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Engendering European alternative food networks through countertopographies

Perspectives from Latvia
Engendrer des systèmes alimentaires européens alternatifs par le biais de contre-topographies : perspectives de Lettonie
Renata Blumberg


Recent interventions in scholarly literature have revealed how alternative methods of food production and provision are empowering for women farmers. This literature has been largely based on the historical trajectory of agriculture in the US and Western Europe, where women have been marginalized and excluded as farmers. In contrast, in post-Soviet space in Eastern Europe, women have not encountered the same forms of exclusion, but they face different challenges maintaining agricultural livelihoods. Drawing upon research with women farmers engaged in sustainable forms of agriculture and alternative food networks in Latvia, I demonstrate that although women are not marginalized in agricultural spaces, farm and marketing work remains gendered. Using the concept of countertopographies, I draw connections between the evidence from scholarly literature and my case study sites in order to identify how similar processes have shaped gender relations and produced diverging outcomes, but also to provide a framework for organizing and bridging differences across space.

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I would like to thank the farmers who took the time to talk to me, and thank you also to the editors of this special issue and the reviewers for their insightful feedback on earlier versions of this article. Finally, I am grateful to Emeline Frix at Montclair State University who translated the title, abstract and keywords. All errors remain my own.


  • 1 This article includes material from my PhD dissertation (Blumberg 2014).

1In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic brought disruptions in conventional and globalized food supply chains, which heightened the significance of more localized, Alternative Food Networks (AFNs) (Hilchey 2021).1 From farmers’ markets to community supported agriculture, AFNs function as direct-to-consumer marketing channels that directly bring together consumers and farmers in a manner that is differentiated from conventional food marketing and retail channels (Goodman, Dupuis & Goodman 2011). AFNs gain support from strong consumer interest in locally sourced food, but they also provide livelihood opportunities for farmers. Emerging research has begun to more explicitly consider the relationship between gender and AFNs. Focusing on women farmers in the US and Western Europe, scholars have found that alternative methods of food production and distribution are empowering (Blum 2011; Jarosz 2011; Trauger 2004; Trauger et al. 2010). However, these findings are based on a historical trajectory of food production and consumption in which women farmers were marginalized from agricultural spaces, particularly since the late nineteenth century. The growing popularity of sustainable agriculture and AFNs has provided women with an opportunity to pursue farming as a livelihood activity. In Soviet and post-Soviet space, in contrast, women were not marginalized from agricultural spaces, even if agricultural labour was gendered. Therefore, possibilities for women’s empowerment as farmers have to be understood as emerging within specific historical and gendered trajectories of agricultural production and distribution. Even in proximate places, which are now governed by similar agricultural and rural policies (like many parts of Western and Eastern Europe), different possibilities exist for women farmers.

2Drawing upon interviews and ethnographic fieldwork with women farmers who participate in AFNs in Latvia, I examine their gendered livelihoods, I analyse whether women farmers have faced obstacles in taking up farming as a livelihood activity, and I describe the specific challenges they have faced. I argue that women have not faced obstacles in taking up farming as a livelihood activity; rather, women farmers face challenges related to the gendered labour corresponding to women’s responsibility in managing both social reproduction and production for profit. I define social reproduction as the “fleshy, messy, and indeterminate stuff of everyday life” (Katz 2001b : 711), involving both the everyday and the long-term reproduction of labour power. AFNs have provided a source of livelihood for women farmers, but uneven development throughout the countryside, outmigration, and competition limit the capacity of women farmers to ensure social reproduction of their households and to make a sustainable livelihood, especially in difficult economic times.

3To explain the differences between my findings and existing research, I base my analysis on the understanding that space is constituted by multiple trajectories of sociospatial change (Hart 2002). Different historical trajectories have informed agricultural gender regimes in Eastern European nation-states, such as Latvia, and those in Western Europe. Western European historical trajectories have played a significant role shaping scholarship on gender and agriculture in European rural sociology and geography. Therefore, it is necessary to bring these different trajectories to light, but it is equally important to reveal connections (see Katz 2004). To do this, I use Katz’s concept of countertopographies (Katz 2001a) to connect regions across Europe and trace how these places experienced the same processes (see also Pratt & Yeoh 2003). This concept builds upon the symbolism of contour lines found on topographic maps that connect points of the same elevation, but in Katz’s (2001a) usage the contour lines connect different places analytically that are experiencing common processes (see also Caretta & Cheptum 2019; Mullaney 2012). Specifically, I provide a broad overview of how processes of industrialization in agriculture, globalization, as well as its contestation through alternative forms of production and distribution, produced different gendered outcomes for women farmers across Europe.

