Livestock Research for Rural Development 26 (6) 2014 Guide for preparation of papers LRRD Newsletter

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Men, women, maize and sheep. The mixed farming system of Colonia Veracruz, Hidalgo, Mexico

Verónica Vázquez-García

Colegio de Postgraduados - Carretera Federal México-Texcoco Km. 36.5, Montecillo, EDOMEX 56230, México


Women play an important role in small ruminant production. However, their contributions remain under-recognized by animal scientists and policy makers. This paper examines the mixed farming system of Colonia Veracruz, Mexico from a gendered rights and responsibilities approach. Two workshops, two group interviews, six individual interviews and a questionnaire applied to 40 households were the main research methods. While women were able to provide information about sheep production, they had relatively little knowledge on commercial fodder production. Most women have to spend money (either to purchase food or to pay for the rights to graze) to feed their sheep. Women also harvest leftover maize from the fields in order to feed their families and animals. The paper concludes that a market-oriented, male-dominated agriculture devoted to fodder production for bovine consumption has meant less food for small, female-managed herds of sheep.

Key words: fodder production, gender, household, rights, responsibilities, small ruminants


Women play an important role in the small ruminant component of mixed farming systems. However, their contributions remain under-recognized by scientists and policy makers (Upton 1985; Eade and Williams 1995; Sinn et al 1999; World Bank 2009; FAO 2012; Taj et al 2012). The objective of this paper is to examine the mixed farming system of Colonia Veracruz (CV), an ejido (a form of social property that can only be transferred among family members) belonging to the municipality of Mixquiahuala, Mezquital Valley, state of Hidalgo, Mexico.

The valley is worth studying for two reasons. First, it is the largest agricultural area irrigated with residual waters in the world. These waters come from the domestic and industrial sewages of Mexico City and surrounding localities, and they are used to irrigate 99,536 hectares belonging to 51,107 farmers who grow maize, alfalfa and oatmeal for bovine consumption (Ortega 2011; Jiménez and Chávez 2011). Second, Hidalgo is the state with the second largest flock of sheep in the country (1,099,773 head), positioned only after the State of Mexico (1,307,371 head) (SAGARPA 2011). Sheep can be found in the rural areas of Hidalgo and are raised by women in small herds.

Conceptual framework: the mixed farming system from a gendered rights and responsibilities approach

Mexican scholars have identified three systems to account for livestock production: intensive; semi-intensive or mixed; and extensive. In the first, animals are confined, and farmers depend on high-performing breeds, industrial inputs, waste management and food safety measures. Mixed farming systems combine crops with livestock production. Animal feeding is based on grazing native grassland, roadsides or crop residues, with limited use of supplements. Finally, in extensive production systems, pastoralist groups feed animals mostly on grasslands, and their major source of income is obtained from the sale of milk, meat and handicrafts (Toledo 2003; Arriaga-Jordan et al 2005; Améndola et al 2006; Gómez-Castro et al 2011).

When it comes to small ruminants, mixed farming systems are the most predominant in Mexico (Vieyra et al 2009; Tovar 2009; Martínez-González 2011). Labor is a major issue in the analysis of such systems. However, researchers have failed to identify gendered patterns of rights and responsibilities regarding sheep production. The most common term to describe the people who raise sheep is that of “producers”, without providing their sex. By default, male producers are considered the main breadwinners. They are also assumed to own the animals and, as such, they become the sole beneficiaries of financial, technical and veterinary services (see Vieyra et al 2009; Martínez-González et al 2011). Other scholars (Pérez et al ND; Arriaga-Jordán and Pearson 2004) acknowledge that mixed farming systems are highly dependent on “family labor” because animals must be herded and supervised when foraging. Yet no differences are made among different groups of people (women, children, elderly) in terms of labor responsibilities and access rights. Finally, scholars working on the Tzoztil mixed farming system of Chiapas (Perezgrovas and Castro 2000; Alemán et al 2002) highlight women’s roles in sheep management and contribution to family income, but they fail to acknowledge gender differences in terms of access and control over resources and decision-making power within the household.

