‘It is better to herd than be herded’: making a living with goats in the Bajío region, Mexico
© Oseguera Montiel et al. licensee Springer 2014
Received: 13 February 2014
Accepted: 9 June 2014
Published: 10 July 2014
Goats are renowned for their resilience in harsh environments and their relatively low investment for maintenance. Goat husbandry is thought to be a tool for poverty alleviation. Empirical evidence of this is scant. This research analysed the role of goat husbandry in supporting the livelihoods of smallholders from the Bajío region in Michoacán, Mexico. The Bajío is renowned for the good cropping potential of the land; smallholder goat husbandry is present too but largely unstudied by scholars and ignored by policy makers. The smallholders in the study area deploy a range of assets, natural, physical, social, human and financial, in goat husbandry. Their goat husbandry is dairy-oriented; it is a source of weekly income and insurance and therefore an alternative to out-migration. Farmers’ relatively high social capital allows them to access cheap crop residues and take turns herding flocks. The goat dairy market is controlled by a powerful caramel industry. In turn, the margins smallholders obtain are rather limited. The nutritional value of goat milk is not exploited in their households as it is seen as a ‘fever’ cause, related to brucellosis. Qualitative and quantitative methodologies are based on the sustainable livelihoods approach linked to actor-oriented approaches. The study revealed smallholders’ agency by engaging in goat husbandry to deal with a complex institutional and political context dominated by economic liberalization intertwined with local realities such as the agroecology. We emphasize the importance of these findings in development strategies for small-scale goat husbandry systems.
Goat husbandry is considered to have great potential to improve the livelihoods of poor people (Sinn et al. ; Peacock ; De Vries ). Compared to cattle, goats are easier to raise in resource-poor households. This is because goats are resilient animals that can cope with relatively low quality feed and scarce water (Morand-Fehr ). In the global South, goat husbandry produces more value than single-sided production-economic criteria. Goat husbandry plays a role in financial security, women’s empowerment and insurance (Bosman et al. ; Dossa et al. ). Furthermore, goat husbandry exemplifies smallholders’ agency, referring to smallholders’ capacity to act and make choices. Smallholders’ agency is often in response to an adverse context for smallholders, which in Latin America is partly the result of the neoliberal policies promoting free trade, privatization and deregulation, among others.
Under the neoliberal paradigm, Mexican smallholders are portrayed as backward or inefficient and hence the rhetoric that Mexico needs a ‘modern’ agricultural sector (Toledo ). Smallholders are often deemed as the ‘nonviable’ (Bebbington ) and therefore the way forward for neoliberal planners is to intensify and modernize the agricultural sector. For example, in 1992, the Mexican government, arguing that rural smallholders lacked productivity, launched the counter-land reforms that opened the door for seizing ‘ejidos’ - smallholders’ community-owned land, which was about half of the agricultural land until 1991. This policy resulted from the negotiations of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) (Schmidt and Gruben ). Furthermore, public funds for the smallholder sector, in the form of subsidies and extension services, were withdrawn, and BANRURAL (a farmers’ bank) and CONASUPO (an institution to guarantee fair crop market prices) were dismantled. Under NAFTA, there has been an unprecedented growth of commercial food corporations with oligopolistic control of food commodities (Ochoa ). This context for rural smallholders is further complicated by the unprecedented wave of violent crime often related to drug trafficking (Pereyra ). And yet smallholders are still resisting this hostile context. On and off-farm diversification has been their main survival strategy in Latin American countries (Kay ).
In Mexico, small-scale goat husbandry is one of these on-farm diversification strategies. Goats can be found across the country (INEGI ). Although goat husbandry started during the Spanish colonization in the 16th century, little is known about the role of goat husbandry in contributing to smallholders’ livelihoods. It might be a good option particularly among rural poor people to fight poverty which affects approximately half of the Mexican population (CONEVAL ). This paper aims to study small-scale goat farmers’ agency to make their living in a complex context, by using a sustainable livelihood framework that integrates actor-oriented approaches. We argue that small-scale goat husbandry is functional and well-adapted to the agroecological conditions of the Bajío region, a prosperous cropping area in central Mexico. We also unravel the threats and opportunities involved in small-scale goat husbandry as a livelihood strategy. In the following sections, we present the theoretical framework and methods and the historical background within which goat husbandry currently operates in the region. There follows an in-depth analysis of how goat husbandry has adapted to the local context and contributes to smallholders’ livelihoods.