4In order to trace the contour lines across places, I first analyse the scholarly literature on gender and agriculture related to Western Europe by paying attention to broader patterns related to the industrialization of agriculture, globalization and the growth of alternative forms of production and distribution, including AFNs. Second, I address these three processes as they materialized across Soviet/ post-Soviet space, and Latvia specifically, by drawing upon the scholarly literature on gender and agriculture from the region. Rather than providing a comprehensive review of the literatures on gender and agriculture across Europe, the project undertaken in this article is to provide the starting point for broader countertopographies to forge a more inclusive and sustainable food system in Europe by appreciating how similar processes produce differentiated landscapes. To that end, I focus on women farmers working within AFNs in Latvia and identify the challenges they face by analysing materials from ethnographic fieldwork and interviews conducted over several months from 2009 to 2013. During those years, I followed the course that these women’s livelihoods took as Latvia endured and slowly recovered from the financial crisis of 2008-2010 (see also Blumberg 2014; Blumberg 2018; Blumberg & Mincyte 2019; Blumberg & Mincyte 2020; Blumberg 2021). I conclude by highlighting how AFNs have provided opportunities but that these are limited by the sociospatial context.

From farmwives to farmers in Western Europe

5In the 20th century US, Canada, the UK, and other parts of Western Europe, women faced significant challenges in their efforts to take up farming as an occupation (Brandth 2002; Sachs 1996). While established practices of inheritance limited women’s access to farms, occupational discrimination prohibited them from becoming educated and working as farmers. Instead, they were relegated to the status of “farmwives” or “helpers” (Brandth 2002). On the farm, the (male) farmer was the farm’s public face and its private authority, even though a family farm often relied on the labour of all family members. In her review of gender relations on Western European family farms, Brandth argues that women’s responsibility for household work and care was “regarded as a ‘natural’ distribution of work on the basis of certain gender specific attributes” (2002 : 184). Women’s labour took place in the privacy of the farm household, a spatial seclusion that enabled the invisibility of women’s farm labour.

6Despite impressions of the entrenched and traditional nature of the family farm, along with its attendant subordinated position for women farm workers, the masculinization of agriculture is a recent development (Brandth 2002). Indeed, the industrialization of agriculture, which is also referred to as the modernization paradigm in agriculture, brought the masculinization of farming professions. Before the 19th century, when the commodification of agriculture and tendencies toward greater mechanization and specialization revolutionized agricultural production, women’s labour on subsistence peasant farms was both visible and sometimes even autonomous (Brandth 2002). In Norway, for instance, men only started to take more control over farming when it became profitable in the late 19th century (Haugen 1990), a process that was legitimized and enforced through the mechanization (and masculinization) of production. With this transformation, women were marginalized from the agricultural spaces they had controlled. Similarly, in 20th century Germany, women farmers lost access to the personal incomes they generated through direct marketing (Prugl 2004).

7In other sectors the advance of capitalism also relied on the marginalization of women and the reworking of gendered labour (see Federici 2004). However, this process was not an isolated historical incident; the geographies of capital are constantly reworking “the basis of labour’s value to capital, a process of reproducing and recombining interlocking social differences into novel combinations of exploitable workers” (Werner 2012 : 403). The production of gender relations thus has constituted and enabled capitalist restructuring.

8With the modernization of agriculture in Western Europe, women continued to play important but unrecognized roles on farms. This led researchers to focus more specifically on the dynamics at work within the family farm. The concept of “gender regime” is often used to capture how gender relations become solidified within institutions like the family farm (see Whatmore 1991). On family farms, gender regimes enforce a gender-based division of labour, which was imbued with power relations (Evans & Ilbery 1996). The gender regime on family farms relied upon women’s labour to maintain the general economy of the farm. Within these gender regimes, it was the women’s responsibility to do work that was both subordinated and unremunerated. Writing about mid-twentieth century France, for instance, Delphy described how women were delegated to do the “subordinate, dirty, difficult, nonmechanised tasks” (1980 : 27), especially those concerning animal care.

9The analytic necessity to study both household economic relations and relations within the broader agrarian economy motivated Whatmore’s (1991) research on British family farms. By unpacking the household, and the relations through which it is constituted, she argued that the family farm should not be treated as a sealed black box. Accounting for power relations, as well as situating the household economy within the broader political economy, Whatmore’s (1991) notion of the “domestic political economy” intermingled an analysis of social reproduction and production for profit. Although their agency within these economies was limited, O’Hara’s (1998) analysis of 20th century Ireland demonstrated that women exhibited widespread and nuanced forms of resistance to marrying farmers and becoming farmwives or “farm women.”

