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close this bookCERES No. 148 - Working out the links: labor in sustainable agriculture (1994)
close this folderCentrepiece
View the documentLow-input farming: Is it worth the work?
View the documentThe Kofyar variations
View the documentWhere inventions were the mother of necessity
View the documentGender analysis has a crucial role in planning workable farming systems
View the documentLabor in low-input systems: A bibliography
View the documentThe toilers of the field

Low-input farming: Is it worth the work?

Factoring-in the labor cost of sustainable agriculture

by Coen Reijntjes

Coen Reijntjes is a staff member of the Information Centre for Low-External-Input and Sustainable Agriculture, P.O. Box 64, 3830 AB Leusden, The Netherlands.


In the Sahel, Tuareg nomads and Bella tribes-people work together to prepare land to be irrigated - FAO photo by J. Van Acker

While the virtues of low-external-input, ecological farming are widely proclaimed - often to the point of being romanticized - much doubt remains as to whether such systems, practised by smallholders, can yield enough to feed the world's increasing billions. Skeptics insist there isn't enough organic matter or labor - especially labor - available to support a major shift to organic methods, and complain that the productivity of such systems is too low for the job at hand.

How valid these criticisms are - and how much is mere assumption - is difficult to decide, given the lack of hard data available to provide a comparison of the costs (in terms of labor and capital needs, risks and environmental effects) and benefits of inorganic, chemical-based versus organic techniques.

Recent studies, however, tend to confirm that local conditions will almost always dictate the answers, and the best systems are usually those developed by smallholders themselves - in response to population pressure, market opportunities for their produce, and dwindling land availability.

Spur of scarcity

Most farmers in the tropics work little plots around their own homes under diverse, complex conditions, often combining subsistence and market production. Much of the work falls on women, as men seek cash in non-farm activity or hire out as field labor on larger farms. Minimizing risk is a prime family objective.

Simultaneously, land availability is dropping while population - and hence the labor pool - is growing. This is an important driving force for change in smallholder farming. If people cannot move to areas where land and other resources are still plentiful, they have to increase the amount and predictability of the crops they produce in a limited area.

"Without the spur of scarcity, people do not intensify their farming, for the simple economic reason that it is more work, and return on labor may be smaller," observed social scientist Ester Boserup in a 1981 study of pre-industrial agricultural societies.

As illustrated in Robert Netting's article on the Kofyar people of Nigeria (see page 22), such soil-saving techniques as manuring, intercropping and elaborate ridging - all highly labor-intensive - may not be adopted until demand, generated by population growth and the prohibitive expense of less labor-intensive techniques, makes their use vital.

Netting sees Boserup's model of intensification as revolutionary, since it casts doubt on other scenarios that make technology the prime engine of agricultural change. The latter views progress as the ability to tap larger sources of energy, rendering human labor less necessary and more efficient as animal and mechanical power and fossil fuel provided substitute energy sources. Technological inventions, from the digging-stick to animal traction and the plow, iron sickles - and finally tractors - made it possible to produce more while increasing labor productivity. In general, however, these "labor-saving" inventions are only useful where sufficient land is available and labor is relatively scarce - conditions that don't usually apply to smallholder farming on tiny plots or to the mixed cropping systems typical of land-intensive agriculture. There, the capital needed for higher technology may not be available, or could be used more profitably elsewhere. Replacing human labor with mechanical power is also socially unacceptable when alternative job opportunities are scarce.

Nevertheless, improvement and development of implements, especially those which can support "organic" techniques such as mulching, composting, management of trees, etc. would be very helpful to decrease labor requirements of those same techniques.

Acceptable sin

Environmental degradation - the "cardinal sin" to proponents of ecological farming - is often acceptable to smallholders as long as survival is not at stake. In fact, it may even be needed to a limited extent as an incentive for intensification. As Netting's Nigeria study shows, "traditional" intensification seems to lead to better conservation of resources. This was also the conclusion of a study on intensification of land use in Machakos, Kenya (Tiffen et al., 1994, to be discussed in a subsequent issue of Ceres).

However, serious degradation may occur where farmers don't succeed in adapting their systems fast enough to needs or where economic, political or cultural processes seduce or force farmers into unsustainable development, or drain their resources.

"Modern" farming methods involving inorganic fertilizers, pesticides, machinery and improved seed varieties are land- and labor-saving. But they bring with them their own problems, chiefly their financial cost, negative impact on biodiversity, and environmental pollution. Readily adopted in regions with favorable production conditions, in the major part of rain-fed agricultural regions of the tropics their adoption was restrained by the cost of inputs and unsuitability to local conditions.

Many poor areas that did adopt such methods have seen the benefit go bust. In Argao in the Philippines, for example, a decade after Green Revolution farming methods were adopted, farmers found their harvests started to decline due to degradation of the agro-ecosystem following overuse of chemical pesticides and fertilizers (see page 25).

Realizing their survival was at stake, smallholders in Argao were motivated to shift to organic contour farming. That system is much more labor-intensive, not only in the initial transition period when the contour hedges are established, but also after the ecosystem is more or less balanced again, at which point fields still require 50 per cent more labor than did chemical farming.