This paper uses a gendered rights and responsibilities approach in order to analyze women’s roles in sheep production within the mixed farming system of CV. The term “rights” refers to access and control over strategic resources such as grazing land, water, fodder and income. Generally, women have less access and control than men (Eade and Williams 1995; IFAD 2004; World Bank 2009; FAO 2012). In turn, “responsibilities” refers to the gendered obligations to conduct certain activities, as well as the social power associated with them. The relationship between rights and responsibilities is not straightforward; it is contingent upon the kin and household arrangements operating within particular cultural contexts. Women may be responsible for small ruminant production, but this does not mean that they formally own the animals (Joekes et al 2004).

Location and research design

The ejido of CV was founded in 1936 with lands that belonged to an old hacienda called Veracruz: “we now have what used to belong to the hacendados”. Sixty peasants that worked for the hacienda received their own allocation of land. In 1949, CV became part of the “Irrigation District 003-Tula”, one of the most important of the Mezquital Valley. To the present day, residual waters obtained from the sewage system of Mexico City and surrounding areas are used to grow maize, alfalfa and oatmeal for bovine consumption (Robles 2000; Santillán 2011).

CV has a population of 2,093 people (INEGI 2010). The ejido has an extension of 465 hectares divided into three areas defined by use: 80 for rainfed crops, 345 for irrigated crops and 40 hectares for common use. There are 243 ejidatarios, each with approximately three hectares of land. A person’s property may not necessarily be in the same area. Typically, one person will have both rainfed and irrigated lands.

Data was collected at four different levels: state (Hidalgo), regional (Mezquital Valley), municipal (Mixquiahuala) and ejido (CV). Research techniques included two workshops, two group interviews, six individual interviews and a survey applied to 40 households. Following Morgan (1998), a qualitative preliminary, exploratory inquiry was done prior to a study that is principally quantitative. The activities were organized as follows.

On August 5, 2011, a workshop was conducted at the office of the Instituto Hidalguense de las Mujeres (Hidalgo’s Women’s Institute) with 23 participants (17 women and 4 men) that represented nine government, academic and civil society institutions. Its purpose was to identify the gender impacts of economic and environmental transformations in Hidalgo, using group discussion and problem prioritization techniques. On September 23, 2011, another workshop was conducted at Actopan, a small city in the Mezquital Valley, in order to explore the same issues but only at the valley. Participants included fifteen women representing regional government agencies and civil society organizations. In November and December 2011, two group interviews were done with municipal and agrarian authorities (one with women and the other one with men) of Mixquiahuala. These were followed by six semi-structured interviews with four women and two men at CV.

The workshops and interviews were essential to generate the main research technique to further investigate at the ejido level, which consisted of a close-ended questionnaire that was applied to a sample of 40 households randomly selected from the list of ejidatarios. Having ejido rights was an important pre-requisite because most questions addressed agricultural issues. All questionnaires were answered by adult women since the idea was to compare their involvement in commercial fodder production and sheep production. Questions focused on household composition and gendered rights and responsibilities regarding these two activities. A five point Likert scale was also used in order to determine women’s opinions on residual water use and the role of small ruminants in the household economy.

Results and discussion

Family, land and labor in Colonia Veracruz

Surveyed households share some interesting features. Land rights are in the hands of an aging generation that shares labor and expenses with their married children. Land sales are minimal, but land rentals are relatively old (some people have rented their land for 15 years) and frequent (10% of households chose this option in the 2011 cycle).

With some variations, these features are common to many ejidos in Mexico. The national average age for the people with ejido rights is 55 years old. Nationwide, land sales occur in two out of three ejidos, but the amount of land sold accounts for only 2.9% of the 105 million of hectares of social property existing in the country. By contrast, about one fourth of arable land in Mexico (28.8%) is under rental or a medias agreements, a very common situation in areas where commercial agriculture predominates (Robles 2007, 2010). The percentage of land rentals in CV is not as high, but it shows that the Mezquital Valley is at least partially devoted to commercial agriculture (61% of the population of the Mezquital Valley lives of irrigated agriculture and the region contributes with 42% of the state GDP). The use of residual waters represents important savings in fertilizers (they are believed to “have nutrients”) and electricity, since farmers do not have to pay “per hour” for electricity-operated well irrigation. Fodder production with residual waters is a profitable activity for ejidatarios with investment capacities (Cruz 2011; Ortega 2011; Jiménez and Chávez 2011).

