One of the problems people have discussing sustainable agriculture is the question of language. I was trained originally in English literature and hold as an article of faith that language matters — deeply. That is, I believe that we can only come to an honest vision for the future with a shared language that accurately describes our world.

Agriculture is in the news, obviously — and the future of farming is a big question. But we keep running up against the question of what, precisely, a farm is. There’s a lot of debate about where our farmers should come from, where they will grow, and who we will count as a farmer. Often, I find, even those who believe in the future of local food systems are talking past each other.

That is, when we talk about “farmers,” who are we actually talking about? What’s “agriculture” and what’s “gardening”? Where does “homesteading,” “smallholding,” “horticulture,” and “subsistence farming” fall in the mess? Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal article about suburban farmers is inspiring — and it further enhances the need for a shared public language of agriculture.

The word “farmer”

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I have a strong opinion on this subject (gee, could you have guessed?). I think — and yes, all the real farmers yell at me, and I don’t entirely blame them — that “farmer” should be the umbrella term for remunerative food production. That is, I think you are a farmer if you grow food for sale, for barter, or as a large portion of your own personal economy — that is, I think we call them “subsistence farmers” for a reason. If farming either provides a significant part of your income or your diet, I think we should use the words “farm” and “farmer.”

My criteria for this is simple: we don’t live in isolation; the word “farmer” should mean something across national and cultural boundaries. That is, a “farmer” in India and a “farmer” in Canada should be able to recognize one another as fellow creatures with a shared profession and art.

As we are speaking now, the word “farmer” as it is used in the rich world erases the vast majority of world farmers out of the language, and that shouldn’t be acceptable to us. As important, it gives us a mistaken sense of what agriculture actually is — even what agriculture was. In the 1940s, a large amount of victory garden literature spoke of “garden farms” — that is, home gardens that operated, like farms, to both supply the subsistence needs of the family and to serve the large public interest by freeing up food to be sent overseas. That is, it isn’t that long even in North American history that a “farmer” has been a person with a thousand acres. And in the rest of the world, it may never work that way [PDF].

You’ll note from the first paragraph that even the experts have a hard time with the naming problem, so they just call them “farmers.” That is, the World Bank and the U.N. FAO have essentially deemed as farmers anyone who calls themselves a farmer, sells food, or subsists primarily on their own food. The distinction they make is “small farmer” vs. “large farmer” — but all of them are farmers. Right now, the majority of the world’s farms are small farms. The average farm size in Africa and Asia is 1.6 hectares (for those who are accustomed to acreage measurements, a hectare is about 2.5 acres — thus, the average farm size in Africa and Asia would be a little under 4 acres). This means that there are a whole lot of farms much smaller than 4 acres.

Ninety-five percent of all farms in many parts of the former Soviet Union are under 1 hectare, and they provide the majority of all agricultural production, a total of 52 percent of all food eaten in the region. The U.S., as of the last ag census, contained over 66,000 small farms under 2 hectares. Which just goes to support Kiashu’s well-taken point here that about half of the world’s food already comes from small farms. Add to that Helena Norberg-Hodge’s observation that 2 billion people live almost entirely on subsistence agriculture that is low-input and largely organic (because they can’t afford the alternative), and we can see that agricultural norms are simply different than what we North Americans think of.

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The claim that large farms are essential to produce grain also turns out to be false — in India, 40 percent of all food grains are produced by small farmers in parcels under 2 hectares, and not totally dissimilar data is found in other developing nations. It may well be more efficient to produce grain in more centralized areas, by some definitions (the distinction here between efficiency of land and efficiency of labor would apply in some cases), but for those who immediately leap to the conclusion that we’d never have any grain if we didn’t have big farms, this is a useful observation.

But aren’t all small farmers poor?

In a 2004 analysis for the Handbook of Agricultural Economics, Eastwood, Lipton and Newell observe that in developing nations, small farmers tend to be disproportionately taxed, while in developed nations, they tend to not receive the benefits of agricultural subsidies. That is, small farmers tend to get the worst of both worlds, with both poor and rich nations tending to disadvantage them economically.

That’s not to say that the economic disadvantages of agriculture as we do it now (which apply to most North American and European farmers except during ethanol booms) don’t make farming a difficult choice — but it does suggest that, just as agricultural policy has driven farmers in the U.S. out of business for decades, agricultural policy is also working in many cases to impoverish farmers in the global south.

For example, FAO agriculture economists Binswanger, Deinenger and Feder, conclude that (generally speaking) larger farms in the poor world are dramatically less efficient than smaller, family farms, but that policies favor them so strongly as to elide much of this difference. That is, in both the rich and the poor world, we work very hard to keep our small farmers poor. It is interesting to try to imagine what a systematic set of agricultural policies that supported small-scale, diversified agriculture would do to the present equation of poverty and size.

Interestingly, it seems that in both South Asia and the former Soviet Union, the trend that economic development generally creates toward larger farms does not seem to be the case — that is, the Handbook of Agricultural Economics cited above notes that as of 2004, neither Russia nor South Asia seems to be following the pattern of getting bigger as they get richer.

In Russia, the authors speculate, it may be because of the powerful impact of the 1990 collapse of the Soviet Union, where consumers now associate small farms with food security.