On the other hand, after establishing their organic contour farm, households can obtain the same level of production as with chemical farming, but with a higher net profit per hectare because they no longer have to pay for chemical inputs. Greater profit is possible by mixing fruit or other high-value trees in with the contour hedges.

The Filipino farmers found it difficult to give up cash income from off-farm work, in order to dedicate their time to changing over to an organic farming system. However, such transitions can be adapted to each household, by spreading construction of contour hedges over several years, and only gradually combining organic practices and chemical fertilizers.

The situations were relatively favorable in both Kofyar and Argao for intensification and transition to organic farming. But for farmers in more marginal conditions the transition is more difficult because it threatens their immediate survival.

External factors also can discourage farmers from investing time and labor to make the transition: unfavorable government pricing and subsidy policies; farm indebtedness; insecure land tenure; the strong lobby of agribusiness; extensionists' and researchers' disinterest in organic farming and in farmers' knowledge and agricultural traditions; a lack of information, training and general support (Kessler & Moolhuijzen, 1993).

It is obvious farmers will not move to more sustainable systems unless the need is apparent in terms of their own survival, and many of the above-mentioned hurdles are taken out of their way.

The Kofyar variations

When it comes to sheer adaptability, northern Nigeria's farmers have few peers

By Robert Netting

Robert Netting is with the department of anthropology, University of Arizona in Tucson, Arizona, U.S.A.

Traditionally, the Kofyar people of northern Nigeria grew cereal, legume, tuber and tree crops on terraced plots in an intensive farming system which supported up to 120 persons/km2 About 40 years ago some of them began to move down to the Benue river plains to produce yams and millet, which they sold.

In their new location, when land was plentiful, they at first adopted slash-and-bum techniques. But as more people moved onto the plains, the better soils were taken up and that method of cropping became untenable, so they returned again to their highland methods of farming with shorter fallows, intercropping, raising stall-kept animals, and using purchased chemical fertilizers and seed dressings.

This rapid change from subsistence to cash cropping, from intensive farming to slash-and-bum and back again to intensive farming, occurred without any direct involvement by development workers. There were no appreciable extension efforts, no government marketing or credit facilities, and no planned resettlement.

The fact that these farmers made so many radical, highly adaptive transitions involving changes in cropping and labor allocation entirely on their own, in response to their changing conditions, should give pause to those "experts" who favor top-down approaches to development: the Kofyar experience is worth looking at in detail.

British conquest

At the time of British conquest in 1909, the Kofyar managed their tiny plots (0.6 ha around each compound) with great care. Sloped plots were terraced with stonewalled benches. Erosion was further prevented and rain trapped by hoeing-up rectangular ridges on both terraced and level fields. Soil fertility was maintained by confining goats in a circular stone corral by day and in a hut by night, bringing them green fodder and water, and applying the composted droppings annually to the plots.

Most commonly, early millet was intercropped with sorghum and cowpeas; sweet potatoes, cocoyams and groundnuts were grown in small separate patches. Economically valuable oil-palm, canarium-almond and locust-bean trees grew near the compound, and mango trees were often planted. More marginal land around the village was used on a shifting basis to grow less demanding crops of groundnuts, late millet, sesame and acha (Digitaria exilis). These bush fields were also terraced and sometimes double-cropped: after groundnut, late millet was transplanted from a nursery. Ash from the cooking fires was stored in a special hut, and applied as potash fertilizer to groundnuts. Every household kept goats and chickens for meat and manure. With large mud-built granaries and various drying racks inside mud-domed thatched sleeping huts, the Kofyar could reduce the risk of dry years and crop failures.


A Fulani agropastoralist enjoys the rewards of his backbreaking work - Photo by Ann Waters-Bayer

Labor on homestead farms was supplied by the nuclear family. Nearby bush farms required a different kind of labor: fields were several times larger, cultivation was faster and less thorough and yields were lower. Kin, friends and people from neighboring villages were mobilized to work the bush fields in return for millet beer. Clubs of young men did the same, competing with each other to see who could work fastest.

In the 1950s, some Kofyar began to clear tracts of two to four hectares in forest south of the plateau and planted their familiar crops of millet and sorghum. They also acquired yams (Dioscorea sp.), a crop from southern Nigeria that was in demand by the growing Yoruba and Ibo populations of northern cities. The nearest market was that serving tin-miners south of Jos.

Initially, none of the intensification methods used on homestead fields were used on the plains' bush farms. There was no livestock to produce dung for manuring. When fertility declined, farmers simply shifted to new fields. Agricultural tasks on the migrant bush farms were also less precisely scheduled. In the new environment on the plains, production was constrained not by land, but labor.

Problem addressed

The labor problem was addressed by enlargement of the household labor force and mobilizing neighbors in work-for-beer parties. Money saved from the sale of cash crops was used to pay bride-price for additional wives; the bride-price income was then invested in farm enterprises. Instead of dividing when adult children married, as was customary in the hills, the plains' households retained married sons and their families.