Gendered rights and responsibilities in commercial fodder production

Only seven out of 40 women provided information on costs related to maize’s productive cycle. The figures varied a lot depending on inputs, labor and machinery. Most had very little knowledge of input prices, since they are generally bought by men. Only one woman explained in detail the profits made from maize sales (110,000 pesos a year, equivalent to 9,166 US dollars at an exchange rate of 12 pesos per dollar. In the rest of the paper, amounts will be given in Mexican pesos). Just two women knew about government subsidies, which are overwhelmingly targeted to men (4,600 pesos and 4,750 pesos a year, respectively). The differences between both figures can be attributed to the number of hectares belonging to each individual farmer.

Women stated that they lacked information because decisions were “made by my husband” or “my sons”. In other words, commercial fodder production in CV is as a male responsibility and most decisions are made by men. According to the surveyed women, basic family needs and the next agricultural cycle were the most important items in which fodder production revenues (2011 cycle) were spent. However, only 24 declared having received benefits from the income obtained from the sale of maize; smaller amounts (15 and 12, respectively) obtained fodder for their sheep or maize for their families.

This means that access rights to income, fodder and maize for human consumption in CV are gendered. In other words, households diversify their activities in order to survive and increase their living standards (Ellis 1998). Intra-household resource transfers and expenditures are shaped by power differentials between genders (Katz 1995). Households may have various (male and female) income streams and money may not necessarily be pooled; it may be spent independently by men and women (Bruce 1989; Deere 1995; Deere et al, 1997).

Table 1 shows that most women (34) strongly agreed or agreed with this statement: “residual waters have contributed to the development of CV”. When direct benefits to women were included in the statement (“residual water irrigation has contributed to women’s advancement”), the number of women who strongly agreed or agreed went down to 28, with a big difference between the two categories (10 strongly agreed and 18 agreed)

Table 1. Women’s opinions on commercial fodder production, sheep production and maize gleaning
  Strongly agrees Agrees Total
Commercial fodder production
Residual waters have contributed to the development of CV 19 15 34
Residual water irrigation has contributed to women’s advancement 18 10 28
Sheep production
Sheep are a great help for the household economy 27 7 34
Sheep in CV have safe places to eat 6 9 15
Maize gleaning
Maize gleaning after harvest is worth it 24 9 33
There will always be maize to glean in my region 7 9 16
Source: household survey, December 2011

To sum up, fodder production in CV is a male responsibility, and men decide over labor allocation and income use. Women have limited access rights to income, fodder for their sheep and maize for their families. A majority of women (85%) strongly believes or believes that residual waters have contributed to the development of their community, but a smaller percentage (70%) see direct benefit for them. As other studies have shown (Deere et al 1997; Barriteau 2000), the predominance of a market-oriented agriculture in CV has not benefited men and women equally.

Gendered rights and responsibilities in sheep management

Sheep herding was identified as an important female activity by the women who participated in the Actopan workshop. Images of female pastoralists were invoked as a powerful ingredient of the regional landscape. The questionnaire applied at CV confirmed these images. Seventy-five percent of the surveyed women (30 of 40) raise domestic animals, mostly sheep (22), from one to 70 head, with a total of 306 for the whole sample and an average of 14 per woman. Sixteen of the 30 women who raise animals use them both for income and household consumption; seven, only as food; the remaining seven raise sheep only for income generating purposes. Animals are a form of savings in times of need: “we sell them to buy maize”, “we sell them to buy fodder”, “an emergency, a necessity, a sickness or a party, we can take from there”. Other studies have reported similar results (Upton 1985; Okaly and Sumberg 1995; Eade and Williams 1995; Sinn et al 1999; World Bank 2009; FAO 2012; Taj et al 2012).