We used the sustainable livelihoods approach (SL) to analyse how smallholder goat farmers generate livelihoods in their specific agroecological and socio-economic context. A livelihood comprises: ‘[A]ssets…activities and the access to these (mediated by institutions and social relationships) that together determine the living gained by the individual or household’ (Ellis , p.10). Assets or capitals for smallholders are natural capital comprising communal land grazing, water and crop land; physical capital comprising tools, machinery, infrastructure (e.g. roads, railway) and livestock; social capital comprising reciprocity, associations, cooperation and trust; human capital comprising people’s skills, knowledge, health, education and traditional knowledge transmitted through generations; financial capital comprising money stored in a bank or at home, and credits or loans (Chambers and Conway ; DFID 1999; De Haan ; Ellis ).
Mapping out capitals according to different socio-economic strata of households can help to identify where pro-poor support can have impact (Bebbington ). Socio-economic strata are often identified on how households themselves define being poor, sometimes in relation to their assets (Kristjanson et al. ), however, households’ capabilities can be important too in defining well-being by households. Capability refers to being able to eat well, dress, live without shame and have a social life among others (Chambers and Conway ). Furthermore, it refers to being able to respond to shocks or stress, but also in being proactive by taking up opportunities to enhance their livelihoods, such as making use of information, collaborating with others, experimenting, and using new resources and services (Chambers and Conway ). This study tries to understand the role of goats in terms of households’ capitals and capabilities.
Capitals can be converted to other forms of capitals and there are tradeoffs on how capitals are used (DFID 1999). For example, goats, a natural capital, can be used to generate outputs like meat, milk and manure, which are often a source of income (Ellis ). Goats are liquid assets to be used in times of cash need, so for smallholders, goats are an insurance (Bosman et al. ). Goat management, however, can also lead to the destruction of other capitals. By way of example, in Indonesia, goat manure is a valuable output for cropping by enhancing land fertility, a natural capital, but at the same time, manure is piled up near settlements and pollutes ground water (Budisatria ).
Access to capitals is central in understanding livelihoods while reflecting how policies and institutions affect access to capitals is also important (DFID 1999). In access to capitals, politics and power relations play a role. As such, ‘a livelihood is organized in arenas of conflicting [and] co-operating actors’ (De Haan and Zoomers , p.34). Yet, politics have been overlooked in livelihood studies (Scoones ). Politics relate to how macro policies (e.g. neoliberal globalization in Mexico) and power relations among actors affect the access to capitals. In the Mexican rural context, different actors often collide and intertwine (Long ). Drawing on these concepts, we postulate that goat husbandry is a livelihood strategy adapted historically to its specific context and that goat-keeping households employ a range of capitals, the access to which is influenced by the context. This refers to the institutional and political context in which goat husbandry is embedded, such as the agroecology and everyday relations of farmers among themselves and with other actors.
The study was conducted in northern villages of Michoacán, a part of the Bajío region which is a relatively large area that encompasses territories of four central states (Michoacán, Guanajuato, Querétaro and Jalisco) of Mexico (Chávez-Torres ). The region is characterized by plains interrupted by multiple hills and volcanoes. The altitude ranges from 1,000 to 2,000 m above sea level, rainfall average is 800 mm and most precipitation is during the summer period (June to October). Ambient temperature averages 20°C. The Bajío region is a river basin area that has a high crop production potential, with irrigation in some areas. Land is cultivated for maize, sorghum, wheat and now notably cash crops (vegetables and fruits) in greenhouse systems for export to the USA (Chambers et al. ). Two main forms of cropping can be found: high-input industrial agriculture and traditional low-input crop production (González-Martínez ), a pattern present since colonial times where irrigated wheat was the predominant crop (Chambers et al. ). Smallholders cultivate maize, sorghum, wheat, chickpeas on rainfed marginal land as well as on high potential agricultural land, mainly for self-consumption (by humans and animals), but as cash crops too. Besides cropping, smallholders are also engaged in seasonal wage labour, livestock husbandry and temporal migration to the USA. The region has one of the highest rates of out-migration to the USA in the country (Arias and Mummert ).
