Landholding was less concentrated in the north and the west; mixed crop and livestock raising dominated agricultural production. Much production was geared to subsistence, but growers also produced a number of cash crops such as cacao, tobacco, coffee, and vegetables. The twin constraints of land and money affected the various strata of rural society differently, depending on the precise configuration of resources a family could command, but hardship was widespread.
Those without land were the most hard pressed. Agricultural laborers rarely enjoyed opportunities for permanent employment. Most worked only sporadically throughout the year. During periods of high demand for labor, contractors formed semipermanent work groups that contracted their services out to farmers. As in much of social life, the individual stood a better chance if he could couch his request for work in terms of a personal link of kinship with the prospective employer.
Families that depended on wage labor had very limited resources at their disposal. Their diet lacked greens and protein; eggs and meat were luxury items. Such fare as boiled plantains, noodles, and broth often substituted for the staple beans and rice. Keeping children in school was difficult because their labor was needed to supplement the family's earnings.
Those with very little land (less than one hectare) also faced very severe constraints. Although members of this group had enough land to meet some of their families' subsistence needs and even sold crops occasionally, they also needed to resort to wage labor to make ends meet. Like wage laborers, smallholders had trouble leaving children in school. The children's prospects were extremely limited, moreover, because their parents could neither give them land nor educate them. The daily need for food also limited farmers' ability to work their own land. Those who were both land-poor and cash-poor faced a dilemma: they could not work their lands effectively because to do so meant foregoing wage labor needed to feed their families. A variety of sharecropping arrangements supplemented wage labor for those smallholders able to muster some cash or credit. These were of little use to the landless; only those who had land or money to finance a crop entered into these schemes. Smallholders and the landless lived enmeshed in a web of dependent relationships: they depended on their neighbors and kin for help and assistance, on store owners for credit, and on larger landholders for employment.
Families with middle-sized holdings (from one to three hectares) faced slightly different problems. They often had enough land and financial resources to meet most of their families' food needs and to earn cash from the sale of crops or livestock. They did not usually need to work for hire, and sometimes they could hire laborers themselves. They usually ate better than smallholders, and their children stayed in school longer. However, although middle holders earned more, they also had greater needs for cash during the year, particularly if they hired laborers before harvest.
Even relatively large holders faced seasonal shortages of cash. Their production costs--especially for hired labor--were typically higher.Their standard of living was notably higher than that of people with less land. They generally ate better and could afford meat or fish more frequently. Although their holdings supported their generation adequately, subdivision among the family's offspring would typically leave no heir with more than a hectare or two. Faced with this prospect, these farmers often encouraged their children to pursue nonagricultural careers and helped support them financially during their student years.
Almost all farmers depended to varying degrees on credit from local storekeepers. The landless and the land-poor needed credit simply to feed their families. Middling landholders used it to tide them over the lean months before harvest. Prevailing interest rates varied considerably, but the poorest farmers-- those who could not offer a harvest as collateral and who usually needed short-term credit--generally paid the highest rates.
Farmers often depended on storekeepers to market their crops because they were usually unable to accumulate sufficient produce to make direct marketing a viable option. Most farmers committed their crops to their merchant-creditor long before harvest. Store owners could not legally require that someone who owed them money sell his or her crops to them. Nonetheless, for the farm family, the possibility of being denied necessary credit at a time of future need acted as a powerful incentive. The cycle of debt, repayment, and renewed debt was constant for most.
Traditionally, the local storekeeper aided farmers in ways beyond the extension of credit. He often established a paternalistic relationship with his customers; farmers consulted him on matters ranging from land purchases to conflicts with neighbors. Such patronage carried a hefty price tag, however; farmers found it difficult to haggle about terms with a storekeeper who was also a friend or a relative. Studies of coffee growers in the mid-1970s found that the cost of credit could easily take one-third to one-half of a middling landholder's profits.
Cooperatives sometimes offered an alternative. The most successful drew their membership from groups of kin and neighbors already linked by ties of trust. Cooperatives provided a solution for farmers vexed by the problem of cash shortfalls. Consumer and savings and loan cooperatives thus expanded the options for some rural families. Cooperatives have not ameliorated appreciably the plight of the poorest rural dwellers, however. Cooperative loans were predicated on a family's ability to pay, which effectively excluded the landless and the land-poor.
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