Hired laborers ridging fields with traditional tools in Kufana, Nigeria - Photo by Ann Waters-Bayer

On the cultivated bush farms of about three hectares per household in the mid-1960s, the yields per unit area were much lower than on the small homestead farms, but total production was almost three times higher. The migrant households were able to triple their income (Netting, 1968). The opportunity to sell food in a rapidly expanding market was a strong incentive for the Kofyar to adopt an extensive farming system on the frontier.

Since the 1970s the plains have become well settled and land use pressure is now such that shifting cultivation and long-term fallowing are no longer possible. To maintain crop production, the Kofyar have begun to keep goats again and stall-feed them in the traditional way. In some cases, they pay Fulani herders to kraal cattle on a field to manure it during the dry season. Within the last 10 years, most farmers have begun to use chemical fertilizers, but are uncertain about the most beneficial fertilizer types and optimum times of application. More than half of the farmers buy seed dressings.

The fields around the compound are rotated annually between the millet-sorghum mixture and yams. Though it is hard work, ridges are often prepared in the dry season so that cereals can be planted promptly after the first rains. Hand-weeding and thinning of millet are done at the same time. The weeds are incorporated into the soil, and some millet is transplanted to land once it is softened in the rains. Sesame, cowpeas or maize are often planted in the yam heaps.

Both men and women grow and sell yams. After millet harvest, the women often also plant their own patches of groundnuts in the cereal fields, followed by or interplanted with sesame. Tree-shaded portions of the fields furnish a suitable micro-environment for their cocoyams. Women with access to low-lying land grow some rice. About half the Kofyar women now sell their own crops.

Intensification has also brought diversification. Some farmers are experimenting with cassava and bananas as cash crops. Mango trees are planted near compound entrances for both fruit and shade. Pig breeding, which did not exist among the Kofyar 40 years ago, is now very popular. Squashes are grown so their leaves can be fed to pigs, and wild greens are also gathered for the pigs. There is a brisk market in ground malted grain, a byproduct of beer-brewing, for pig fodder. Live chickens and ducks are bought by merchants who transport them to urban areas.

Draft animals rejected

Although this intensification of farming demands a great deal of labor, the Kofyar have deliberately rejected animal traction. They regard their traditional broad-bladed hoes as more efficient than the plow in coping with tree-roots in partially cleared land. In northern Nigeria, plows were introduced under state programs to increase output of cash crops such as groundnuts, cotton and tobacco, and substantial credit had to be supplied (Tiffen, 1976). But the Kofyar contend their food crops are more profitable than industrial crops, and that growing them has not put them into debt. Besides, yam heaps have to be made by hand, and plow cultivation doesn't suit their complex system of interplanting and crop succession.

The continued dependence on human labor has meant compound households have expanded further. After the pioneering settlers of the plains died or retired, their married sons often chose to remain together. The profits of cash cropping are such that many young men, even those with secondary education, stay on the farm. Kofyar teachers and low-ranking government employees take home less income than do full-time farmers.

Wage labor is not a significant part of the work force. Instead, the beer party employing 40-100 people at a time is now more important than ever. In the early wet season when ridges for cereals and yam heaps must be made as quickly as possible, there is a work party almost every day. They are scheduled well in advance, and the host must organize groups of women to brew beer. Smaller clubs of individuals also exchange labor, working in groups of eight to 12 on each other's land.

The total per capita labor input is relatively high, with annual averages for both men and women of some 1 600 hours. This is due to the larger cash-crop fields and to intensification, which evens out the work load across the bottlenecks and slack times characteristic of savanna agriculture and also extends work into the dry season (Stone, Netting and Stone, 1990).

Where inventions were the mother of necessity

After high-tech methods failed, Cebu Islands farmers had to go back to the future

By R. Remonde, L. Villamore and Erik J. Simonides

Alayon sa Banika (ALAB), a Filipino farmers' cooperative, has been experimenting for almost 12 years with organic contour farming. To estimate how much extra labor is needed for such farming compared to farming with inorganic chemicals, co-op staff studied the experiences of members in their home municipality in the mountains of Argao, on the east coast of Cebu Island.

In the early 1960s, the Philippine government started promoting the use of chemical fertilizers in the Argao region, and by the 1970s their use was well-established. High-yielding varieties were also introduced, accompanied by pesticides. Seminars were organized in which new techniques like monocropping and calendar spraying were explained. Farmers who adopted the complete techno-package were offered loans from the Land Bank, brokered by extension workers.

Everything worked beautifully in the first years. Farmers raised bountiful harvests. But after 1980 the harvests declined rapidly and crops became heavily infested with pests, sometimes destroying entire crops. The technical solution was more fertilizers and ever-increasing amounts of pesticides. Coincidentally, the Land Bank became tougher on loans because repayment was becoming a problem. Farmers found it more and more difficult to make ends meet.

After 1980 many farmers were forced to sell their land to repay their debts. Many became tenants on what was once their own land, now bought up by well-to-do farmers and businessmen.

What to do?