Historic context of goat husbandry in the region
Goats were introduced by the Spaniards in the 16th century during colonization. In this period, the goat population had an exponential growth, due to the abundance of feed sources, grazing land and crop residues (Braudel ). Spaniards seized indigenous peoples’ land, which became the ‘Haciendas’ - huge farms. In the search for more crop land, Spaniards moved to the Bajío region, where goats were used mainly to clear off the vegetation for later land cultivation (Baroni-Boissonas ). Then goats became the most prominent livestock species (Rabell ). Goat meat was also a food source for mine workers and goat fat was used to make candles for the mines of the region. In the 18th and 19th centuries, when cropping became an important activity in the Bajío, cattle outnumbered goats. This was linked to the development of more sedentary farming systems (Rabell, ). Goats were kept in extensive grazing systems and cared for by hacienda workers (Zendejas-Romero ).
By the 1930s, some haciendas were dissolved and the land was distributed among smallholders, who were entitled to work a plot of land in a so-called ejido system. Currently in the Bajío region, small-scale goat husbandry based on semi-extensive grazing management is relatively popular, especially in villages of the Chapala lake basin area and the Lerma river. Goat milk is the main input for cajeta - similar to the English caramel. The cajeta industry plants are found in the region. Smallholders keeping goats are colloquially known as chiveros. Goat meat has a local market for a popular dish called birria.
Goat keepers were subdivided into three wealth groups: ‘poor’ , ‘medium’ and ‘better-off’. In conjunction with an NGO employee who had been working directly with goat farmers to control brucellosis, a key informant was identified within each village to help sort fellow villagers into the wealth strata. From a census by the NGO, a list was obtained with names of the head of the household and his or her number of goats. The second survey aimed to understand the views of goat farmers’ neighbours about goat husbandry. A random sample of 145 households was interviewed using a questionnaire with closed questions.
The second part of the study involved a longitudinal survey and qualitative methods. The purpose of the survey was to calculate the gross margins of goat husbandry and crop production. Data about inputs and outputs of crop and goat production over the year were obtained from 18 farmers. Farmers recorded the information in notebooks, which were then collected on four occasions throughout the year. Gross margins were calculated as the difference between the outputs, such as crops, milk, goat kids and the inputs, for example, fertilizers, sprays, feed, vaccines, wormers and antibiotics. The contribution of goat husbandry and cropping to cover a family’s basic necessities (e.g. food, housing, health, education) was evaluated by comparing gross margins with the poverty threshold in rural Mexico which is 15,384 Mexican pesos (MX$) (1 MX$ = 0.08 USD, source: Banixco ) per year per capita (CONEVAL ). Milk price was also compared to inflation in Mexico from 2006 to 2008.
Qualitative methods involved ethnographic observations in households, milking sites, grazing areas, farmers’ meetings and milk collection. We also used rural appraisal techniques such as group discussions about goat husbandry versus temporal migration to the USA (three group discussions), mapping and transects (three completed), semi-structured interviews with farmers (n = 19) and other stakeholders (n = 10), and informal talks among smallholders and stakeholders.
Quantitative data was described with R (R Core Team ) and ggplot2 was used for graphs (Wickham ). Interviews were generally audio-recorded, or else notes were taken. Audio-recorded interviews (ranging from 1 to 2 h) were fully transcribed in Spanish. Qualitative analysis was done by (1) coding material, (2) identifying themes and by (3) describing and exploring themes. We used Weft QDA for coding (Fenton ).
Capital status of different groups of smallholder farmers
Descriptive statistics of farmers’ assets and household characteristics according to their strata
1.0 to 2.5
4.0 to 7.0
11.0 to 21.0
22 to 45
32 to 123
80 to 154
Household size (n)
3 to 6
4 to 6
4 to 6
Age household head (years)
44.5 to 54.0
39.0 to 64.0
36.3 to 58.3
The poor and the medium wealth groups had less of the above capitals. Poor households had on average 37 goats (22 to 45 IQ). Two-thirds of the households in the poor group owned 2 ha of land on average (1 to 2.5 IQ). Poor households’ crop land was often in communal areas and was known as ecuaros, which were plots of approximately 1 ha in the edges of the hills. The medium wealth group had on average 90 goats (32 to 123 IQ). They owned relatively better crop land than the poor and on average they owned 6 ha of land (4 to 7 IQ). There were however, landless farmers in these two groups too (n = 3 in poor and n = 2 in medium). Two-thirds of medium farmers had a truck and 15% had a tractor, whereas only a quarter of poor farmers had a truck and only one poor farmer had a tractor.