10Feminist analysis of 20th century family farming in Western Europe has produced insights on the consequences of industrialization in agriculture, in addition to honing theoretical tools to understand the relationship between the household and capitalist economies. Feminist scholars highlighted how the modernization of agriculture was enabled by the reworking of gender regimes on the farm and gender orders at the scale of the nation-state. Men took control of farming sectors that had been overseen by women, and although in most cases women’s farm labour was still significant and integral to the success of the farm, it became subordinated and unrecognized politically and economically. These developments reveal how capitalist and household economic practices are intimately intermingled; while capitalist logic is clearly limited, that does not mean that non-capitalist household economic practices are insulated from capital’s circuits. On the other hand, the transformed gender regimes that maintained household economies also underpinned the success of the modernization paradigm, contributing eventually to a crisis.

11Starting in the 1980s, the modernization paradigm in agriculture began to experience a crisis in Western Europe brought on in part by globalization. Up until then, the industrialization of agriculture had continued as long as the long-term decline in real producer prices and the simultaneous increasing costs associated with the capitalization of farming were both offset by a growing demand that could absorb an increasing food supply (IMPACT 2014). What eventually resulted was that farmers in the developed world were increasingly competing with each other for global markets. The concomitant rising influence of neoliberal globalization after the fall of the Soviet Union encouraged national governments and a strengthened EU to foster an ideology of rural entrepreneurship and global competitiveness by exploiting comparative advantages and niche markets (Prugl 2004). Because fewer farmers could compete on such terms, this generated a crisis for agrarian livelihoods and for the patriarchal agricultural welfare state (Brandth 2002). Shifting gender orders in agriculture played a central role in facilitating these changes. In fact, challenges to the patriarchal agricultural welfare state generated a crisis of masculinity in rural areas in Europe (Brandth 2002).

12The modernization paradigm and the globalization of agricultural supply chains also generated a surge of criticism from environmental and consumer movements. As a result of continuous pressure, new policies to support organic farming were implemented by the EU. The new support had a geopolitical dimension, too: the EU was facing pressure at the global scale and the introduction of organic subsidies allowed it to maintain less controversial support for its farmers. Nevertheless, the crisis in rural masculinity and industrialized agriculture, coupled with new state support, brought about an opening for women farmers to engage in more sustainable forms of multifunctional agriculture, including AFNs.

13Although women farmers in West European countries still confront difficulties in asserting their identities as farmers or challenging their subordinate status (Pedersen & Kjaergard 2004; Prugl 2004), there is a growing presence of women who are recognized and recognize themselves as farmers. There is also evidence that supports that organic farming and the movement towards food localization, especially through AFNs, are providing opportunities for women farmers (see Annes & Wright 2016; Annes, Wright & Larkins 2021; Pedersen and Kjaergard 2004; Prugl 2004; Stenbacka 2017).

14While these developments are remarkable, they must also be seen as rooted in specific agricultural histories. Feminist scholars of agrarian change have demonstrated that the commodification of agriculture produced diverse outcomes in different places in part because of how capital articulated with existing markers of social difference, state policies, nationalism, imperialism, and women’s practices (see Ramamurthy 2000). With this in mind, in the following section, I map gender orders and regimes in the agricultural sector in Latvia, a Baltic state, which despite being a part of the EU since 2004, have seen different outcomes than those documented in the aforementioned literature. I pay particular attention to the processes of agricultural industrialization, globalization, as well as its contestation through alternative forms of production and distribution, including AFNs.

From Kolkhoz milkmaids to peasant farmers in Soviet and post-Soviet Latvia

15The industrialisation of agriculture in the Soviet Union was largely achieved through a violent process of forced collectivization, which involved making peasant farmers, including women, into farm workers. While the Soviet state claimed to emancipate women by employing them in the labour force, the participation of women in Soviet development was an economic necessity, especially during and after World War II. Most women in the USSR were expected to work full-time jobs, as they made up the majority of the labour force up until the 1970s. The stay-at-home mother was an anomaly and the extent of women’s employment in the Soviet Union was comparatively impressive (Buckley 1992). However, closer inspection of employment figures reveals that women made up the majority of unskilled manual labourers, and were disproportionately employed in heavy, dangerous work and night shifts. Despite their dominance in certain sectors of the economy, such as medicine, women held fewer leadership or administrative positions with higher salaries (Lapidus 1978). Therefore, the official discourses that proclaimed gender equality masked a system that channelled women into positions that reinforced their subordination.

