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 the intensive agriculture practices of smallholders all around the world are rational adaptations in response to population growth and are more environmentally sustainable than the energy- and chemical-dependent practices of large-scale industrial agriculture as well. After spending an entire book discussing case studies of smallholder, householder cultures in Africa, China, India, Indonesia, Latin America, 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.
This will not be a critique of current urban homesteading, backyard and community gardening, or other small-scale gardening practices found today within the United States. Instead, in the interventionist tradition of design anthropology that seeks to explore possible futures, I seek to examine what a smallholder, householder lifestyle would look like in the American context. My objective is also not to promote a politically-motivated alternative lifestyle that seeks to counter capitalism. Nor is it an argument to return to a kind of ideal pre-socialist form of primitive egalitarian society. Netting leaves open the possibility that the cross-cultural and highly adaptive livelihood strategies of smallholders can be translated into a uniquely American context. Therefore, I seek to argue that the smallholder, householder philosophy speaks directly to the deeply embedded American principles of private property, self-sufficiency and individualism, competition and market participation, and even the puritan work ethic.
My Personal Experience
Like most people living in the United States, my family and I have pursued the all-American dream of owning a home. In the spring of 2013 that dream finally came true for us, but we didn’t simply want a home, we wanted our own little piece of land that we could work and that would work for us. Almost immediately upon signing the papers we began transforming the backyard – chopping down trees, digging up dirt and bringing in plants. We created a 700 sq. ft raised garden bed along our back fence by building a retainer wall and leveling out a bank that previously contained ornamental bushes and pine trees. We also planted a variety of fruit trees throughout the yard including pomegranate, apple, cherry, nectarine and plum trees. Blackberry, raspberry and blueberry plants were interspersed along one side of the fence and spaced in between the fruit trees as well. Finally, two muscadine grape vines, which are native to the region, have been trained along a twenty-foot geneva double-curtain trellis.
In order to water the garden, we installed 275 gallons worth of rain barrels that are filled from a water diverter installed on a roof downspout. Over 250 ft of drip irrigation was laid out throughout the yard, around trees and along garden beds. To supplement the soil with nutrients, we compost biodegradable trash in a homemade compost tumbler and we bring in a supply of cow manure mix every spring.
The work involved to build the basic infrastructure was more than I have ever experienced with anything else in my life up to that point. However, the satisfaction of knowing that we had built and designed such a productive space is also unparalleled. Today, we routinely go out into our garden to pick herbs, berries, and vegetables for meals and snacks and we often look on with pride while sitting on our back deck. For the future, we plan on intensifying our gardening practices by expanding the area that we cultivate in both our front and back yard. In addition, we are considering planting native plants in our front yard to provide a natural habitat for local wildlife and to encourage pollinating bees and butterflies to come into our space.
Reflective Essay for ANT 450 – Culture, Ecology, and Sustainable Living
On the first day of class we were asked what was personally important to us concerning the environment, given our understanding of the issues. I immediately thought of the global power structures within the context of globalization and the disproportionate influence they have had on the process of globalization. It was my opinion that the only way to address these issues is to adopt international treatise that bound all countries who participate in the global economy to adhere to minimal labor, human rights, and environmental standards – even if these are determined based on local conditions. Therefore, I responded to the question posed on the first day of class that I would like to further my understanding of these conditions, how power structures functionally operate within the different contexts, and what plausible solutions could be implemented to resolve any disconnects.
I also believed that all costs associated with resource extraction, consumption, and waste should be calculated as part of the cost of doing business, although I understood that would be a very messy policy to implement. However, class readings, such as “Difference and Conflict In The Struggle Over Natural Resources” by Arturo Escobar, pointed out for me that solutions that seek to account for the costs associated with resource use is inadequate in accounting for non-market models of conceptualizing the environment and have also been met with fierce resistance. Other writings by Julian Steward, who argues that complex cultural systems must be considered in the examination of environmental adaptations, and Virginia Nazarea, who argues that ethnoecology must be understood as situated knowledge formed within much wider contexts, also seemed to suggest to me that one-size-fits-all solutions bely the true complexity of the issues. In fact, Ferguson and Lohman in “The Anti-Politics Machine,” provided a poignant case study of failed development projects in Africa that really drove the point home for me. Environmental solutions are much more complex and need to be considered at the local and cultural level if they are to meet the larger goals of environmental protection and preservation.