There were no differences among wealth groups in household size or age of the household head (Table 1). Despite the similar size of the households, health status, migration and age of children played a role determining the wealth stratum of the household. Households were classified as poor when the head of the household (a man) was unfit for physical work due to illness. For example, one household deemed as poor had three children in their teens, approximately 0.75 ha of crop land and 45 goats. The man, however, was incapable of doing any work as he was in a wheelchair. Relatively, young married couples with infants, absence of the man (head) due to migration to the USA and being hired as labourers were other reasons given to classify households in the poor group. Two-thirds of the households reported having more than 10 years of experience in goat husbandry, regardless of their socio-economic group.
There was a range of social capital forms among households. It was remarkable the companionship that derives in sharing responsibilities for herding goats. Some households also engaged in entrepreneurial activities such as growing alfalfa (one farmer with irrigated land and another with financial assets). In one of the villages, farmers constantly communicated to help each other during herding, often to find lost animals or share news, using walkie-talkies. The form of social capital also differed among the wealth groups. The medium and better-off groups for example made strong ties with some of the personnel from the NGOs. An NGO person could be invited to have lunch at their houses. In return, these households could have their flocks vaccinated first.
There was a history of rivalries between families of two villages which weakened social capital at community level. This rivalry had led to deaths in both villages. During the field study for example, farmers from one of the villages reported they felt oppressed by an extended family from the neighbouring village. These farmers were often insulted by this family. ‘They also come at nights to dare our children’ , the farmers reported. For some farmers, the situation was unbearable and they fled because of fear of violence against them or because of direct death threats. Two extended families migrated to nearby villages together with their goats, but were unable to harvest their crops any more. Three other households sold their flocks and tried to make their way elsewhere.
For some senior farmers, goat husbandry was the base for accumulating other capitals (i.e. land and cattle). The best example of this was a handful of extended family households who had managed to consolidate relatively large flocks ≥400 equal to about 30 goats per capita. Farmers reported that their parents had started with just a handful of goats. Among farmers who managed to consolidate large flocks, especially middle-aged farmers, migration to the USA was not considered an option. One said ‘I am happier here with my goats’ (farmer, San José de Vargas). Young men however, with a small flock (<15 goats) and little land of low crop production potential were relatively eager to migrate.
Livelihood strategies portfolio
Among households from lower and medium strata keeping one or two sows to sell piglets was common, especially in the village Los Charcos. Cattle keeping was negligible for households in the lower wealth strata compared to households in the medium and in the better-off groups. Better-off households keeping cattle owned relatively large cattle herds of about 100 head, whereas the few poor households with cattle had only one or two animals.
Household income was often complemented with remittances from the USA, agricultural wages and non-agricultural salaries from the nearby towns (i.e. Zamora and Tanhuato). Farmers reported that remittances were used to get inputs for the flock such as feed.
Women were engaged in specific income-generating activities. Women from the medium group were selling chicken parts and making cheese. Making prayer beads and other religious crafts by sewing was common among women from poor households. Women in the poor and medium groups were also engaged in seasonal work, such as harvesting vegetables and fruits, and in permanent jobs, such as packing strawberries for the frozen fruit industry of Zamora.
Goat husbandry as pastoralism
Access to land
Dairy goat farming: markets and margins
The positive gross margins from goat husbandry were a reason for its popularity. For example, in one of the villages (Cieneguitas) where there were formerly three to four goat farmers, there were now 28 households with goat flocks averaging 40 head (SD 36), according to a census done by an NGO. ‘[T]here are a lot of goats now, the truck used to come for 600 litres, now two trucks leave full of milk ... now everybody has some goats’ (farmer, Cieneguitas). Another farmer comparing cattle with goats said that ‘cows do not produce, it takes two years before you can sell a calf’ (farmer, San José de Vargas).