16In addition to working full-time, they were also responsible for most household and caring labour, a “double burden” that prevailed throughout much of the Soviet era. This double burden involved not only cooking, cleaning, washing clothes (with or without very basic washing machines) and caring for children, but also dealing with food shortages and rationing, waiting in multiple lines at shops for food, and growing and preserving vegetables for the winter. The double burden for working women was not something that went unrecognized, but society blamed the state for inadequately socializing household services rather than working to challenge and change gender relations at home. Indeed, gender was a focus of the “Cold War shadow boxing” that animated the “kitchen debates” (Gal & Kligman 2000 : 9). Women’s employment in the public sphere was seen as an achievement over the West (which needed “bourgeois feminism”), and the quest for labour-saving devices for household work was an index of the Soviet regime’s success, as well as of the overall achievements of a socialist society. Underpinning the public discourses of women’s emancipation was a naturalized understanding of “women’s work,” which was seen to be an outgrowth of women’s biological propensity as caregivers. Therefore, the debate focused not on “how to restructure social values and society to make it less patriarchal or sexist, but rather as how to accommodate women’s innate differences to the ideal of the New Soviet Man” (Johnson & Robinson 2007 : 7). Women in rural areas faced even greater challenges managing social reproduction. Rural areas experienced more frequent shortages, and depending upon the distance to towns or cities, women faced challenges trying to obtain necessary items for the household. Rural women were also expected to provide for the bulk of their family’s food needs by growing food on subsidiary plots.

17In many ways the processes of modernization and industrialization in Soviet agriculture produced gender relations that differed from the patriarchal agricultural welfare gender order in Western Europe. For example, in the Soviet Union, women were recognized as farm workers, and they were even recruited to work on farms. In other respects, however, rural gender relations in both regions were similar. For example, on the collective farm, the bulk of women’s agricultural labour was unskilled, time-consuming, physically demanding and poorly paid. Women were largely responsible for manual labour, like milking cows, a task still done largely by hand (Bridger 1987). Although mechanization eased the workload, it often signalled men’s entrance into and domination of a sub-sector, such as dairying. Finally, while overrepresented as manual labourers, women were underrepresented in the positions of power and control on the collective farm. It appears that although women were recognized and paid as workers in the Soviet Union, they often did the same kind of agricultural work delegated to “farm wives” in other parts of Europe, including household and caring labour.

18In both cases, the scholarly literature has demonstrated that women were not passive victims (Bridger 1987; O’Hara 1998). In the Soviet Union, young women fled to cities at higher rates than men, mothers urged their daughters to further their education, and women collective farm workers managed to creatively negotiate the double burden of working on the collective farm and managing the social reproduction of the household by syphoning off collective farm resources for their own personal use.

19Also, in both the Soviet Union and Western Europe, the agricultural modernization paradigm experiencing crises in the 1980s. At the time, Western European countries were dealing with agricultural surpluses and an anxious public started to draw attention to the negative effects of industrialized agriculture. In the Soviet Union, the state-controlled food system was plagued by inefficiencies. As part of his package of economic reforms, Gorbachev introduced policies to support the creation of family farms (or peasant farms), a shift which signalled the failure of collectivized agriculture and a turn to the West. In the late 1980s, Western Europe increasingly became a model to be emulated politically, economically, also in the agricultural sector. For a changing Soviet agricultural gender relations, it entailed pursuing the creation of private family farms as model farming enterprises.

20This move back to the land by setting up family farms upheld a particular gender regime, which was led by “male activity” that involved a subordinate but essential family unit (Bridger 1997 : 40). In Soviet Latvia specifically, the imagined recovery of a pre-Soviet past, symbolized by individual farmsteads, implied a restoration of pre-Soviet gender norms and roles (Eglitis 2002). Widespread condemnation of the Soviet disregard for gender difference led to the cultivation of essentialist understandings of gender, in which a certain categorization of gender roles and norms was considered “natural.” It was widely imagined that women were supposed to take back their natural roles as mothers of the nation and return to a feminized private sphere, which contrasted with the masculinizing public sphere (Eglitis 2002). In Latvia, where ethnic Latvians made up a bare majority of the population, the countryside was a privileged place for such national revival, with its higher average fertility rates and its close association with Latvian national culture (Eglitis 2002).