At first, villagers laughed at them for using backward techniques

A group known as an alayon, made up of seven farmers who mutually shared labor, took stock of the situation in 1983. They concluded soil nutrients had been drastically depleted and topsoil eroded in the previous 10 years, all because of excessive use of chemicals and bad land-use practices such as monocropping. In particular limestone soils in the area proved very vulnerable.

At first the alayon decided to improve their marketing of produce through direct delivery to the city. This was to provide them with extra cash to invest in their farms, but soon proved impossible. They were unable to bypass the middlemen, and their crops were not of the quality and quantity necessary. The alayon thus decided to focus directly on soil improvement.

A friend of one of the alayon members introduced the group to an area where contour farming was already established. Most of the farms in the exposure area used napier grass (Pennisetum purpureum) and ipil-ipil (Leucaena diversifolia) for the hedgerows. The grasses and ipil-ipil were used to feed livestock. The dung was used as fertilizer. Some farmers also practised compost-making. The farmers of the alayon from Argao were convinced this farming system would, by natural means, improve the soil and enhance production.

Back home, the alayon began building their own contour demonstration farm. At first villagers laughed at them for using "backward techniques." After some months, however, when the farm developed, the people came back to admire the nice look of the new fields. Some also wanted to learn contour farming and joined the alayon. Thus Alayon sa Banika was born. At present there are over 40 alayons (six to seven people each) working with ALAB.

Analysing labor needs

What are the extra labor needs for organic contour farming compared with chemical farming? Estimates are based on the ALAB demo-farm. We suppose one family (eight people), one hectare of hilly land (30-45 degree slope). In reality, in the area under discussion, the average farm size is only 0.5-0.75 ha. Usually there are three cropping seasons of three months each, and one dry season. The first cropping is usually maize intercropped with beans or sweet potato, the second is a cash crop of vegetables, strip-cropped rather than intercropped; the third crop is a pure stand of maize. The third season usually has less rain than the first two.

After the land has been prepared, 29 contour lines of double hedgerows (100 metres each) are drawn by placing the points of an A-frame on the contour lines and placing the cleared material in the line between the two points. As soon as the rain starts, hedgerows are planted with seeds of ipil-ipil, vetiver grass, madre de cacao (Gliricidia sepium) and several legumes, all of which are prepared in advance. The planting materials are obtained free from other farms. After planting the contour lines, the soil between the hedgerows is prepared for planting crops.

Usually the contour farm is established strip by strip. The people work in alayons of six persons. The total labor required to establish a one-hectare contour farm is equivalent to 741 person-days. Based on that estimate, it would take a single alayon of six people 123.5 days to establish a one-hectare contour farm if they worked only at that. Indeed, experience has shown a well-organized alayon can establish such a farm in roughly four months - three months during the dry season and one month of the rainy season.

Maintenance of a newly established contour farm requires careful work. The farmer must check the contour lines and repair any damage immediately, replant dead plants and trees and ensure their survival. Provided weather conditions are favorable, the contour lines will develop in three months. During this period the farmer has to fertilize with compost and additional chemical fertilizer (complete, 14-14-14). This takes two person-days per week in the first three months. Once the farm is established, one person-day every two weeks will be sufficient for maintenance. Damage due to bad weather such as typhoons, creates a lot of extra repair work.

Lopping of hedgerows is done every six weeks and requires a lot of labor - 64 days per annum. The biomass thus obtained is often used as fodder for animals and only sometimes as mulch. The contour hedgerows can sustain the feed demand of two to four livestock units (ruminants).

Additional work for organic farming in comparison to chemical farming is hauling of compost and manure. Twenty 50-kg bags of compost, chicken droppings or manure are needed to fertilize one crop, compared with six 50-kg bags of chemical fertilizers. This additional work load adds up to four days per cropping season.

Making compost/controlling pests

The most important ingredient for organic farming is organic fertilization: manure, chicken droppings, and compost. Most organic farms produce as much of their own compost as possible. There ate basically two ways of getting compost:

· When the farm has no, or very few animals: the farmer will collect materials outside his farm to compost on-farm. In six days he is able to make 500 kg of compost every two to three months, or 24-36 person-days annually, for a total of 2 000-3000 kg of compost per year. He will have to buy another 3 000 kg off-farm, usually chicken droppings from large chicken operations.

· When the farm has livestock, say two cows, six goats and five pigs: the farmer will compost feed left-overs and manure. Every two to three months he will produce 1 000-1 500 kg of compost with a labor requirement of four person-days. This farmer still has to purchase off-farm 40 per cent of his feed needs, in cheap concentrates, and may also need to buy some organic fertilizer.

To make up for some of the above labor requirements of organic farming, the farmer saves time and money he would otherwise have to dedicate to chemical spraying of pesticides. With maize, the saving is three person-days per crop. ALAB uses traditional varieties of maize which are highly resistant to pests and never need spraying. Vegetables still require spraying every week, which means 12 person-days per crop. In the transition from chemical to organic farming, the huge demand for pest control is met with homemade herbal pesticides, which do not kill insects but drive them away. In two to three years, depending on the farm techniques of one's neighbors, a new insect balance will develop. This reduces the overall need for spraying to almost zero. During the first two years, additional work to prepare the herbal spray is six person-days per year. In a well-developed organic farm, there will be plenty of insects and there will always be leaf damage, but it is hardly at an alarming level. (See Tekei article on page 37 for positive consumer attitudes toward leaf damage on organic produce.)