The cajeta industry controlled the goat milk market. The managers of cajeta local plants were known as the ‘patrón’ (the boss) by farmers. To prevent the farmers teaming up to demand a higher milk price, the industry paid a slightly higher price to farmers with larger flocks than to the majority of the farmers, which was a kind of divide et impera strategy. Adding water to milk was sometimes how farmers took revenge for the low price for their milk. They however risked paying a penalty because random samples were taken to detect diluted milk. There were also patronage strategies used by the industry to ensure that a farmer’s milk production was sold to them. When goats were dry, farmers asked for credit from milk traders and the industry. In turn, farmers sold their milk to their credit providers. Credits were given without interest rates and were paid back gradually when the milk production was peaking again. Usually these credits were used for daily living expenses and were equivalent to one or two weeks of a household’s milk production. If credits were not given to farmers, the industry risked losing their milk supply, because farmers then sold their milk to a competitor.
Selling milk to the industry at relatively low prices was not the only stressor for farmers. Brucellosis, a zoonotic disease (that can be transmitted from goats to humans), was endemic in the region (NGO personnel, personal communication). Milk processing to produce cajeta eliminates the risk of brucellosis for the consumers. The industry interviewees reported that there were no plans to pay premium prices for milk from brucellosis-free flocks. In 56% of the households surveyed, respondents reported having at least one family member who had contracted brucellosis. Therefore, as a preventive measure, households avoided goat milk consumption. Farmers reported that physicians recommend staying away from dairy goat products as it is a cause of ‘fever’.
Labour and knowledge
The opinions of farmers’ neighbours about goat husbandry ( n = 145)
San José de Vargas
Tinaja de Vargas
Number of respondents (n)
Low esteem to goat farmers (%)
High and neutral esteem to goat farmers (%)
Good but no specific reason
Dislikes about goats (%)
Smell combined with flies
Likes about goats (%)
Meat and dairy
During transect walks, we observed that farmers were skilful in various aspects of goat husbandry such as herding and curing diseases. Farmers used different calls to herd their flocks, such as a call to urge the flock to come back, one to move on or a call to scare a coyote. Farmers also trained village dog pups to become herder dogs to protect flocks against thieves and coyotes. They predicted how long crop residues could last for their flocks and related the quality of crop residues to milk yields, as well as being very familiar with the properties of local vegetation (e.g. toxicity and nutritional value). Their knowledge of the local ecology was also of key importance. Accordingly, they planned routes to herd their flocks to the best spots for feeding. When grazing forage is decaying at the end of the rainy season and scant at the end of dry season, farmers feed their goats homemade rations of grains, forage and concentrates, illustrating farmers’ knowledge on how to adapt feeding management according to the goats’ needs. A common daily ratio per goat was 0.5 kg of commercial concentrates, maize or sorghum and 0.5 kg of maize stover or alfalfa. Farmers used natural and local remedies to heal udder cuts and resolve placenta retention. They were also familiar in how to use modern drugs for deworming, vaccinating and curing common infections, such as mastitis, pneumonia and diarrhea. They even knew how to treat acidosis in goat kids, a syndrome known locally as ‘borrachito’ (drunk syndrome in goat kids), with oral rehydration salts for human use. But farmers perceived that their knowledge was not valued by outsiders. Farmers reported that an employee of the agricultural secretariat referred to them as ignorant and stinky.
Access capitals mediated by institutions
There was one NGO ‘Subcomité de Productores de Ovicaprinos del Estado de Michoacán’ (SPOEM) working with goat farmers. This is an exceptional situation with regard to supportive institutions for goat farmers. SPOEM was not initiated within the villages but in the state capital, by an agronomist who envisaged the potential of smallholder farming systems and who intended to go in business with the most prominent goat farmers. The ultimate goal was to produce yoghurt (NGO personnel, personal communication). The entry point to start working with farmers was brucellosis control. The NGO was the channel through which governmental financial support for brucellosis control was given to goat farmers. The activities for brucellosis control included vaccination and testing to detect seropositive goats.
The ambitious brucellosis control programme (free for farmers) seemed to awaken interest from farmers to start goat husbandry and form groups. In some villages, prominent farmers were encouraged to form a group of 10 to 20 farmers and start an extension group GGAVATT (Grupos Ganaderos de Validación y Transferencia de la Tecnología; Livestock farmers groups for technology validation and transfer). Farmers in these groups requested credit to acquire physical capital (e.g. pens).