In Asia and parts of Latin America (Brazil and Argentina have steadily increased farm size, while smaller nations have declined, implying that averages are not as much to the point here as the articulation of two separate trends), where farm sizes actually seem to have declined in the later part of the 20th century, the trend is toward smaller and more intensively farmed plots by necessity, as land is lost to growth and desertification.

So what should we take from all this data?

First, that small farms are normal, and that the majority of the world’s farmers are small farmers of less than 5 acres. That is, it is hard to claim that someone farming a comparatively small piece of land is not a farmer if they constitute a majority — in fact, perhaps it would be more accurate to call many large scale farmers (as some prefer) agribusinessmen and -women, and leave the term farmer to the majority.

In addition, in many nations, there are substantial numbers of farms that are pretty much the same size as a suburban lot. The people who farm them are farmers. The average Bangladeshi farms half a hectare. In Barbados, the average piece of land is 1.6 hectares. In China, 0.67 hectares; in India, 1.34 hectares. And of course, averages mean that many, many of these farms are quite a bit tinier. So it must be that farming isn’t about land size.

This can be true even in the U.S. In her glorious book The Earth Knows My Name: Food, Culture and Sustainability in the Gardens of Ethnic America, Patricia Klindienst notes that there is no clear boundary between those who call themselves “farmers” and those who call themselves “gardeners” — some of the gardens are bigger than the farms, in fact. That is, even in America, there are thousands of small farms being worked by thousands of small farmers, and size doesn’t seem to be the defining factor.

So perhaps what matters is what you are doing on your land, not how big it is. How should we narrow this one down? The tax purposes model is, I think, insufficient to offer us an overarching definition that crosses borders from the rich world to the poor. I once read that in at least one U.S. state, one way to be a farm for tax purposes is to own a cow period, and in that state (which I’ve forgotten) there are a number of people keeping cows in their garages, buying their hay, and accepting a tax write off … but this may be purely anecdotal.

One obvious way to distinguish between farmers and gardeners would be by economic remuneration — that is, if you sell farm products, you are a farmer. But this model effectively removes from the language the millions, perhaps even billions of subsistence farmers who sell little or nothing off their land. These people live their lives as farmers, with all the benefits and disadvantages that applies — we cannot erase them from the language. In most cases, they are taxed in their countries as farmers.

Such subsistence farmers exist in the rich world as well — there are not a huge number of subsistence farmers these days, but they do exist, and I know a few. They grow their own food, cut their own wood, hunt, and work off the farm or sell enough to pay the land taxes. One of my neighbors, Paul, is a subsistence farmer, living from his half-acre garden, two deer a year, a couple of wild turkeys and enough work as a substitute teacher to pay for taxes and beer. He jokes that he works as a teacher five days a month, and grows and hunts food the other 25, but when the government asks him what he does, he’s a teacher.

We cannot say that having a non-agricultural job is a criteria for ceasing to call someone a farmer, either — according to the USDA, 71 percent of all U.S. farmers of all sizes have either an off season, or off-farm income, or a household member who provides an off-farm income.

In Ending Hunger in Our Lifetime, the authors note that this is true of many poor world farmers as well — not quite 80 percent also do seasonal or off-farm work, or have a household member who does so. The numbers are oddly similar.

In fact, Peter Rosset in Food is Different tracks the ways that farmers subsidize consumers and their own agricultural practices, and notes that in general, farmers subsidize cheap food more than governments do — that is, because farming is not merely a job but a culture and a way of life, farmers will do almost anything to keep their land — including sending family members off the land to allow those who farm to grow corn or rice or beans at low prices.

Linguistic distinctions

A farmer is not someone who never does any work off the farm, then. She is not someone who owns a lot of land, or necessarily sells much or any food in the market place. (And by the way, it is a “she” — the majority of the world’s farmers are women, and many poor nations have long traditions of agriculture and land ownership in women’s hands.) So what distinguishes farmers from gardeners? Not much.

Perhaps, then, we should think about the distinction linguistically. “Gardener” derives from the French and means “an enclosed space” — that is, its linguistic focus is on limitations. A “garden,” linguistically speaking, is separated from the space around it by cultivation.

“Farm” and “farmer,” on the other hand, come from the same root as “to form” and imply creation. The oldest English forms of the word, going back to Beowulf and the Domesday book, also meant “a banquet or feast” — that is, farms and farmers are linguistically tied to bountifulness, to eating, to abundance and plenty, and also to the power of creation — by implication, to the power that created “terra firma” — that is, the linguistic implication is that farming is acting in God’s image, creating plenty.

My own take is, as valuable as the word “gardener” is, the kind of agriculture we’re trying to create is more appropriately described as “farming” than as gardening — a truly sustainable agriculture happens not in boundaries but across them. Is a permaculture garden a bounded space, or do its lines blur into the trees and wildlands around it? Is an agriculture designed to create mixed use pasture for wildlife and farmed animals about its fences, or about what can pass through them? Is a family living in part on what they grow and what they forage and harvest from untended spaces in their area tending a garden, or farming their community?

It isn’t that gardening isn’t a good word; I just think farming is a better one. All of the other terms offer some kind of subset of the above. It isn’t that I have any objection to someone calling themselves a smallholder, a gardener, a homesteader or an edible landscaper; it is merely that there exists a sufficient umbrella term — not just because it is accurate but because it describes so well what we must become.

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