Weeding in organic farming is more work. Usually the weeds grow faster and they are more plentiful than in chemical farming, but the soil is usually easier to work because of the good structure it gains from all the organic matter content. Chemical herbicides are hardly used in this area. If mulch is applied in vegetable plots (coconut leaves, banana leaves), the need for weeding is reduced by as much as 75 per cent! Mulching is advocated as a common practice in contour farming (three days/ha). In this area, it is used only on smaller vegetable plots of 0.1-0.2 ha, because of the low availability of mulch materials. The mulch from contour hedgerows decays too fast and means almost no reduction in labor.

On a contour farm, a farmer has to harvest carefully in order not to damage the contours. This means more walking - no short cuts. Harvesting is done strip by strip. This lengthens harvest-time by one-third. Putting crop residue in the contour line is additional work. In chemical farming the farmer would let animals graze the field or simply bum the crop residue. This is impossible in contour farms.


A drawing on which further refinements of the ALAB farming system will be based - Source: Mindanao Baptist Rural Life Centre. Drawing by Patrizia Tazza/Studio Page

Tough transition

Although the system of organic contour farming is now generally accepted by the farmers, only a few have implemented it fully. The main complaint is it is labor-intensive. Farmers who implement organic contour farming are either very young, with no family yet to support, or older couples whose children have left the home and now sustain themselves. Farmers with children at home cannot afford the dip in their income, unavoidable if they put all their labor to establishing contours in their own fields rather than earning off-farm income. They can't cut their daily expenses, so they can't cut their cash income. In the authors' estimate, dedicating their efforts to establishing contour fields would cost the farmer 66 per cent of his cash income in the first year.

The transition period is about three to five years, during which time alternative income must be found. ALAB is experimenting with small domestic animals, raised intensively. Broilers and layers are especially promising: 250 layers will make up for the off-farm income lost in the transition period. Initial investment is high (US$1000) but this money is recovered after 40 weeks. If cooperatively organized, with revolving credit, it is possible to make the investment. It would, however, mean an additional work load for women or another member of the family, adding up to about two hours each day.

It takes 232 to 266 person-days per year when chemically farming in a cropping pattern of maize-vegetables-maize. The overall extra labor demand for organic contour farming, after the first two to three years, is 116 to 162 days per year. On average a family can, with the same amount of labor, obtain from a one-hectare organic contour farm about the same amount of cash income as a family farming with chemicals (US$1440 annually). Why would a farmer put in so much labor on his farm just to earn the same that he could farming with chemicals? The explanation is that part of a chemical farmer's income is from off-farm work. An organic farmer has no time to do outside jobs. His labor is capitalized on his own farm. An organic contour farm has a higher net profit per hectare mainly because of lower production costs as chemical inputs are not needed. The cash savings add up to US$1 028 per year. The need to borrow money, which has ruined so many chemical farmers, is reduced with organic farming.

A well-functioning organic contour farm involves less risk. The soil is less susceptible to dry periods. The water retaining capacity of the soil is much better than that of soils in chemical farming, and organic farms are hardly ever seriously damaged by pests. There is less chance of total crop failure. As well, in chemical farming the farmer's own health is at risk to the sprays he uses. And last but not least, the soil in organic contour farms is protected from erosion!

Adapted from an article first published in the newsletter of the Information Centre for Low-External-Input and Sustainable Agriculture (ILEIA).

Gender analysis has a crucial role in planning workable farming systems

By Vicki L.Wilde

W =


+

When project officers set out to implement a community forestry project in Nepal a few years ago, they wanted to do the right thing. They went directly to the villagers and asked what kind of trees they wanted to plant. "Hardwood trees," was the answer, so the project provided 3 000 hardwood seedlings - and all 3 000 seedlings subsequently died from lack of care.

Why? Because the project officers left gender issues out of their thinking. They consulted only the male villagers, who were only interested in wood for furniture-making and carving that would earn them cash. But, by tradition, it was the women who planted and watered tree seedlings. They saw no benefit for themselves in slow-growing hardwood trees, and so refused to take on the burden of caring for them. The women were spending some six hours a day collecting fuel and fodder, and - if they'd been asked - would have said they wanted fast-growing species to ease their burden.

The project officers learned a lesson from that false start; and things did improve. They called a second meeting and invited the women as well as the men to attend. This time it became clear that, to succeed, the project had to deliver both hardwood and fast-growing trees, so both sexes could get what they needed.

The Nepal project is a good example of why gender analysis is crucial to development, especially when new technologies or improvements on old ones are being introduced. In every culture and ethnic group, every environmental, economic and social setting, women and men have different roles, needs and priorities. In most development efforts, including those in the farm sector, the focus has been on men because they are considered community leaders and household decision-makers. This has warped the development process so that, in the long run, nobody benefits. Men may gain materially for a while, but when women end up worse off than they were before, the whole family suffers - to the detriment of entire communities and, eventually the nation as a whole.