21The chance for the national elite to realize its own vision of development came when Latvia gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. At that moment, there was a widespread sentiment about ‘re-joining’ the West. Reactions against the Soviet imposition of ‘utopia’ and ‘experiments’ was combined with a yearning for ‘normality’. In the Baltic States, the pursuit of ‘normality’ involved progress towards the West, in practical terms, a “rush into the arms of European institutions” (Eglitis 2002 : 16) and a willingness to follow the expert advice from Western Europe and the United States. Ironically, this led to the implementation of another experiment: shock therapy through massive privatization and cuts in state spending. In the agricultural sector, privatization and decollectivisation in the 1990s led to a sector dominated by a large number of small-scale subsistence-oriented family farms, which possessed few assets and received little state support (Holzner 2008). Faced with competition from the influx of products from globalized food supply chains, many farmers continued to grow food on a subsistence basis and market surpluses through AFNs.

22Neoliberal transition policies and globalization produced an increasingly differentiated landscape. Although still expected to work a double shift, women’s representation in positions of power decreased. Novikova has argued that “the ‘happy marriage’ of the neo-liberal economic framework and the neoconservative gender ideology is in reality a restatement of women’s political, social, and economic disempowerment through the politics of exclusion and marginalisation” (2004 : 7). While women were disadvantaged as a group (Eglitis 2002), transition policies produced a crisis of masculinity for working class men (see also Tereškinas 2010). In Latvia, between 1988 and 1995 life expectancy dropped from 66.26 to 60.76 for men, and from 75.14 to 73.10 for women (Demogrāfijas Centrs n.d.). The life expectancy of men in rural areas was lower than the average (Demogrāfijas Centrs n.d.). Working class men were increasingly unable to succeed as breadwinners, which defined their identities as men.

23The spatial dimensions of marginalization interacted with ethnicity, gender and class in complex ways. As Latvia transitioned from an industrial economy towards a post-industrial, service-oriented economy, the decline of the agricultural sector led to the growing recognition that farmers and rural space were the “losers” of transition. This label was applied to certain regions like Latgale, the eastern part of Latvia, which is ethnically mixed and has the highest rates of poverty in Latvia. The losers of transition were blamed for their inability to adjust to the new circumstances and for being unable or unwilling to emerge from the Soviet past. The catching up narrative based on a linear notion of transition marked certain bodies and places as behind in time (Eglitis 2002).

24In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the possibility for accession to the EU offered opportunities for the agricultural sector, but they were also limited. Before joining the EU, the new member states of Eastern Europe had to accept lower subsidies, even though they were competing in the same market. EU subsidies in Latvia were designed to continue the process of restructuring so that the farming sector would be globally competitive, an opportunity that some farms utilized to their advantage. EU accession also offered a place for some small-scale farmers through support for organic farming and agro-tourism as well as retirement schemes. Significantly, these development pathways were highly gendered. Even though women make up about half of farm managers in Latvia (compared to less than 10% for Germany, Netherlands, and Denmark) (European Commission 2021), they tend to farm smaller farms (European Commission 2012).

25Faced with the globalization of food supply chains since the 1990s, these smaller farms have relied on diverse marketing strategies, including AFNs, which have been built on strong historical traditions of self-provisioning and local food procurement (Grivins & Tisenkopfs 2015) and existing infrastructures (see Blumberg & Mincyte 2019). Despite these strong historical linkages, marketing through AFNs has not been without challenges (Grivins et al. 2017; Melece & Krievina 2015), especially during and after the financial crisis of 2008-2010, which had a particularly devastating impact in Latvia (Aidukaite 2019). Given this context, in the following section, I analyse the challenges faced by women in AFNs in Latvia. I have chosen to focus in on these women farmers specifically because of their diverse livelihood trajectories, and because they represent the country’s regional diversity.

Rural gender relations in Latvian alternative food networks

26In this section I analyse the livelihoods of four women farmers of diverse ages and who live in different regions of Latvia (all names are pseudonyms). Daina is a farmer in her 50s growing certified organic vegetables about one hour from Latvia’s major capital city, Riga. Velta, in her 40s, is also a certified organic vegetable farmer, but her farm is situated in a hilly region in central Latvia, 100 kilometres from Riga and far from an asphalted highway. Sarma, a dairy and vegetable farmer, and Lilita, a grain and pig farmer, are both in their 50s and reside in the eastern region of Latgale, about 300 kilometres from Riga.

