Social construction of “the farmer”


Freshly washed and carefully arranged vegetables ready for sale at the local market.

Who is a farmer? A person who makes a living growing crops for food? But, who is a farmer? What skills, qualifications, licenses, land titles, formal contracts must a person possess? The idea of “the farmer”—how we understand what he looks like, where she is from, even the types of crops that are acceptable to grow—is perhaps more important than a technical definition.

There is little to no mention of Yamuna riverbank farmers in the literature on urban agriculture in Delhi—or even in papers reporting on the Yamuna River and its environs. I thought it odd that such a large population would go unnoticed. But, a meeting with a person of influence at the Delhi Development Authority gave me some insight: “In case of [research site], they are encroachers and are not allowed to work there. Most of the land was under lease for 99, 5, or 10 years. The land was mostly given on lease for raising animals, especially dairy activities. Since this is a flood prone area, nobody is allowed to build in houses–temporary or permanent. They are not farmers, they are mere laborers who have taken land on rent or whatever…Those people might be farmers in their state, but are recognized as informal laborers [in Delhi]”

Huh…“Those people might be farmers in their state, but are recognized as informal laborers [in Delhi]”? I thought a farmer was someone who grows crops for food. Simple. Period. But defining and understanding are not the same. There are embedded rules and implications that attach to any kind of label—be it farmer, student, doctor, politician—because it locates one on the social hierarchy. How we socially construct the notion of “the farmer” is perhaps more important than any specific qualification, or lack thereof.

In the United States, and perhaps across Europe and other advanced countries where the local and organic food movement has gain major traction, the social construction of the farmer has evolved from that of a rural, lower educated, lower earning, conservative aging social group into that of an urban, higher educated, higher earning, progressive, young and vibrant social group. At least in my experience, I have seen a renewed respect and awe for the “urban farmer.” The urban farmer is conceptualized as a socially conscious, environmentally sensitive, forward-thinking entrepreneur. The definition hasn’t changed, but the idea has.

My own personal social construction of the urban farmer was a strong motivator for my research in Delhi—certainly, I thought, such a youthful, economically booming global city, grappling with future sustainability, would be nurturing the gatekeepers of their food supply. Perhaps there is some nurturing of some gatekeepers, but not the Yamuna farmers.

So, I come back to the simple question of who is a farmer…in Delhi? Is she poor, is she educated? Is he literate, how many children does he have? Do they own a permanent home, do they have access to clean water? How do those ideas and images impact the attitude of the average citizen? And, how do people of influence understand who the urban farmer is? Because that is what drives the discourse and, most importantly, decisions.

Who is your farmer?


One thought on “Social construction of “the farmer”

  1. Nice post! Spot on. If the farmers were conceptualized as farmers, as useful, their treatment by the Delhi authorities and the resources they could access would be drastically different.

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