Hmong women have specific tasks in farm families, which must be recognized - FAO Photo by P. Johnson

As planners struggle to simultaneously boost crop production and achieve sustainability, experimenting with different combinations of low- and high-external-input fanning techniques, the question of gender, and its inextricable links to the labor equations involved, should not be overlooked.

Increased malnutrition

Another graphic example: in South India when irrigation technology was introduced for tea production, it was the men who were taught how to use it. For many years, women had earned their wages as agricultural laborers on these tea plantations, but with the introduction of irrigation, men took over the women's jobs. The result was that men's incomes were raised. That was fine until it was realized that, at the same time, their children had begun to suffer from increased malnutrition. This was because women had lost their source of income, and within households in this part of India, it was the women's responsibility to earn the income to buy food, while men spent their money in other ways. Women had lost their access to income, but they still had sole responsibility for feeding the family. And the whole family suffered.

Similar cases have been documented in other countries. An International Labour Organisation poverty study in the Gambia found that the small percentage of female-headed households were better fed than those with a male head because when women were in control their money went on food.

Development workers are only now beginning to recognize that introducing high-technology agriculture can cause a deterioration in the well-being of rural families. Most of these projects were designed for large landholdings and have required expensive inputs. Women have been left out on two counts - first, because women's farms tend to be small and second, because even when projects do reach small farmers, only men have been invited to training sessions introducing new technologies and inputs.

FAO's 1989 Global survey on agricultural extension concluded that only about five per cent of all agricultural extension resources worldwide are directed to female farmers. The 1993 FAO publication Agricultural Extension and Farm Women in the 1980s said: "Whether by design or default, the result is a male-to-male system for transfer- ring agricultural training, technologies and information. At best, the result is sub-optimal levels of agricultural production. At worst, female farmers are handicapped in both their subsistence and income-producing agricultural activities."

But the fact that women don't benefit from high-external-input systems doesn't necessarily mean that they do benefit from low-external-input systems. In fact, women emerge the losers in almost every kind of development effort because of three mistaken assumptions on the part of far too many planners:

· within a society, both women and men benefit equally from economic growth;

· if you raise men's income you improve the welfare of the whole family;

· within a household both burdens of poverty and the benefits of wealth are distributed equally.

None of these assumptions is true. Development planners go wrong when they view households as a single unit - a lump - and don't look at the interaction between females and males within them.

Gender analysis is a tool for understanding the relationship between gender issues and development. In its most basic form, gender analysis asks four questions:

1) What is getting better, what is getting worse in the lives of the people in economic, environmental, demographic, social and political terms?

2) Who does what? What is the division of labor and responsibilities between women and men?

3) Who has what? Who has access to and control of the key resources in the community?

4) What should be done? In other words, how do we close the gap between what people need and what development delivers?

In low-input systems, gender issues must be considered in the planning process and in the labor equation. During the planning process, gender analysis can help identify the needs and priorities of both women and men. On the basis of consultations with both in what are known as participatory rural appraisal exercises (PRA), decisions can be made about which development activities require support. Care must be taken to ensure that the types of crops, trees, animals and the placement of wells, schools and other infrastructure are selected together with the women and men for whom they are intended. The planners need to be flexible enough to accommodate the sometimes overlapping, sometimes different priorities of women and men. The women may need help with their corn production while the men want to improve cotton processing.


Aid to Bhutan and other poor countries will work only if gender roles are recognized - FAO photo by F. Mattioli

In looking at the labor equation for low-input systems, the answers provided by the gender analysis questions enable planners to examine the existing division of labor and identify labor bottlenecks. Typically, women work more hours than do men. But if women are already overworked, leaving them out of the project is not the answer. Instead, planners must find ways to lessen their current work load and allow women to shift their labor over to new activities as they prefer. If women of a village are spending four hours a day looking for water, the project might provide for sinking a well close to the village to free that time for more lucrative activities.

Gender analysis also helps development specialists avoid working on the basis of stereotypes in making assumptions about labor patterns. It is often assumed that heavy labor tasks belong only to men, but as men migrate to the cities women are forced to take over traditionally male tasks, including heavy labor. On the other hand, it is accepted practice in Bhutan for men to take over the housekeeping for the first 30 days after a baby is born. Sometimes male and female labor overlaps, as often happens in Asia, sometimes it is distinct, as is usually the case in Africa. Not only do women and men have different labor roles; they also have different knowledge, concerns and priorities.

Two patterns

The division of responsibilities is very much a part of the culture of a country, but it can also vary greatly from village to village, depending on tradition, social customs, the economics, the environmental situation and the degree of development.

On a mountainside in the Khao Kho area of northeastern Thailand, two different patterns of gender roles are found within walking distance of each other.

Among the Hmong people in the highlands, women and men have distinct roles. Women are their husbands' property and handle household chores while men control the land, money, credit and their wives' labor. Midway down the same mountain, live the Thais. Here women and men work together in most of their tasks. That men help with the cooking and cleaning, and both men and women can sign for credit.

