouw Economisch Institut, The Hague, 1992.

Describes two research programs carried out on organic agriculture on various sites in South India. The comparative performance of seven farm pairs, consisting of one organic and one conventional reference farm, is analysed in relation to agronomic and economic performance.

Organic farming as a business in Great Britain, by M.C. Murphy, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, 1992.

Estimates that the income levels on wholly organic farms compared unfavorably with conventional farms, and that total income was less than the Value of farmers' and spouses' unpaid manual labor. In contrast, partly organic farms, especially those engaged in arable cropping and horticulture, compared very favorably with conventional farms.

Comparative profitability of organic milk production in Quebec, by D. Burgoyne in Agriculture-Montreal, 48: 5, 1992. (In French)

Comparisons between highland low-input production and organic production show excellent results for the latter in terms of standardized return to labor, per cow, per hectolitre of milk and per man-work unit.

Attitudes and agricultural practices of sustainable farmers in the midwest and south, 1991 and 1992, Rodale Institute Research Center, Kutztown, Pa., (U.S.A.)

Rodale Institute publishes a whole series of how-to booklets for the low-external-input farmer, some of which deal directly with labor issues. It also publishes The New Farm, a magazine that contains stories of farmers switching to sustainable farming practices, and a bimonthly newsletter, The International Ag Sieve, which discusses the experiences of farmers and researchers around the world in adapting regenerative farming practices. Write to Rodale Institute, 611 Siegfriedale Road, Kutztown, PA 19530, U.S.A., to get a complete listing of publications.

Issues and perspectives in sustainable agriculture and rural development: main document No. 1, FAO/Netherlands Conference on Agriculture and the Environment, FAO, 1991.

An overview of the main issues of sustainable agriculture, including labor, management, and the sociocultural and political aspects.

In the face of change: a rapid reconnaissance survey of northwest horticultural crop producers, by L.S. Brophy et al., in American Journal of Alternative Agriculture, 6: 1, 1991.

Interviewees included both certified organic farmers and conventional farmers who are adopting innovative production methods. Less experienced growers identified practical crop management issues as their primary problems while the more experienced ones were concerned with labor and regulatory problems.

An economic comparison of conventional and reduced-chemical farming systems in Iowa, by C. Chase and M. Duffy in American Journal of Alternative Agriculture, 6: 4, 1991.

Labor requirements, production costs, yields and economic returns were evaluated for conventional and reduced-chemical cropping systems in northeast Iowa from 1978 to 1989.

Organic agriculture and alternative food production: economic issues, by J. Jilkova in Vedeckotechnicky-Rozvoj-v-Zemedelstvi, No. 8, 1991. (In Czech)

Assessing the economic feasibility of alternative agriculture, the paper shows that more labor, primarily for vegetables and root crops, is required and that yields are generally 10-20 percent below those of conventional farming.

Data collection for alternative agriculture, edited by H. Staude, Kuratorium für Technik und Bauwesen in der Landwirtschaft e.V., Darmstadt, 1991. (In German)

This first KTBL collection of farm management data for alternative farming systems covers organization, machine and labor requirements as well as costs and returns for cash crops, vegetables, fodder crops, livestock enterprises and general information.

The change-over to ecological farming: farm requirements and consequences when implementing ecological farming. Documentation of practical experience at different stages of development and tests in various locations, by R. Rantzau, B. Freyer and H. Vogtmann, 1990. (In German)

Analyses a 1986-89 research project in the German Federal Republic dealing with the shift to alternative farming methods. The economic conclusions suggest that wheat, rye, porridge, oats, pearl barley and spelt are the best crops to grow during the change-over and can achieve above-average labor productivity.

Crop yields and economic returns accompanying the transition to alternative farming systems, by J.D. Smolik and T.L. Dobbs in Journal of Production Agriculture, 4: 2, 1991.

Crop yields and economic performance of alternative, conventional and reduced-tillage farming systems were compared over a five-year transition period in South Dakota. Average labor costs were highest for the alternative system for row crops and for the conventional system for small grains.

Organic viticulture in West Germany, by S. Dabbert and J. Oberhofer in American Journal of Alternative Agriculture, 5: 3, 1990.

Data on expenses for fertilizers, pesticides, machinery and building, on labor requirements, on the quantity and quality of yields and on marketing channels and price premiums are compared to data on conventional grape operations from statistical sources.

Sustainable agriculture in temperate zones, edited by Charles A. Francis, Cornelia B. Flora and Larry D. King, John Wiley and Sons, Inc., New York, 1990.

Covers all the various practices of sustainable agriculture, including converting from conventional systems to a sustainable agricultural operation.

Profitability of organic farming in Denmark, by A. Dubgaard, P. Olsen and S.N. Sorensen, Statens-Jordbrugsokonomiske-Institut, No. 54, 1990. (In Danish)

The economic significance of cost savings versus price is investigated in the organic farming context. Considerable price premiums are needed on organically produced farm products to obtain a remuneration of labor and capital at about the same level as in conventional agriculture.

Organic field crop production: a review of the economic literature, by W.A. Knoblauch, R. Brown and M. Braster, Cornell University, No. 90-10, 1990.

In general, more extensive use of rotations and higher labor requirements characterize organic systems. Most organic farmers switched from conventional systems because of strong convictions about protecting the environment and because of high chemical cost.