As farms increase their productivity, expand their size, or diversify into more profitable crops, farmers require more labor hours and, often, more skilled labor. The labor needs may vary with agricultural production practices, as commercial crops generally require more labor than staples. For instance, horticulture demands additional weeding and regular harvesting compared to seasonal staple cultivation. Changes in farming practices can also affect labor needs. For example, consistent labor is necessary for regular irrigation, while mechanization may replace labor at certain stages of production.
Although crucial to profitable farming systems, we need more knowledge about land and labor market failures than other agricultural technology adoption and productivity constraints. Further evidence is required to comprehend the significant gaps in our understanding of how farmers can best use household and hired labor in conjunction with agricultural technologies.
Evidence from randomized evaluations on labor and agricultural productivity
In 2009, the Agricultural Technology Adoption Initiative (ATAI) was established as a collaboration between J-PAL and the Center for Effective Global Action (CEGA) to rigorously evaluate programs that aim to enhance farmers’ welfare through the broader application of technologies to increase agricultural productivity in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Since its inception, ATAI has provided funding for randomized evaluations since its inception to address crucial questions regarding labor decisions and growth constraints. This research has examined how labor is influenced by and affects gender and household dynamics, mechanization, and income diversification. However, several open questions still require rigorous testing.
Household Labor & Gender Dynamics
Studies have revealed a gender disparity in agricultural productivity, where women, who comprise almost half of the agricultural workforce in Africa, tend to produce less per hectare on average than men. This could be due to women’s limited access to productivity-enhancing resources and knowledge of improved practices. Additionally, they may need more control over allocating their time and labor. Therefore, achieving gender equity among agricultural laborers and household members is vital for unleashing broader productivity and growth in sub-Saharan Africa.
Typically, households assign labor based on gender roles, with women undertaking tasks such as planting, food processing, and ensuring dietary diversity. At the same time, men handle field preparation, sales, managing non-household workers, or harvesting. One pilot study in Zambia, which ATAI funded, examined intra-household dynamics related to agricultural technology adoption and decision-making. Based on survey findings, a wife’s bargaining power in the household explained the most significant variation in yields between the plots cultivated by herself and her husband, even more so than the practices they used. However, further evidence is necessary to comprehend these intra-household dynamics and the broader market dynamics related to the demand for male versus female labor, differences in wages and working conditions, and productivity based on levels of cooperation for both women and men.
Family Labor VS Hired Workers
To enhance agricultural productivity, there needs to be a greater emphasis on shifting farming systems towards higher-value crops that require more labor throughout the year. About 75 percent of farms globally rely on household labor to sustain their operations. The origin of labor – whether from within the household or externally hired – impacts costs and the demand for work in local markets.
Studies have indicated that farmers can increase their profits by assigning the same value to work done by household members on agricultural activities as the wages paid to hired labor. Intensive tasks often necessitate greater supervision, so households can reduce expenses by reallocating these activities to household members who might have an inherent motivation to perform the job efficiently, unlike seasonally hired workers. Additionally, it may be challenging to supervise hired labor, making it essential for farmers to prioritize family workers for specific tasks.
Researchers affiliated with J-PAL have evaluated Ghana, Mali, Niger, and Zambia, implementing diverse interventions and policy mechanisms to evaluate households’ decision-making and pricing of family labor versus hired laborers.
Social norms and pressures also impact labor costs and patterns, which can influence people’s willingness to accept various jobs and salaries. A study funded by ATAI in India discovered that workers might agree to jobs with reduced private wages but decline in public due to the fear of social stigma. Properly valuing labor force participation and estimating labor productivity necessitate comprehending the balance between household labor and hired labor, especially among small-scale farms in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, where household members are crucial in ensuring efficient farm operations.
Agriculture Mechanization: Labor-Demanding & Labor-Saving Technologies
Mechanizing farm operations can free up laborers from time-consuming or high-skill tasks, such as tilling, reaping, and sowing seeds, to work on other important tasks. Some technologies and practices are designed to save labor (such as tractors and irrigation systems), while others require more labor (such as transplanting seedlings to fields to improve germination instead of broadcasting seeds into a tilled field). Adopting innovative practices may enable households to reallocate their time spent on manual labor to higher-skilled roles, supervising hired labor, overseeing mechanized processes, and engaging in non-agricultural economic activities.
In one ATAI-funded evaluation in India, researchers found that providing vouchers and cash grants for machine rentals increased mechanization during land preparation, freeing up hired labor in other stages of production and freeing up household time, particularly from members engaged in farm supervision activities. They also found evidence of increased engagement in off-farm activities among farmers who already participated in those markets. However, complementary investments in labor may be required to ensure that the technology is working as intended after its successful introduction. Further research is necessary to better comprehend the effects of introducing technologies at various stages of agricultural production.
Promoting local economic diversification among agricultural households
Households need to consider the agricultural calendar when deciding to hire workers or seek off-farm employment for family members. The demand and supply of labor for production and harvest vary seasonally depending on the time of year and the worker’s skill. In some contexts, there is a lull in demand for labor after planting, known as the “lean season,” when households have less disposable income. Therefore, creating economic opportunities or activities for farming households outside of agriculture in their local market or nearby urban centers is crucial.
An evaluation conducted in Bangladesh used a randomized approach to examine the impact of grants provided to households that migrated to urban areas for work during the lean season. The results showed that the grants increased the income of the migrant workers and reduced competition for work within the village, leading to higher wages and more available work hours in the local labor market.
Future research could expand on this study to ensure year-round availability of work and explore alternative methods to create productive, local, and profitable employment opportunities during the lean season between peak planting and harvesting periods.
Open questions for new research on agricultural labor
As evidenced by some of the evaluations mentioned above, the results may not necessarily be generalizable to other contexts. Hence, there is a need for more research to examine the effectiveness of the interventions and address relevant questions in various agricultural labor markets.
In addition to the interventions discussed earlier, there are still several unanswered questions regarding the relationship between labor and agriculture. Further research is needed to gain a better understanding of wage determination, skill development, and how households allocate labor to agricultural activities. Some of the open questions for future research include:
- One area for further research is evaluating interventions that enable households to hire workers or take jobs in other sectors, as well as interventions that promote more extensive use of family labor throughout the year. Such interventions may include crop diversification, mechanization, and role specialization.
- Further research is needed to evaluate the effects of factors such as farm size, worker health, contracting, and trust in the local labor market on labor and agriculture.
- One area for further research is exploring the transition from subsistence farming of staple crops to intensive cultivation of commercial crops, which often involves a shift from female-dominated to male-dominated labor. Understanding how to improve outcomes for women in this process through complementary interventions is crucial.
- Enhancing access to productive assets such as machinery rentals
- There is a need to test interventions aimed at engaging women and other marginalized groups, such as landless laborers, in more empowering and appealing work that can generate higher income.