These ethnic-gender differences are important for afforestation of the area. Members of a forestry project staff now know that different extension strategies are needed for the two villages. They learned that meetings would only work well for the Hmong if they were held separately for women and men, whereas among the Thais, meetings should be held with women and men together.

Important as it is, there is still a lot of confusion about gender analysis. Unfortunately, "gender" has often been regarded as synonymous with "women." But gender analysis is about both women and men.

Twenty-five years of research has shown that if you leave out the women, millions of development dollars can go down the drain. The lack of women's participation in development has led not only to project failure, but also made life harder for rural families. But, leaving men out of the equation is not the answer either. In the Gambia, for example, projects that increased women's incomes through horticulture activities ultimately failed because the husbands felt so threatened by their wives' increased incomes that they drove their cattle through the women's gardens to let them fatten on the fruit and vegetables.

Clearly, for sustainability, both women and men must benefit from development. This is all the more important in low-input agriculture systems where labor is the primary input. Therefore, understanding the gender-based division of labor is crucial. It cannot be expected that anyone will put more labor into any particular activity unless the laborers - female, male or both - stand to gain. And this is where the planning comes in. Linking gender analysis to the planning of low-input agriculture efforts will clarify people's priorities.

When development efforts centre on people's priorities, motivations to participate are high, and everybody wins.

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.

The toilers of the field

A glimpse of farm labor in England circa 1892

More than a century ago, Richard Jefferies turned a sharp, often acerbic eye on the rural society of Britain. In a series of closely drawn portraits-in-place he described the daily lives of ordinary farm people, proprietors and hired hands alike, taking careful note of their interrelationships with each other, with England's national economy and with the natural environment.

At the time Jefferies wrote, the rural people he chronicled were already under siege from the effects of the Industrial Revolution, and within a few decades of his death, their world had largely disappeared. But their stories remain instructive, particularly in an era when so many other rural worlds in so many other societies are in the grip of similar change.

The following excerpts - both dealing with the question of labor - are taken from The toilers of the field, published in 1892. First, a partly tongue-in-cheek Jefferies describes the foibles of "hired hands" who, lacking the incentive of working on their own land, also lack enthusiasm. Then, in frank sympathy, he recounts the effects of a life of hard physical labor on farm women - a familiar theme in developing countries today.

The toilers of the field was first published in Great Britain by Longmans, Green & Co. It is now out of print.

The agricultural laborers, both men and women, are a slow set, never in a hurry; there is none of that bustle characteristic of the town people, even of the lowest class. They take every opportunity of leaning upon the prong-handle, or standing in the shade - they seem to have no idea of time. Women are a sore trial to the patience of the agriculturist in a busy time. If you want to understand why, go and ensconce yourself behind a hedge, out of sight but in view of a field where 10 or 12 women are hoeing. By and by a pedlar or a van comes slowly along the turnpike road which runs past the field. At the first sound of footsteps or wheels all the bent backs are straight in an instant, and all the work is at a standstill. They stand staring at the van or tramp for five or six minutes, till the object of attention has passed out of sight. Then there is a little hoeing for three or four consecutive minutes. By that time one of them has remembered some little bit of gossip, and stops to tell her nearest fellow-workwoman, and the rest at once pause to listen:. After a while they go on again. Now another vehicle passes along the road, and the same process of staring has to be gone through once more. If a lady and gentleman pass, the staring is something terrific, and it takes quite 10 minutes to discuss all the probabilities as to who they were, and where they were going. This sort of thing goes on all day, so that, in point of fact, they only do half a day's work. The men are not so bad as this; but they never let slip an opportunity for pausing in their work, and even when at work they do it in a slow, dawdling, lack-energy way that is positively irritating to watch. The agriculturist has in consequence plenty to do to keep his eye on them, and in the course of the day he walks over his farm half-a-dozen times at least. Very few ordinary working farmers walk much less than 10 miles a day on the average, backwards and forwards over the fields.

Half-past eleven used to be luncheon time, but now it is about 12, except in harvest, when, as work begins earlier, it is at 11. This luncheon hour is another source of constant irritation to the agriculturist. He does not wish to bind his men down to an exact minute, and if a man has a distance to walk to his cottage, will readily make all allowance. He does not stint the beer carried out either then or in the field. But do what he likes, be as considerate as he will, and let the season be never so pressing, it is impossible to get the laborers out to their work when the hour is up. Most of them go to sleep, and have to be waked up, after which they are as stupid as owls for a quarter of an hour. One or two, it will be found, have strolled down to the adjacent ale-house, and are missing. These will come on the field about an hour later. Then one man has a rake too heavy for him, and another a prong too light. There is always some difficulty in starting to work; the agriculturist must therefore be himself present if he wishes to get the laborers out to the field in anything like a moderate time.


