Geese in the garden

On the Social Importance of Urban Agriculture and Smallholder Farming

by Elisabeth Meyer-Renschhausen

Bülowstr.74, D 10783 Berlin-Schöneberg, ++49 - 03 - 261 22 87

paper given on the American Community Gardening Association 23rd Annual Conference
New York City July 26, 2002

Subsistence farming and secondary occupations constituted an unofficial-official shadow economy in the former GDR, which was a well-established element of “domestic social policy”. After the fall of the Wall between East and West Germany, self-sufficiency work—or self-work-- in the farming sector remains a social fact that contributes to keeping the local communities alive – even though this fact continues to escape the attention of those responsible for social policy.

The developments in today’s economy throw ever more people worldwide out of their jobs and cut them off from the increasing wealth of the rich. Salaries in much of Europe and North America and in the poor countries of the Southern Hemisphere are barely enough to constitute a living wage. Unemployment is increasing particularly rapidly in the rural areas. Small farmers everywhere – in Europe we see this today especially in Poland – fear the power of transnational markets. The importance of small farming, on the other hand, is growing for the unemployed, for the “early retired” (as in the former East Germany), and for women worldwide. Gardeners and second-occupation farmers keep the towns alive socially. But the alimentary importance of garden plots in Eastern Europe is also growing increasingly evident.

A note on terminology: Small-holder farming usually means second-income farming, whereas garden plot farming is purely for subsistence (and is by no means hobby farming). As these two forms are usually mixed, I will not always adhere to a precise terminology.

The rapid integration of the GDR (the former East Germany) into the Federal Republic of Germany (the former West Germany) threw 89 percent of those employed in agriculture out of their jobs as early as 1990/91. No substitute work mentioning has arisen. The large-scale socialist agricultural production cooperatives (or LPGs) turned into private agricultural corporations, or agribusiness, employing relatively few people. Today in East German especially Brandenburg small towns villages at most 20 percent of the population is active in agriculture. Over one half of the earlier cooperative workers retired or took early retirement. A fifth of them were simply laid off. Up to two thirds of those unemployed or at most temporarily employed are women.

New employers are not expected to come to these peripheral regions, far away from the major cities. If in addition “substitute employers” like the army, the national border police and the customs administration continue to disappear, the only remaining local resource will be agriculture. This is a paradoxical form of “reagrarization,” occurring in spite of the disappearance ofbig agriculture as an employer. The men are moving to employment in the construction industry, which requires daily or weekly commuting. But the women cannot engage in such employment if they want to maintain the local family home, to keep the “house and yard”. The people remain therefore dependent on farming even though agriculture has vanished as a source of income. Such areas of activity outside the labour market are gaining increasing importance. Urban agriculture and garden plots are gaining new relevance as a basis for “self-sufficiency work,” or “self-work.” Before 1989-1990, Eastern Europeans had already been “getting by” through agricultural self-work, that is, through subsistence farming within the framework of broad networks linking friends and family. Shadow labour (outside the formal economy), home labour and subsistence farming provided in the East German provinces as well a basis for communal survival strategies. Just as is the case with community gardens in New York, garden plot farming has prevented the social decay that can otherwise emerge out of a general sense of resignation (1). Promoting gardens and garden plot farming in urban and rural areas therefore is becoming an important socio-political issue in the rich countries in the North as well.

Farming in the town of Gartz on the Oder

Gartz on the Oder lies one hundred kilometres northeast of Berlin on the Polish border – at the “end of the world,” as some people here complain. The farming cooperative that existedbefore the fall of the Wall was by far the largest employer in Gartz and in the surrounding villages. Nearly all of the 400 people employed in the cooperatives lost their jobs in 1990/91. The cooperative animal production units were profitably dismantled, by strenuously encouraging a large fraction of the workforce to take early retirement. The planting units were saved in the form of a so-called “Agrar GmbH,” that is an Agrarian Corporation, which now however employs hardly more than a dozen people. The few employees at the Agrarian Corporation depend on the fact that former cooperative farmers have accepted simply not to be paid for the acreage and livestock of which they were part owners. A paying-out would mean the ruin of the enterprise, as the Corporation has no capital stock of its own. 