Farmers launched a formal accusation of corruption due to the poor quality of the pens and some farmers stopped repaying their credit. In response, the government ceased financial support for the brucellosis campaign when these issues were brought up. Apparently, this was revenge against the NGO for supporting farmers in complaining about governmental corruption. Finally, some farmers who started as a GGAVATT group complained about not receiving any financial support compared to the neighbour village groups. Interviewed farmers reported that they had invested time and money in this group and nothing came of it. In summary, the pens project in Michoacán brought only problems, as one farmer reported.
Goat husbandry is part of the portfolio of smallholders’ activities. Diversification has also been described in small-scale goat husbandry in northern parts of the country (Mora-Ledesma ). The increasing number of households involved in goat keeping in various villages indicates that there is a growing interest among smallholders. Goat milk has become an important commercial commodity, while crops are mainly used for home consumption and as feed for the goats. Commercial cropping has become a risky activity for smallholders, whereas goat husbandry is relatively more feasible, especially for those having little or no land. As sale of milk gives a regular income, farmers try to optimize their income sources and manage risks through goat husbandry. This shows also farmers’ agency; even among the poor, taking an active role to make their living a sustainable livelihood as they pursue autonomy and self-sufficiency. Goat husbandry seems to support those who argue that smallholders should not disappear, the so-called campesinistas (peasantists) (Kay ).
We have shown that smallholders have a rich knowledge on keeping goats; this is very different to how industry managers and bureaucrats portray a chivero. Mastering a pastoral system in a relatively harsh environment is something to be recognized (Krätli and Schareika ). This type of knowledge is described in Africa (e.g. Oba ) and in other parts of Mexico (Mora-Ledesma ). There is a rich goat husbandry knowledge transmitted through generations; part of this traditional knowledge originated during the Spanish colonial period around 500 years ago. The smallholder farming systems have subsisted all these years and are quite efficient, given the small size of cropland properties. Smallholders make use of the abundantly available natural capital, the so-called ‘unproductive’ shrub land.
Social capital is a key factor in goat husbandry, represented in community companionship, trust and the family members’ work on various tasks of keeping a flock. A main drawback for smallholder goat farming was a weak community social capital due to violent events. Violence is increasing in the whole country, and in Michoacán, it is especially disturbing as murders were 100% higher in 2009 than in 2006 (INEGI ). Although the analysis of this violent environment goes beyond the scope of this paper, it is an example of the consequences of livelihood destruction in Mexico’s rural villages. As we were informed, farmers flee and stop farming, in order to avoid violence in one of the villages.
Our aim was also to understand the role of goats in improving poor people’s livelihoods. This was done by investigating the role of goat husbandry among three groups of farmers defined as ‘poor’ , ‘medium’ and ‘better-off’. Farmers said that in general, having goats was better than not having goats. For poor households, goat husbandry was more vital than for the medium and better-off. The last two groups had a wider range of activities. However, the role of goat husbandry to overcome the poverty line (i.e. fulfill basic necessities) is far from ideal. Most households were not earning enough per capita to overcome the poverty line of MX$ 15,348 per year (the equivalent of approximately US$ 1,250). Flock size is a factor in the overall on-farm gross margins (i.e. crops and goats). Poor farmers would need to own at least 30 adult dairy goats per capita to move to the medium group. We met cases of young couples in the poor category with relatively small flocks (approximately 15) where men were eager to migrate to the USA. Farmers in middle and better-off groups cultivated more land and of higher crop potential. Therefore they have more feed for their flocks. The poor have to restrain their flock size because they lack their own feed sources and have to buy extra feed. Therefore, claiming that goats can let people step out of poverty is not as straightforward as suggested in some articles (Peacock ; De Vries ).
It would have been useful to have more precise information about other cash resources, i.e. remittances and off-farm jobs. But it was very difficult to gain farmers’ trust in mentioning money flows. Farmers found it rather strange that an outsider wanted to investigate their livelihoods. Farmers also found it hard to understand the overall benefits of our research, which were not tangible and were to some extent long term, so we did not want to risk stretching their confidence to the limit.