Men as well as women, "take every opportunity of leaning upon the prong handle..." - Detail from Hereford, Dynedor and the MalvernHills, from the Haywood Lodge, harvest scene, afternoon, by G. R. Lewis, The Tate Gallery, Millbank, London

The nuisance of mowers must be gone through to be appreciated. They come and work very well for the first week. They slash down acre after acre, and stick to it almost day and night. In consequence, the farmer puts on every man who applies for work, everything goes on first-rate, and there is a prospect of getting the crop in speedily. At the end of the week the mowers draw their money, quite a lump for them, and away they go to the ale-house. Saturday night sees them as drunk as men can be. They lie about the fields under the hedges all day Sunday, drinking when the public-house is open. Monday morning they go on to work for half an hour, but the fever engendered by so much liquor, and the disordered state of the stomach, cause a burning thirst. They fling the scythes down, and go off to the barrel. During all this week perhaps between them they manage to cut half an acre. What is the result? The haymakers have made all the grass that was cut the first week into hay, and are standing about idle, unable to proceed, but still drawing their wages from the unfortunate agriculturist. The hot sun is burning on - better weather for haymaking could not be - but there is not a rood of grass cut for them to work on. After a while the mowers come back, thoroughly tired and exhausted with their debauch, and go on feebly to work. There is hope again. But our climate is notoriously changeable. A fortnight of warm, close heat is pretty sure to breed a thunderstorm. Accordingly, just as the scythes begin to lay the tall grass prostrate again, there is a growl in the sky, and down comes the rain. A thunderstorm unsettles the weather, and here is perhaps another week lost. The farmer dares not discharge his haymakers, because he does not know but that he may require them any day. They are put to turn dung heaps, clean out the yards, pick up the weeds in the garden, and such like little jobs, over which they can dawdle as much as they like. All the while they are on full pay. Now, what manufacturer could endure such conduct as this? Is it not enough to drive a saint out of patience? Of course the larger farmers who can afford it have the resource of the mowing-machine, but there are hundreds and thousands of farms upon which its sharp rattle has not yet been heard. There is still a great divergence of opinion as to its merits, many maintaining that it does not cut so close to the ground, and therefore wastes a large percentage of the crop, and others that the action of the scissor-like knives bruises the grass, and prevents it growing up into a good aftermath. Therefore many farmers who could afford it will not admit the mowing-machine into their fields, and the mowers may still be seen at work over miles and miles of meadow, and are still the plague of the agriculturist. The arable farmer has just the same difficulty to keep his laborers at their work, and unless he is constantly on the watch valuable time is lost daily. In the harvest, however, he has an advantage. The corn is reaped by piecework, and the laborers therefore strain every nerve to do as much as they can. But then he must be on the look-out to see that they do not "scamp" it....

In their latter years, these women resemble pollard oaks...

It cannot be said that agricultural women are handsome. In childhood they are too often thin and stunted; later they shoot up and grow taller, but remain thin and bony till from 18 to 20, when they get plumper, and then is their period of prettiness, if at all. Bright eyes, clear complexions, and glossy hair form their attractions, for their features are scarcely ever good. The brief beauty of the prime of youth speedily fades, and at five-and-twenty the agricultural woman, especially if married, is pale or else burnt by the sun to a brown, with flat chest and rounded shoulders. It is rare indeed to see a woman with any pretensions to what is called a figure. It would be wonderful if there were, for much of the labor induces a stooping position, and they are never taught when young to sit upright.

Growing plainer and plainer as years go by, the elder women are wrinkled and worn-looking, and have contracted a perpetual stoop. Many live to a great age. In small parishes it is common to find a large number of women of 70 and 80, and there are few cottages which do not contain an old woman. This is hardly a result in accordance with the labor they have undergone. The explanation probably is that, continued through a series of generations, it has produced a strength and stamina which can survive almost anything. Certain it is that young couples about to marry often experience much difficulty in finding cottages, because they are occupied by extremely aged pairs; and landlords, anxious to tear down and remove old cottages tumbling to pieces, are restrained from doing so out of regard for the aged tenants, who cling with a species of superstitious tenderness to the crumbling walls and decayed thatch. At this age, at 75 or even 80, the agricultural woman retains a strength of body astonishing to a town-bred woman. She will walk eight or 10 miles, without apparent fatigue, to and from the nearest town for her provisions. She will almost to the last carry her prong out into the hayfield, and do a little work in some comer, and bear her part in the gleaning after the harvest. She lives almost entirely upon weak tea and bread sops. Her mental powers continue nearly unimpaired, and her eyes are still good, though her teeth have long gone. She will laugh over memories of practical jokes played at harvest-homes half-a-century ago; and slowly spells over the service in a prayer-book which asks blessings upon a king instead of a queen. She often keeps the village "confectioner's shop," namely a few bottles of sweets and jumbles in the window, side by side with "twists" of whipcord for the plowboys and carters, and perhaps has a licence for tobacco and snuff.

But long before this age they have in most cases been kept by the parish. The farmers who form the guardians know well the history of the poor of their parishes, and remembering the long years of hard work, always allow as liberal a relief as they can to these women. Out of all their many children and grandchildren, it may happen that one has got on fairly well in life, has business as a blacksmith, or tinker, or carpenter, and gives her a shilling or so a week; and a shilling goes a long way with a woman who lives upon tea and sops. In their latter days these women resemble the pollard oaks, which linger on year after year, and finally fall from sheer decay.