Five years after the fall of the wall, the people in Gartz generally had the impression of having been thrown back to dark antediluvian times. “Regarding agriculture we are now back in the past century,” said the wife of the former president of the cooperative to our seminar group in 1994. “ Things are now as they were when I was a child: everywhere private property and small farms.” We were stunned. It was the first time we had heard of these small farms. After we started the biographical interviews, we realized that many people in the little town saw themselves as hobby farmers and that for many others it was important to have a large garden plot. Where did this form of small-holder farming come from in a region that had been entirely collectivised ? We followed up on this question in a later research seminar.

Part-time farming East of the Elbe River

In the transition period after the fall of the Wall the politicians ignored the fact that a fully operational system of second-occupation farming had existed in the GDR; they have hardly talked more about it since then. But the yield from this phenomenon, officially called “individual home farming,” guaranteed cooperative workers a second income which also supplementing their anticipated pensions. The farming income was in fact more than the official cooperative salary. 

This “individual home farming” was ignored during the transition period as if it had not existed at all. It could thus be destroyed without arousing protest. Parts of this small-holder farming have nevertheless survived. Hobby farms and garden plots today give the people in the provinces something to hold on to. The privately-owned small farm or the large garden allows one to feel not so entirely helpless and to keep a sense of doing something meaningful. They are moreover a real attraction for holiday guests, and in this sense too also have economic significance.

These small farms stem from various historical sources. In northeast Brandenburgself-sufficient family farmers coexisted before 1945 with the farming estates characteristic of northeast Germany.In 1945 some farmers fled before the Soviet army towestern Germany. They were replaced by refugees from the Eastern territories who took over the empty farms. The luckiest among them could marry into half-abandoned farms. People expelled from former German provinces in Pomerania and Silesia after the displacement of the Polish borders to the West received from the Soviet military administration plots between 4 to 6 acres (1.5 and 2.5 hectares) and larger to help them survive.The administration in the British sector tried to help landless farmers expelled from Germany’s former Eastern territories, through land reforms and redistribution of land from the large farming estates—although they were not particularly successful in these efforts.

The government division of large land plots into small holdings and reversion to subsistence farming were part of an earlier tradition here,one that had been tried in the 1920s, after the First World War. In 1945, residents of many small Brandenburgtowns still lived from their own farming—inso-called farming-citizenstowns - Ackerbürgerstädte. Town dwellers who earned their living as craftsmen or had a small business practised supplementary farming as well.

The families of farm workers in the villages also practised small-holder farming. Many villagers had a vegetable plot, a potato field, and small animals like chickens, ducks, geese and pigs. This, as we know from the land labourer investigation carried out by Max Weber around the turn of the previous century, is also part of tradition (3). By the end of the 19th century, many farm labourers on the large estates in the eastern Elbe region had thriving garden plots. These were part of the system of payment. The workers were paid partly in kind or enjoyed some rights of land use: their cows could graze with the “lordly cows” and stand in the lordly barns. Max Weber was stunned at the autonomy of the peasant wives who conducted this small-scale self-providing farming in quite an independent way. This subsistence farming disappeared only with the specialisation brought about by large-scale agriculture and with the monetarisation ofthe payment system.

“Private housekeeper farming” in Eastern Europe

As we know today, Max Weber was only partly right when he predicted the disappearance of these forms of subsistence farming. The extreme need in the 1920s following inflation, lasting unemployment, and the crisis in the world economy rehabilitated small-holder farming and self-sufficient farming especially east of the Elbe.

Forced collectivisation after 1945 resulted in a decreased ability ofagriculture to feed the population of the GDR. Everywhere in Eastern Europe agriculture was forced to finance industrialisation. But by 1953 the fear of hunger revolts and other signs of dissatisfaction had limited the collectivisation process in the countryside.Authorities had in any case allowed the reappearance of small farming in all of Eastern Europe even before this point, and it continued unofficially even after full collectivisation (1959-62), although around 1960 it had been considered as no longer existent. Small farming survived then even in those countries of the Eastern bloc where private second-occupation farming was forbidden on ideological grounds, as in countries that remained under more or less Stalinist rule until the end, especially the Soviet Union, Romania and Albania.(It was however heavily taxed)Indeed it provided for the survival of the population.