27These women farmers are similar in some ways. They all started to work in agriculture to some extent when Latvia was part of the Soviet Union, and the transition to independent farming was facilitated by their educational and experiential qualifications. They all had work experience in agriculture and even specialized education at the secondary or university level before they started their own farms.

28While Western European women farmers face obstacles in being recognized as farmers, none of these women had barriers asserting their identities as farmers. This contrast was especially evident when I witnessed a conversation between Daina, and a visiting French woman farmer during an international exchange field trip. The French farmer was particularly interested in relaying her experiences of discrimination and exclusion as a woman during her agricultural education. She recounted with great detail the obstacles she had faced in establishing herself as a farmer. She went on to inquire about the discrimination Daina had faced. Although Daina showed interest in the discussion, and even disbelief at the way Marie had been treated, she had not shared these experiences and consequently had little to say. Daina had a secondary specialized education in vegetable production, which she gained in the 1980s, while Latvia was still part of the Soviet Union. Daina did not report problems in assuming the identity of a farmer. In addition, she did not identify as a farmwife or helper on their farm. Although this might be different for the few existing large farms that sell through conventional channels (and are therefore not a part of this study), the concept of a farmwife does not exist in Latvia (although there is a word for the female head of household).

29All of these women farmers work on family farms, the dominant social structure of agriculture in Latvia. Although they farm for subsistence purposes, they also farm to make a livelihood from selling fresh or processed agricultural products. In farming and marketing work, the gendered segregation largely resembles the Soviet legacy: men are mostly responsible for heavy lifting, transportation, construction, mechanized work, and women generally do manual work in the field, any processing, and most administrative and community-oriented activities. In addition, women are primarily responsible for housework, such as cooking and cleaning. Children contribute mostly by helping with housework and manual labour, such as weeding, harvesting or picking pests from plants. For example, on Lilita’s farm, she is responsible for animal care, while her husband oversees the grain fields. But this gendered division of labour is not strictly adhered to: every household member is expected to contribute with necessary tasks, and these vary tremendously depending on the farm’s specialization. For example, on Daina’s farm, her husband and grown sons largely take care of all machine work, but they also help her in the greenhouses with flowers. Similarly, Velta’s daughter and son-in-law live on her farm, and both are expected to contribute by gathering wild and cultivated herbs for the teas that Velta makes.

30Sarma’s situation differs because her husband has passed away. Although she maintains a productive vegetable and dairy farm, she states that she farms: “just for survival, nothing more. I sit and count the little coins (kapeiciņas). It is still good if you have some kind of man in the house, but my husband, he died…” Because of the differences in life expectancy between men and women, many women farmers find themselves in Sarma’s situation as they grow older. They manage to farm alone by scaling down production, hiring someone with a tractor to plough their fields, or relying on relatives to help with particular tasks. As a result, for many women farmers, the normative family farm is both a desirable but absent arrangement. Other organizational structures for agriculture that could potentially help alleviate the position of woman farmers, such as service or marketing cooperatives, are uncommon in rural Latvia. The domestication of women that constituted the post-Soviet transition in Latvia (Eglitis 2002) can be interpreted in the rural and agricultural context as confining possible farming arrangements to the realm of the family. The problem is not that women cannot do what is categorized as men’s work, but that women farmers already face challenges managing social reproduction and production for profit.

31Although many women sole-holders may live and work in isolated farmsteads, their gendered labour in the farmstead is intimately linked with economies of care that span across space through formal and informal, monetized and un-monetized AFNs. Many rural farmsteads function as a meeting point for both extended family and close friends. Often, women are responsible for maintaining these reciprocal relationships through economies of care that are centred around social reproduction. For example, children and grandchildren may return to the farm to help, and in exchange, receive a small share of the harvest in return. Sarma explained that she could not farm without the support of her grown son. He comes to do any work that involves the tractor, but he also gets food in return. Rural farmsteads also offer a fall-back for family members in need; although farm work may be poorly compensated or even uncompensated, farms are a safety net providing food and shelter to close and distant relatives and friends. For example, Daina employed a family member on the farm when she needed a job in the middle of the financial crisis. This family member was saving money so that she could eventually afford to leave Latvia and look for work in Western Europe.

32Velta’s son has also migrated to work abroad, but due to the seasonality of his work in agricultural and natural resource sectors, he often returns home to work on Velta’s farm for extended periods. Her daughter, on the other hand, has decided to follow in Velta’s footsteps and help her develop the family’s farm business. Although Velta has always been farming and gardening on a subsistence basis to feed her family and friends, she started to explore ways to make a living from farming when her husband lost his job in the construction sector during the financial crisis. She also started selling value-added products she made herself, such as jams and dried herbal teas. Through AFNs, she gained regular consumer clients and now she also markets her products to small specialty shops in Riga.