In the past I also advocated for ethical consumerism, even creating a website, therainforestsolution.com, which boldly claimed that purchasing environmentally-friendly, socially-responsible rainforest products could help to preserve the earth’s rainforests. For me, this was a way to counteract the negative impact that global market forces have been having on the environment in a more direct and personal level. However, Carrier’s chapter, “Protecting the Environment the Natural Way,” was very interesting in this regards as it questions products and services, such as ecotourism resorts, that claim to be environmentally-friendly and socially-responsible. In it, he argues that companies have learned how to co-opt the green consumerism movement through clever marketing and business practices. While Demaria et al. point out in “What Is Degrowth?” that market-oriented solutions essentially converts environmental resources into waste and pollution as well.
I still do believe that environmentally-friendly, socially-responsible products could be part of the solution to environmental degradation. However, I also believe that many of the products available on the market today are not what is considered to be basic necessities and the argument that many products are only promoting the consumer credo of buying as an activity is a legitimate one. At the same time, organic food and cosmetic products are priced as luxury items and are out of the reach of most people.
At that point in the semester I was beginning to look beyond the conventional solutions that are often presented to address climate change and environmental degradation. This meant that I had to re-examine my own beliefs and I started to look around at what my own role was in these larger issues. That is when I came to realize that I, in fact, recycle, compost, keep rain barrels, and maintain a relatively large garden with fruit trees and grape vines in my own back yard. My specialty area research topic was quickly shifted to examine the role of self-sustainability and self-sufficiency at the individual and community level, and what their relationship is with larger issues of the environment. Robert Nettings chapter, “Smallholders, Householders,” didn’t trigger too much of a response as it seemed to continue the developing narrative that environmental issues of sustainably are complex and require close case-by-case examination. Furthermore, David Griggs chapter that critiques Ester Boserup’s theory of agrarian change left me, as a student only learning about these subjects, thinking that Ester Boserup’s theory was soundly refuted and no longer valid. Even while Sherbinin et al.’s comprehensive review of research examining how the livelihood strategies of rural smallholders impact the environment found that many of the conventional understandings of the relationship, including Chayanov’s household economy framework, which Grigg references, are only relevant within very limited contexts. However, when it was suggested that I read Robert Nettings whole book, Smallholders, Householders, I quickly came to realize that Grigg was either misinterpreting or misrepresenting Boserup’s theories.
For me, smallholder livelihood strategies represent a possible solution to environmental issues facing us today as a highly adaptive and cross-culturally occurring practice. While I was excited to have been given the opportunity to discover and study Netting’s theories regarding smallholder, householder practices from around the world, the class readings also served to ground me. For instance, Brosius’s contribution, “Endangered Forests, Endangered People,” warns against co-opting indigenous practices and knowledge into a largely Western framework. An issue that I had to keep in mind given my chosen research topic that sought to compare the similarities between smallholder practices and deeply embedded American values of private property, individualism, and competition. Nevertheless, going back to what I read in Carrier’s piece, along with the findings by Wilk in “Bottled Water: The Pure Commodity In the Age of Branding,” American consumers tend to be distrustful of outside forces, but are seemingly left with the choice of the lesser evil between government and private institutions. I believe the self-sufficiency inherent in the smallholder livelihood strategy represents a viable third option to this modern dilemma. The adoption of sustainable smallholder agriculture practices is done at the individual level and its effects are directly and immediately felt by those who have an interest in environmental issues, however, it can also potentially have far reaching consequences to the current power structures.
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.
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 meetup.com 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.