Nigel Swain, a scholar ofthe Eastern European agricultural transition process, has summarized it as follows: “Private farming was tacitly encouraged, not just as a means of survival for the rural households, but also as an additional source of income ensuring the food supply of the population. State shops bought willingly everything the households were offering. The cooperatives were encouraged to help their members with the sowing and the harvest of their private plots. But the governments refrained from making such practices public for ideological reasons.” (4).

These small farms became important once again after the fall of the Wall. Combined with a salary, unemployment benefits, or a pension, they could ensure the survival ofpeople in villages and small towns. Ninety-seven percent of all farms in Russia are such private household plots:although they make up just 6.2 percent of the cultivated area,theyproduce 39.6 percent of the agricultural output! (5) For many Eastern Europeans this rise in the importance ofprivately-run small farms was more a matter of necessity than of choice. It is striking that nearly everywhere in Eastern Europe the old people supply their grown-up children and grandchildren with produce from their gardens, whereas the young keep away from gardening. Private farming arose mostly in those regions – particularly in Hungary – where household plots had already had a successful life under socialism.

Many countries in Central and Eastern Europe, including East Germany, showed an increased interest in small private farming from 1980 on. The government in East Germany was faced with the task of slowing down migration from the countryside to the cities, migration that was rising steeply from the end of the 1970s on. Workers in the production cooperatives were allowed private farming or at least their own gardens. This “individual house farming” was rewarded through the guaranteed purchase of all produce at local government shops, created specially for that purpose, at fixed subsidized prices that were quite high. (6) Like everywhere else in Eastern Europe, these private farmers produced vegetables or maintained small animals. Near urban centers, as in Werder, an agricultural area outside of Potsdam and Berlin, fruit and vegetables were grown privately (7), whereas in the more outlying regions, as in the Uckermark, rabbit farms, geese and pigs provided for a substantial second income.

The second income was important because salaries in the agricultural production cooperatives were very low. Almost nowhere in Eastern Europe were cooperatives able to pay full salaries to their members. Instead they revertedto the old system of “payment in kind,” which had been declared dead by Max Weber already 70 years earlier in the 1890s. Instead of paying the workers their full salaries, cooperatives helped plow workers’ private plots, providing fodder for privately-owned animals, and aided in the construction of housing for participant workers. As the cooperative members had not been expropriated from their land, they were obliged in many socialist states to share the risks burdening their cooperatives. At the end of the year, after the closing of the books, the outstanding salary would be paid out to the worker, or, if necessary, withheld by the cooperative (7).

Just like the rural labourers in the “Eastern Elbe region” around 1900 , who lived almost entirely off their own produce (and as was the case nearly everywhere in Central and Eastern Europe again after 1945), cooperative workers in Gartz continued to rely on home farming for their food supply even after the creation of the cooperatives under East German socialism. The clockmaker couple of town Gartz had pigs, chickens and geese until the fall of the Wall, just like the librarian had. The later district officer had 20 pigs just like the craftman responsible for cleaning the beer taps in all the pubs, who had had 30 rabbits and 50 chickens.

This private breeding of rabbits and pigs as well as of chickens brought a significantsecond income. This was the income that provided the cooperative members with a functional standard of living. This was small farming, and it meant a real income through selling, whereas today it has really turned into gardening, that is, producing nearly entirely just for one’s own consumption (and also for the existing barter economy).

Part-time farming in the post-Socialist era

Tobacco cultivation also contributed now and again to the income ofpeople in the lower Oder region. “Such a tobacco field”, Herr Wilhelm from the construction administration in Gartz told me, “could bring up to a few hundred marks a year, and that was quite a lot before the fall of the Wall”. A hundredweight of tobacco sold for 450 marks, a pig for nearly 1500 marks, and a rabbit for up to 60 marks; such prices are unthinkable today. Herr Gerdes and Frau Meyer had together, until the fall of the Wall, 30 chickens and 20 rabbits; today they keep just five chickens and five rabbits, because the rabbit that sold for 50 marks until 1989 was worth only 15 marks in 1996, when they spoke to us. Herr Gerdes cultivated tobacco on a half acre before 1989 and got 2000 marks out of it every year. The cultivation of tobacco is a lot of work, very intensive especially during the three summer months before harvest. The entire family had to be involved: “After work my wife jumped on the back seat of the motorcycle and off we went. Our girls also joined in” (9). From the first planting to the end of the drying the tobacco required in total nine months of labour.