When asked about the ways in which sheep were fed, women’s responses indicated five possibilities. Women said that they bought commercial food; they took sheep to maize fields after harvest; they used locally grown alfalfa; they took grass to the household; and they herded their sheep from two to four hours a day. Strategies vary throughout the year depending on herd size, agricultural cycles and women’s access to land and money. The 22 women who raise sheep were asked about their strategies to feed their animals during the week previous to the questionnaire application. As opposed to fodder production, where very few were able to provide information, all 22 women offered details on this matter. The same woman could use one, two or three of the following options: 68% had obtained alfalfa, oatmeal, pasture or maize from the family ejido lands, or had herded their animals in common areas; 60% had bought commercial food (309 pesos per woman on average) and 36% had paid ejidatarios for permission to introduce their animals after maize harvests (115 pesos per woman on average). The combination of options is presented in table 2.

Table 2. Women’s strategies to feed their sheep
Number of heads Using family/common lands Buying commercial food Paying for leftovers in ejido lands
60 X
50 X
5 X X
2 X
1 X X
8 X
10 X
10 X
10 X X
10 X X X
7 X X X
6 X X
10 X
5 X
15 X X
4 X X
70 X X
14 X X
22 X X X
13 X
19 X
5 X
Source: household survey, December 2011

In the first option, women use local resources to feed their animals, at no cost, while in the last two, women must spend money to do so. In the last few years, ejidatarios have started to charge “one peso per head for two or three days”. Moreover, common grazing areas (included in option 1) are becoming unsafe because some animals are herded near the canals where residual waters are transported (significant amounts of grass grow along the way) and they get sick. “When I took them along the canal, they all started to get sick and died in two weeks. I went into debt”. In fact, high levels of biological and chemical pollution have been found in the waters of the Mezquital Valley (Robles 2000; Cruz 2011; Vázquez-García and Muñoz-Rodriguez 2012). The impact of water pollution on sheep’s health was a big concern for the women who participated in the Actopan workshop. Since14 of 25 municipalities of the valley use residual waters for irrigated agriculture, access rights to safe grazing areas is a very important issue for the women of the region.

Fifteen women reported sheep sales during 2011, with revenues ranging from 800 pesos for a head of sheep to 17,800 for 15 head, and average earnings of 3,533 pesos per woman, per year. Earnings are much lower than those obtained by men through fodder production. However, only one woman was familiar with fodder production revenues, whereas data on sheep were provided by a larger number of them. In other words, access rights to income are gendered depending on their origin, with men handling fodder production revenues and women handling those obtained from sheep sales. This confirms, again, that households in CV have gendered, independent income streams (Bruce 1989; Deere 1995; Deere et al 1997).

Sheep revenues are spent on four items, in order of importance: basic family needs, health care, sheep reinvestments and land transactions. In contrast, fodder production revenues are spent in only two (basic family needs and productive reinvestments). The difference does not show real expenditure patterns (which would require a more in-depth analysis of information provided by both men and women). It only illustrates how the gendered patterns of rights and responsibilities involving fodder and sheep shape women’s knowledge of household expenditures.

The importance of sheep production for women can be perceived in this statement, which was strongly agreed or agreed upon by 34 women: “sheep are a great help for the household economy”. However, sheep’s livelihoods are at risk, as shown by this other statement: “sheep in CV have safe places to eat”, which was strongly agreed or agreed upon by only 15 women (see table 1).

To sum up, 55% of the surveyed women raise sheep. Of these, 96% had to spend money (by buying commercial food or paying ejidatarios) to feed them. Sheep revenues are lower than fodder production ones, but women actually handle sheep revenues and were able to report a larger variety of items when asked about expenses. Sheep are important for the household economy, as agreed upon by 85% of women. However, 37.5% consider that their animals do not have safe places to eat.

Maize gleaning (pepena de maíz): a gendered strategy to increase access to food

As noted earlier, residual waters make of fodder production a very profitable activity because farmers save money on fertilizers and electricity. However, women have limited access to income, fodder and maize resulting from this activity. Many are forced to glean maize (pepenar maíz) in ejido lands that are not their own. Ejidatarios use machines for harvesting, and women are allowed to enter the fields when the machines are done. One-third (14 of 40) of the surveyed women had gleaned maize during the month prior to the questionnaire, usually twice a week.

