Smallholders, Householders In America?

Robert Nettings book, Smallholders, Householders: Farm Families and the Ecology of Intensive, Sustainable Agriculture, is a seminal work based on a broad collection of research and analysis by anthropologists, geographers, economists, agronomists, and historians. Utilizing the frameworks of Ester Boserups’ theory of agrarian change and Julian Stewards’ concept of cultural ecology as situated knowledge, Netting argues that intensive agriculture practices are rational adaptations in response to population growth and provide greater environmental protections than the energy- and chemical-dependent practices of industrial agriculture as well. After spending an entire book discussing case studies of smallholder, householder cultures in Africa, China, India, Indonesia and Switzerland, Netting finishes with the suggestion that smallholder, householder intensive practices can be utilized here in the United States. This project seeks to carry on that thought by exploring the possibility of an American smallholder lifestyle.

Affinities Between Smallholder and American Values

What Is A Smallholder, Householder?

Before exploring the potentiality and plausibility of smallholder, householder practices within an American context, it is first necessary to determine a basic definition of what a smallholder, householder is, both as a concept and as a practice. Smallholder agricultural practices are viewed as a primitive system of agriculture that occupies the tail end of an evolutionary trajectory of agriculture and society.

Centrality of Private Property

The 5th amendment of the constitution, which upholds and protects the right of citizens to own private property, is a central foundation of the system of government and economy in the United States. However, smallholders are often equated with peasants who are either subordinate to powerful elites or who maintain traditional communal rights to land.

Self-Sufficiency and Individualism

A central tenant of the American spirit and indeed even the U.S. constitution is the principle of individualism that promotes individual freedoms and interests over governmental institutions or the interests of the greater society. Related to the principle of individualism, is the personal obligation to be self-reliant in order to be free of state and social institutions that are believed to tend towards totalitarianism and socialism.

Competition and Market Participation

A competitive, capitalist system is the backbone of American economic policy. It is viewed as the most effective way to inspire further development and innovation, which in turn benefits consumers and the greater society. However, common misconceptions of smallholders describe them as altruistic, but fragile egalitarian societies who are under threat of becoming relegated to impoverished wage laborers under such a system.  On the other hand, promoting self-sufficient smallholder agriculture is viewed as anti-capitalist and ultimately futile.

Puritan Work Ethic

The Puritan work ethic of the founding English Protestants of the early American colonies remains deeply embedded in modern Americans’ views towards hard work and determination as the only path to success and even salvation. However, when considering the smallholder there are several competing views that regard their agricultural practices as either honest and idyllic, or backwards and grueling.

The Future

We live in a technologically advanced society that enables us to form movements and communities, grants us access to many resources and can be used to create our own resources to disseminate and share. Websites, such as can serve to form networks of similarly minded individuals who are interested in experimenting with smallholder practices on their personal or community properties.

"Even for those parts of the earth that are still land-rich, an agricultural utopia based on fossil-fuel power, chemical fertilizers and bug killers, and biotechnology on factory farms is beginning to look expensive and hazardous."

– Robert Netting

Critical Abstracts Filing Cabinet

A collection of critical abstracts for anthropology literature relevant to this project. There will be a total of 20 sources distributed across the themes, but this is where you can find all of them in one place.