When we first came to Gartz in 1994, tobacco cultivation had already been suppressed nearly entirely. Tobacco cultivation was generally declared dead. Prior to 1989 tobacco brought 5 to 6000 marks to another of our informant families; by 1995, it brought only 2000 to 2500 marks. The family gave it up in 1996. Yet others started tobacco cultivation in the neighbouring Friedrichsthal in 1996 again. If the land, the barn and substantial family labour are available, then tobacco planting remains profitable even today. The tobacco grown is of a higher quality:it demands more work but can be more easily sold, even though there is no longer guaranteed purchase by the state. The district officer confirmed to us that tobacco was again playing an important role in the region since 1996. But there is no doubt that the tobacco planters draw most of their income from their pension, from early retirement, from unemployment benefits, and/or even from welfare.

From a shadow economy to a “women’s economy”

During a 1996 excursion to Gartz, our seminar group from the Faculty of Agriculture and Gardening of the Humboldt University in Berlin engaged in a conversation with Frau Walther. Since she lost her job again, she runs her small farm on her own, as her husband and daughters all have jobs outside. She keeps ducks, geese and pigs and has an orchard, though on a much smaller scale than before the fall of the Wall: “One cannot sell [these goods] anymore, because people want it all kitchen-ready now” (9). The family also grows a hectare of corn (about four acres) and a few hectares of wheat on leased land in the neighbourhood where the barns are. Vegetables however are grown just “on the scale of herbs for soup”, she says, because her husband – in contrast to when he was working at the cooperative– does not get time off from work, so he can help her only on weekends. Frau Walther would like to go back to wage work, as she enjoys being with people, but she is nevertheless proud of her pigs, as she showed them to me during my visit of late summer 1996. Her garden, on the other hand, is no longer satisfying, because the seeds have become much more expensive since the fall of the Wall. Why did she choose this activity ?Let’s say, we are used to it that way,” she says. And besides – and here she agrees with other small farmers and gardening women we asked – “it simply tastes better.”

To summerize: The recognition of gardening and small farming is by no means evident. Officially, the importance of small farming and gardening is not recognized. Part-time farming is not taken seriously because the families involved draw their main income from elsewhere.Indeed, small farming is considered a nuisance because it “occupies land”, a hobby gardener and member of the Agrarian Corporation told me as he stood in his vegetable garden. This land too commercial farms would like to use for their own agribusiness.

“Colony gardens” for the landless

These gardens are an important part of the self-image of Gartz even today. The gardens in the inner city around the huge half - restored church are kept by former refugee women who moved with their children into the half-destroyed town centre of Gartz left vacant in 1945. The gardens we had a better look at were either house gardens or lay on urban fallow land in the middle of Gartz, between the city wall and the ramparts or on the Oder River. Others lie in the “garden colony” (small plots or allotments communally rented from the city or other sources) on the outskirts of town. At least 40 percent of the garden area and generally much more is usedto grow vegetables. Less than half of the farms are hidden from the outside–as is typical for purely pleasure gardens. These are therefore traditional rural vegetable gardens and not urban decorative gardens. Nearly all have something “for the eye”, however, in the tradition of the peasant gardens of the last hundred years – flowers such as dahlias, gladiolas, asters and sunflowers.

A colony of allotment gardens was created in 1980 in the “Barn neighbourhood” (the cluster of the former tabacco barns) on the Northern edge of the town for those inhabitants of Gartz who had no house of their own. We were surprised to find how socially intact these allotment gardens were in 1996: the “colony” gardeners continued to take care of their community as they had before. In contrast to what we had heard about small farming, there was no break here in the pattern of mutual support among neighbours. This may be due to the fact that the rules and regulations oblige the allotment gardeners to engage in common activity. On the other hand, the gardeners do not as a rule respect the division of their allotments into one-third lawn, one-third vegetable plots, one-third flower beds, as required by the law. This is considered superfluous. They are proud of their independence and of their freedom of choice.