Interestingly, it is the women and not the men who are responsible for maize gleaning. Having men doing so would mean that they are failing in their roles as main breadwinners with no time to waste. “Women can spend the whole day in the fields, because they are used to maize gleaning”. By contrast, men “only help to carry” it back home. Women’s age and status are also important. Older women do not go to the fields for “health reasons”, and upper class women do not risk being criticized for not having food at home and being forced to “waste their time” gleaning other people’s remains. When asked about their main occupation, most women stated to be “housewives”. However, their actions showed otherwise. During the questionnaire application it was hard to find them, since they were either looking after their animals or gleaning maize.

The social construction of men as breadwinners and women as housewives pervades rural settings around the world. Women with limited access to employment are pushed into “complementary” activities that are of no interest to men, such as harvesting, gleaning and bartering foods. These activities are generally invisible to scientists and policy makers in spite of their contribution to diet diversification and family wellbeing (Leach 1994; Martí 2001; Seligmann 2001; Schreckemberg et al 2006).

CV is a case in point. The gleaned maize is used for both human and animal consumption. It is a strategy developed by women to increase their access to food. Gleaning maize allows them to avoid paying for commercial food or post- harvest feeding lands. Of the 14 women who gleaned maize the month prior to the questionnaire, six used it to feed their families, one only to feed her animals and seven to feed both. Maize gleaning is a socially accepted way to distribute production surplus, provided it is women in need who receive it. In their roles as caregivers, women are expected to provide food for their families and animals. It is hard to deny them the means to do so. However, some ejidatarios do hire laborers for maize gleaning, thus restricting women’s access to food even further.

The majority of women (33), regardless of whether they get involved in gleaning or not, strongly agreed or agreed with this statement: “maize gelaning after harvest is worth it”. However, less than half (16) strongly agreed or agreed with this: “there will always be maize to glean in my region”. Gleaning activities is an invisible task that, like sheep production, is being negatively affected by fodder-oriented, male-dominated agriculture (see table 1).

To sum up, 35% of women engage in gleaning activities in other people’s land after harvest. They are tolerated because such maize is used for subsistence (family and livestock). However, some ejidatarios have started to hire day laborers for maize gleaning. A majority of women (82.5%) consider maize gleaning worth it, but only 40% believe that the activity will continue in the region. In other words, women’s access to food for their animals and families is impacted negatively by the fodder oriented agriculture that predominates in the region.


The purpose of this paper was to examine the mixed farming system from a gendered rights and responsibilities approach. Research was conducted in CV, an ejido of the Mezquital Valley, Hidalgo, Mexico. The literature on mixed farming systems acknowledges the combination of livestock with crops and the contribution of animals in the way of manure, meat, milk, fiber and income. However, it fails to distinguish gendered patterns of labor responsibilities and access rights to productive resources such as grazing land and income.

The gendered rights and responsibilities approach allowed us to distinguish three productive areas where men and women have different tasks. Commercial fodder production for bovine consumption is a profitable activity because residual waters help farmers save money in fertilizers and electricity. It is also a male responsibility and women have limited access rights to the revenues and goods generated through fodder production. By contrast, animal production is a female responsibility. Most women raise animals, generally sheep. Less income is obtained from sheep production compared to fodder production, but women have access to such income and are able to spend it on family needs, health care, productive reinvestments and even land transactions.

In spite of sheep’s importance to the household economy, most women have to spend money to feed their animals by buying commercial food or paying for grazing lands that used to be free. Moreover, the pollution of common grazing areas (i.e. along the canals with residual waters) is posing threats to sheep’s health.  In order to counteract these problems, women resort to maize gleaning after harvest. Such maize is used not only for sheep, but also to feed the women’s families. Maize gleaning has become a socially accepted way of distributing surplus among the local population. Maize gleaning is also a highly gendered activity, since it is the women, legitimized by their roles as caregivers, who can actually glean maize remains.

The predominance of a market-oriented agriculture in CV has not benefited men and women equally. Women believe that commercial fodder production with residual waters has contributed to the development of their ejido and (somewhat less) to women’s advancement, but they also believe that sheep do not have safe places to eat, and that gleaning maize is becoming increasingly difficult.


The author would like to thank the Instituto Hidalguense de las Mujeres (Hidalgo’s Women’s Institute) for funding this research. Carolina Muñoz-Rodriguez helped with some fieldwork activities.


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Received 26 March 2014; Accepted 7 May 2014; Published 1 June 2014

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