33For Velta, the skills she developed growing and processing her home-grown fruits and vegetables provided her with a foundation to establish a business. Similarly, Daina’s education in horticulture prepared her to take a leading role in her family farm’s business. Daina’s farm has been instrumental in launching Latvia’s nascent community supported agriculture system, which grew after the financial crisis when consumers started looking for ways to procure fresh and local produce without the surcharges added by stores and resellers. Because most Latvian consumers cannot afford to pay a lump sum to farmers for a season’s worth of produce, most Latvian CSAs function more like direct marketing consumer groups, with consumers organizing themselves in groups and then ordering produce and other food from farmers on a regular basis. These AFNs are providing women farmers with a source of livelihood, but this livelihood is still precarious. Both farmers Velta and Daina would like more customers, but they also face competition from all the other farmers in AFNs who market similar products. Nevertheless, both Velta and Daina still benefit because of their relative proximity to Riga, the main consumer market for AFNs in Latvia.

34Place and space shape livelihood possibilities for all farmers in AFNs, but they are not static attributes. Places are produced in a relational manner through trajectories that span space and are always in motion (Massey 2005). Proximity to wealthy urban centres enables AFNs to exist and thrive, but proximity is not only a feature of physical closeness. Proximity is also produced through strong infrastructural connections across space and social ties that traverse the rural-urban interface. The processes that shape places are not random; they may reinforce power-geometries that privilege certain places of others (Massey 2005). For example, rural places have been forged through globally-integrated trajectories, linking diverse places of food production and consumption and putting distant farmers in competition with each other. In the EU, farmers in Eastern Europe have faced a competitive disadvantage with farmers in Western Europe, due in part because they compete in the same common market but receive lower agricultural subsidies. But even before Latvia joined the EU, certain rural regions were already facing economic decline, a process that may become cyclical; regions that lose economic activity face declining populations, and as the number of residents decreases, communities risk losing vital public services. This in turn makes the community less attractive for economic investment.

35Lilita and Sarma are both farmers in Latgale, the eastern-most region in Latvia, which is also farthest from the capital, Riga. Latgale is one of the poorest regions not only in Latvia, but also in the EU. Latgale has experienced economic decline since the 1990s, and along with that, the region has been steadily losing population. This decline is evident in Lilita’s attempt at making a business from pig farming in eastern Latvia. When she tried to approach the large-scale slaughterhouse about purchasing her pigs, they did not even offer her a price because they had so much meat. However, she was able to make a living by taking her animals to the local slaughterhouse and selling the meat directly to consumers through AFNs. Unfortunately, that slaughterhouse closed. As a result, her family has resorted to slaughtering her pigs themselves and distributing the meet directly to friends and family. With EU accession, many small-scale slaughterhouses were forced to close because they could not meet new food safety regulations, but slaughterhouses may have closed due to declining demand as well. Because women tend to have responsibility for food processing in rural farmsteads, access to a slaughterhouse has been important for women farmers, both to ensure social reproduction and production for profit through AFNs.

36AFNs help women farmers secure livelihoods in the dairy industry as well, but these opportunities are also shaped by place and space. In conventional dairy networks, farmers are usually price-takers and they may only have access to one processor. In AFNs, farmers can set their own prices, but not all farmers can afford to travel to and market to wealthier urban areas, such as Riga. As such, the most disadvantaged farmers in more remote regions usually market to disadvantaged, local consumers and set prices that are affordable.

37For women farmers who have not yet reached retirement age, the travails of farming in uncertain economic conditions are particularly difficult. Farmers and other rural residents with pensions are guaranteed minimal financial resources, and are often seen as “better off,” even though their pensions are quite meagre and barely cover the cost of living. Sarma recounted that she relies on her mother’s pension at times when she does not have enough financial resources to cover emergency costs, such as repairs to machinery. In rural counties with small urban centres, the customer base is also dominated by pensioners. Sarma conveyed that her milk, which she sells directly to customers at a public market, is in high demand. However, because most of her customers are poor pensioners, they only come early in the month after their pensions have been distributed. While the labour of food provisioning remains gendered (see Hormel 2017), Sarma’s example also touches upon the significance of state-based social safety nets in enabling both consumer and producer participation in AFNs (see also Mincyte, Bartkiene & Bikauskaite 2020).


