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.