Friday, August 21, 2009

"Forty Acres and a Dream", the farming cycle and cooperatives

I'm a fan of Al Jazeera's Witness documentaries and this is one reason why. "Forty Acres and a Dream" traces the vanishing history of black-owned farms in the US. The title is a play on the phrase "Forty Acres and a Mule", based on
"General William T. Sherman's Special Field Order Number 15, issued on 16 January 1865, which set aside a thirty-mile tract of land along the South Carolina and Georgia coasts for former slaves and promised the army's help securing loaned mules. In addition, the Freed-men's Bureau initially was authorized to divide abandoned and confiscated lands into forty-acre tracts for rental and eventual sale to refugees and former slaves. Despite the efforts of Radical Republicans during the Reconstruction period, however, significant land redistribution measures ultimately were abandoned, and virtually all southern lands were returned to white owners. The resulting sharecropping system left the social and economic structures of slavery essentially intact in the South."
(Lori Askeland, Dictionary of American History, found on

In "Forty Acres and a Dream", documentary photographer John Ficara sought to capture the stories and struggles of black farmers before that way of life dies. Notes from the documentary: "Black owned farms peaked in the early 1920s with an estimated total of 15 million acres and over 900,000 farmers. Today there are only 2.2 million acres owned by black farmers. These farmers are losing their land three times faster than white family farmers and a recent study by the university of Michigan predicts that within the next ten years there will be virtually no black owned farms."

It was while watching "Forty Acres and a Dream" that I learnt about the farming cycle. At the start of planting season, it is crucial to have funds to purchase seeds. This is one area where odds were stacked against black farmers who say they were often turned away from banks because of their colour.

This led me to think about farmers in Asia and how they cough up the money for seeds. This is a good summary of the farming cycle:
"The debt cycle is as follows - in the beginning of the season the farmer goes to moneylender to borrow money for seeds, fertilisers, pesticides. The moneylender is also the shopkeeper so not only does he lend money at an enormous interest, he also charges more than the market rate for the seeds etc. Additionally, he enters into a contract with the farmer that the entire produce shall be bought by him at the end of the harvest. The price for buying the produce is fixed by the moneylender which is invariably less than the prevailing market rates. In order to further secure his money the moneylender mortgages the land."
This explanation, posted on, is by Paromita Goswami, who founded Shramik Elgar (The Marching Army of Working People), a 6000-member union of rural workers in India. Goswami also founded the Elgar Women's Credit Co-operative Society and is also an advisor to the board of Global Integrity, which produces information on governance and corruption trends around the world.

One popular focus on breaking the poverty cycle for farmers is getting rid of the middlemen along the supply chain (sometimes called "value chain") in food production. The idea is that if only farmers were linked to markets, they would be able to profit.

"However, increasing the efficiency of a value chain does not automatically result in benefits for poorer farmers," notes Gertjan Becx, director of Resilience, a consultancy firm based in Wageningen, the Netherlands. He bases this on the experience of more than 1200 smallholder farmers in Ghana in West Africa who were interviewed for his study, which he talks about in June's issue of Leisa Magazine, the magazine of ILEIA, or the Centre for Information on Low External Input and Sustainable Agriculture.

Says Becx:
“In our Ghanaian investigation we discovered four clusters of interconnected constraints that restrict entrepreneurial development of smallholder farmers. The first cluster includes constraints related to production and processing. Lack of capital, little access to (micro-) credit, poor soil or seed quality, lack of water, uncertainty about land entitlement, shortage of adequate labour, lack of traction, and lack of knowledge and technology, all hamper productivity increases. Moreover, because of chronic hunger, people are mentally and physically weak, so they cannot work to their full capacity." (my italics, because this is something people tend to forget).

The second cluster is the uncertainties of the external environment such as climate, corruption and fluctuating markets. The third is the lack of incentives to invest. This is the case of farmers who do not own land and also of farmers who think the government, their extended family, or other patrons, will claim the bulk of the fruits of their labour.

The fourth cluster deals with the mindset of subsistence farmers: they tend to consume rather than think of the future. Importantly, subsistence farmers deeply mistrust their local, regional and national governments. “We found that poor farmers have difficulties with long-term planning, markets and profit as many of them have developed ‘coping strategies’ in response to difficult circumstances."

Many people point out this is the mindset of poor, uneducated and rural Cambodians: to think short term, rather than long; to spend what they have today rather than save and invest for the future. When I first came to Cambodia, the books I read and the expats I spoke to, all told me not to give a Cambodian money, as he/she would spend it the moment he/she can.

As you can see, it is not just Khmers, but it is the mindset of subsistence farmers everywhere.

“We concluded that agricultural entrepreneurship is necessary for small-scale farmers to escape the cycle of continuing poverty," says Becx. "But this will only be possible if they organise themselves into farmer-based organisations. Value chain development must take the constraints described above into consideration if they are to work for poorer farmers. Value chains can only overcome the cycle of poverty if they are deliberately designed to improve farmer livelihoods, so to be ‘pro poor’.”

"...if they organise themselves into farmer-based organisations". Paromita Goswami explains in her post on how a cooperative has helped farmers get out of the traditional farming cycle:
"The cooperative as a legal entity has multiple benefits. For example our cooperatives have procured licences as distributors for seeds, fertilisers and pesticides. This means that we will distribute these things to the farmers at the market rate plus carting costs.

Then, the cooperatives are registering with the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committees which means that they shall be able to buy the produce from the farmers at the prevailing market rates. Apart from this, the cooperative can raise upto 12.5 times its share captial through bank loans which an individual farmer cannot access."
Super. What a great grassroots project.


Jonathan Eyler-Werve said...

Great blog. Keep at it.

Diana Saw said...

Thanks for reading Jonathan. And thank you for the important job you and your team are doing. I've just signed up to receive newsletters from Global Integrity. More people should know about you. I'll write about the organisation one day.

Shramik Elgar said...

Dear Friend
Thank you so much for writing about our work - Justice Farming. It was wonderful that you found it interesting and relevant. I have made another entry in about our work on land rights - 'Land Rights Through Organising'. Do let us know your comments.
Best regards
Paromita Goswami


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