Herr Müller, formerly a cook in the nearby industrial city of Schwedt,is active as chairman of the garden colony. He and his wife grow a colourful garden on a corner plot of the colony, through a classical division of labour: she cares for the flowers and he for the vegetables. The compost heap lies out back. They get additional manure from their son who has a few pigs in a village ten kilometres away and who also supplies the neighbouring gardens in the colony with manure. The garden does not produce nearly enough potatoes for the extended family.Members meet regularly in the garden for parties, and for the exchange of plants and recipes. “I never buy anything !” Frau Müller says with determination, “I grow all the bulbs myself or we exchange them among ourselves”.

The garden on the opposite side of the pathway is run by a couple who settled in the town 20 years ago. In a similarly classic division of labour, he does the heavy digging and she does all the rest. As I walked through the garden colony in the autumn of 1996, the gardener showed me with pride her harvest of onions,cabbage, and potatoes, and presented me withsome of thefragrant produce from her large harvest.

The women, who are here the generous givers, are also in charge of the social contacts. Gardeningas an informal economy is independent of cash and as such it is a “women’s economy”: the women here make the decisions and manage and preserve social contacts through gifts and exchange.Gifts here operate in the sense decscribed by Marcel Mauss as the basis for the constitution of a society. Gardens are part of the informal economy as an extension of the household. Production is not for the market but for kitchen use, to entertain friends, and for presents within the family. The gardens therefore are the basis of a newly constituted barter economy, they are a substitute for vanishing employment, and they provide for the community farmers a sense of meaningful activity. (10)


The current debate on the need for a re-evaluation of part-time farming should allow for a stronger emphasis on the traditional solutions already in practice in rural areas. The crisis creates new room for possibilities that have been overlooked. Self-work is a substitute for lost paid activities. At the same time, it cannot be imposed from the outside. Recommendations such as those of the Bavaria-Saxony Report on the Future concerning the re-evaluation of self-work should move policy-makers to acknowledge the initiatives that already exist, and to encourage these initiatives. Jobs can be offered to the unemployed, but the latter should not be obliged to accept them.Likewise, forcing welfare recipients to do the gardening in the urban parks often produces negative results and therefore harms the community.

In contrast, voluntary work is a consciously autonomous activity within one’s own traditional frameworks, according to one’s individual education and preferences.As such it is full of promise for the individual as well as for the community and for a whole region. Self-work means the re-evaluation of life in a region, because it promotes direct exchange and direct contact among people near their homes. Increased self-work therefore supports social interaction as a condition for rural life. Regional self-supplying increases the feeling for the meaning of one’s activity through a clear understanding of the reach and of the limits of the possibilities to influence the social and natural environment, within comprehensible living and working conditions. A meaningful local social policy should therefore aim primarily at the conservation and promotion of the “social capital” in the communal societies – as a counterweight to the psychically destructive experience of unemployment, poverty, and social exclusion. A new social policy should offer perspectives and options for action beyond the rigid maintenance ofreceived forms of social life, and that means – at least for the rural areas – that the communes must make land available for all those who want it (11). We recommend our federal government enable the acquisition of land property for as many people in the East as in the West. In addition sustainability programs ( in terms of the Agenda 21 or Rio Conference) should respect the living and working conditions of the rural population, and that means also the promotion of small farming.