38The high representation of women farmers in Latvia in the present and the recent past provides a contrast to the historical trajectories of Western European agriculture. In this article I have discussed this difference underscoring how historical trajectories inform contemporary gender relations. In many Western European nation-states, modernization and industrialization was associated with women’s exclusion from farming as an independent livelihood activity. Now women still encounter resistance when they try to farm or identify as farmers. However, recent support for organic and sustainable agriculture and the growth of AFNs has opened up empowering spaces for women to become farmers and create livelihoods. In contrast, I argue that women farmers in Latvia have not faced obstacles in taking up farming as a livelihood activity or identifying as farmers. Rather, they face challenges managing social reproduction and production for profit in a context in which small-scale farmers are increasingly marginalized. Although alternative methods of food production and procurement, such as AFNs, have provided them with livelihood possibilities, they are precarious and tend to provide more significant benefits for farmers with resources and easy transportation options to Latvia’s main metropolis, Riga. The benefits of participating in AFNs are therefore uneven (Jarosz 2008).

39In analysing the diverse historical trajectories of gender in agriculture across Europe, I have argued that it is important to understand the development of gender relations across space. One commonality between the women farmers whose livelihoods I analysed here, as well as those whose perspectives are already examined in existing scholarly literature (see also Adesugba, Oughton & Shortall 2020), is the importance placed on social reproduction and the persistence of gendered care work. Supporting social reproduction does not entail relegating women to the domestic sphere (see also Dengler & Lang, 2021). Rather, supporting social reproduction would allow women to continue engaging in the activities they value, while fostering an understanding that the devaluation of practices of social reproduction is a systemic feature of capitalist society. A systemic approach acknowledges that there are multiple logics at work in livelihood practices but that capitalism enforces a sort of structured coherence. Small-scale growers are competing with large-scale growers, who are able to offer lower prices that serve as a reference point for farmers and consumers. These conditions foster a situation in which social reproduction for small-scale farmers is devalued, regardless of its importance in sustaining the livelihoods of farming households and consumers.

40This systemic approach has potential political importance for women farmers because it has the capacity to discern commonalities and differences across space so that a common political project could be formulated. It is then possible to draw countertopographies to connect the processes that impact social reproduction across the multiple trajectories that make space (see also Bolokan 2021). Social reproduction in Latvia has been a challenge for most residents, requiring creative strategies to secure food, given the lack of functioning systems of procurement in the Soviet era and the impoverishment of the population after the financial crisis. However, social reproduction is a necessity for the continuation of capitalism, even as capitalist development threatens to destroy the basis for social reproduction. So, as Katz notes, even with the withdrawal of the state, capital, and civil society, social reproduction will be accomplished despite the costs to families and households (2001b). But it also can form the basis for oppositional politics, entailing a struggle to redistribute “responsibility for social reproduction back to capitalists and the state, transnationally and at all scales,” which would “begin to recalibrate the costs and benefits of globalization in ways that would pinpoint its widely distributed costs and promulgate increased social justice and equality across classes, nations, localities and gender” (Katz 2001b : 719).

41Organizing around AFNs and social reproduction could take many forms. Agriculture in the EU is highly subsidized and also heavily governed at the supranational scale, but agricultural policies are also made at the national scale and mediated by local gender regimes (Prügl 2011). Thus far, movements that have tried to transform EU agricultural policies have not focused on social reproduction, preferring instead to address other issues, such as environmental problems. Despite the growing importance of gender mainstreaming and gender equality in the EU, multiple barriers hinder or prevent their implementation in rural development policies (Oedl-Wieser 2014). Feminist scholars have long raised concerns about the marginalization of gender equality, citizenship and social justice in EU policy (Einhorn 2005), but now the coronavirus pandemic has only heightened the significance of gender inequality, especially in the provision of care work (Bahn et al. 2020). New food and agricultural policies could recognize social reproduction and care work by centering their significance and contributions to broader well-being (Bahn et al. 2020), but any new policies would also have to understand how multiple trajectories have shaped livelihood possibilities for women farmers across regions.

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1 This article includes material from my PhD dissertation (Blumberg 2014).

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Electronic reference

Renata Blumberg, « Engendering European alternative food networks through countertopographies », Anthropology of food [Online], Online since 09 April 2022, connection on 20 May 2022. URL :

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About the author

Renata Blumberg

Department of Nutrition and Food Studies, Montclair State University,

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Anthropologie of food est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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