überarbeitete Fassung von "Gänse im Garten", in: Der Kritische Agrarbericht 2002, hrsg. vom AgrarBündnis, GhK AG Land- und Regionalentwicklung, AbL Verlag 59065 Hamm/Westf., S. 166-172



1.        See IRMTRAUT GRÜNSTEIDEL: Community GardensGrüne Oasen in den Ghettos von New York. In: ELISABETH MEYER-RENSCHHAUSEN and ANNE HOLL (Ed.): Die Wiederkehr der Gärten – Kleinlandwirtschaft im Zeitalter der Globalisierung. Innsbruck/Wien/München 2000, S. 125-139. and EDIE STONE: Community Gardening wird zur politischen Bewegung. In: ELISABETH MEYER-RENSCHHAUSEN, RENATE MÜLLER, PETRA BECKER for the working group Small-scale farming (Ed.): Die Gärten der Frauen – zur sozialen Bedeutung von Kleinstlandwirtschaft in Stadt und Land weltweit. Herbolzheim: Centaurus 2001.

2.        with a seminar group from the Institute for Sociology of the Free University Berlin 4.-7. July 1994. Participants: Bianca Brohmer, Meike Fürchtenich, Nathalie Groß, Kati Ihde, Henning Marten, Nadja Messeschmidt, Denise Notter, Manuela Liske, Uta Rüdel, Rena Schade, Katja Simons and Mareile Zech under leading of Hartwig Berger and Elisabeth Meyer-Renschhausen

3.        MAX WEBER: Verhältnisse der Landarbeiter im ostelbischen Deutschland, dargestellt auf Grund der vom Verein für Sozialpolitik veranstalteten Erhebungen. Schriften des Vereins für Sozialpolitik, Bd.55, Leipzig 1892.

4.        NIGEL SWAIN: „Hier steht jeder auf zwei Beinen“ – Die Kleinlandwirtschaft im postsozialistischen Mittel- und Osteuropa. In: Die Wieder­kehr der Gärten (a.a.O.), S. 45-64, 48.

5.        NIGEL SWAIN: Traditionen der häuslichen Kleinlandwirtschaft in Osteuropa, in: Die Gärten der Frauen (a.a.O.).

6.        Vgl. BARBARA ROCKSLOH-PAPENDIECK: Verlust der kollektiven Bindung – Frauenalltag in der Wende. Pfaffenweiler: Centaurus 1995.

7.        For further developments see: ELISABETH MEYER-RENSCHHAUSEN: Vom Ackerbürgertum zur Schrebergartenkolonie – Verarmungs- und Reagrarisierungsprozesse in der Geschichte kleiner Landstädte Nordostdeutschlands. In: ELISABETH MEYER-RENSCHHAUSEN and ANNE HOLL (a.a.O.), S. 9-19.

8.        Interviews in the frame of a seminar-excursion 6.-8.6.1996 with Ulrike Borrmann, Kerstin Hamann, Julia Kemna, Yvonne Klepacz led by Elisabeth Meyer-Renschhausen and Parto Teherani-Krönner.

9.        See e.g. ULRICH BECK: Erwerbsarbeit durch Bürgerarbeit ergänzen. In: Kommission für Zukunftsfragen der Freistaaten Bayern und Sachsen (Ed): Erwerbstätigkeit und Arbeitslosigkeit in Deutschland. Entwicklung, Ursachen und Maßnahmen (Teil III, Maßnahmen zur Verbesserung der Beschäftigungslage), Bonn 1997 or ULRICH BECK (Ed.): Schöne neue Arbeitswelt, Frankfurt a.M.: Campus 1999, S. 7-190.

10.    Whereas every second household in the West has land property, only one-fourth of the households in the East – 1993 figures – owned land, a home or an appartment.See: Pressedienst des Haus- und Grundbesitzerverbandes 21.8.1995.

11.    STEPHEN K. WEGREN (Ed.): Land Reform in the Former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. London/New York: Routledge, S. 39. Vgl. auch NIGEL SWAIN, Traditionen der häuslichen Kleinlandwirtschaft in Osteuropa, in: Elisabeth Meyer-Renschhausen, Renate Müller, Petra Becker  für die Arbeitsgruppe Kleinstandwirtschaft, Hrsg., Die Gärten der Frauen – zur sozialen Bedeutung von Kleinlandwirtschaft in Stadt und Land weltweit, erscheint im Herbst 2001 in Herboldheim bei Centaurus


Dr. Elisabeth Meyer-Renschhausen, Bülowstraße 74, D 10783 Berlin-Schöneberg, Germany

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