We did also meet two extended households that managed to keep relatively large flocks ≥400 goats (33 goats per capita), which allow them to acquire land. There were at least three key capitals for these extended families in their process of consolidation. First, there was a good individual social capital (i.e. family cooperation), second, human capital (i.e. labour of two or three generations including women and children) and natural capital (i.e. shrub land and village crop land residues). Poor households owned small plots (1 to 2.5 ha) and due to lack of financial resources and male labour because of USA migration, they could not cultivate their plots. Farmers with little crop land can however have access to crop residues of neighbours and access to communal grazing land to feed their flocks. But the land counter-reforms of 1992 threaten the access to these resources.
The neoliberal administrations tend to favour large farm operations (e.g. a feedlot) and mining. This is leading to resource exploitation of vast land areas by powerful companies. The potential of new conflicts due to delimiting access and creating competition for resources is just around the corner, as occurs elsewhere (Hollander ). An example in Mexico is the experience with mines: local communities do not get what they are promised, while mines restrict access to communal grazing land and also pollute air, soil and water (Rodríguez Wallenius ). Similarly, the feedlot enterprise in the vicinity of one of the villages is polluting air and water sources.
Goat milk is a commodity that generates a regular income flow for households; however, the milk trade is disadvantageous for farmers. A similar disadvantageous dairy marketing has been described in northern parts of the country (Gómez-Ruiz et al. ). There was a huge contrast between the farmers’ uneasy economic situation and the prosperous cajeta industry. Coronado is a subsidiary of Bimbo, worldwide the fourth largest food company and the largest bread manufacturer (Ochoa ). Bimbo reported 20% larger profits in 2005 than in 2004.a Farmers were paid about 13% of the shelf price.b The caramel industry is the main winner here and as such it can be called a ‘food empire’ (Ploeg ), which sets its rules such as milk price and the quality standards, e.g. checking watered milk, that are important for cajeta production.
Farmers’ main concern is the milk price which is stagnant in relation to inflation and to prices of their inputs. The goat milk market is in a vicious cycle where milk price is low and therefore the milk hygiene quality is low. Brucellosis, a zoonosis endemic in goat flocks of the region (Oseguera Montiel et al. ), does not receive enough attention. This is not an issue in the eyes of the cajeta industry. Given the current circumstances, the risk of getting brucellosis is carried only by farmers’ families. This is detrimental to farmers’ livelihoods because affected individuals are not able to work and may develop permanent disabilities, e.g. arthritis, spondylitis (Corbel ). Furthermore, brucellosis in goats is responsible for losses due to abortion and hence milk production is reduced (Corbel ).
Controlling brucellosis could be an opportunity for farmers to find a niche market for a high-quality dairy product. Currently, such a market is exploited by a relatively small group of goat farmers approximately 20 km from the neighbour state of Guanajuato. Farmers might need to team up to achieve a better market. Stories of smallholder crop farmers forming cooperatives can be found elsewhere (King et al. ). A cooperative led by women may be a way to empower women. Women are mostly involved in milking and cleaning corrals, but they could be playing a key role when goat milk is further processed (e.g. cheese making). Poorer households should be included in such plans too. Farmers’ social capital such as cooperation and trust can be a starting point for developing cooperatives with the help of NGOs or governmental institutions. Unfortunately, good institutional support is lacking. Credit given to acquire ‘modern’ equipment in a ‘one size fits all’ package indicates the governmental institutions’ desire for a modern agriculture sector. However, there was a mismatch between the package designed and the extensive grazing system used by the majority of goat farmers. A programme aiming to improve the pens of all farmers (not only the ‘better-off’) would have had a higher impact than the ‘Proyecto de los tejabanes’. The project only reached a really small fraction of the goat farmers of the region. In the whole state, there are 11,281 goat farmers (INEGI ).
Goat husbandry in the Bajío, Mexico, is embedded in a complex context influenced by neoliberal policies that do not favour the small-scale farming sector. However, goat husbandry has a growing interest among farmers, partly because cropping has become risky and less profitable. Farmers see goats as a source of income, security, credit, prestige, independence, food, manure and apprenticeship for young children. The interest is present among all socio-economic strata. For the poor, goat husbandry was one of the main livelihood strategies. Better-off and medium group households had a wider range of activities. Wealthier farmers had relatively larger flocks and higher gross margins from goat husbandry than poor households. There were households who strengthened other capitals and strategies through goat husbandry. But these are just a handful of stories. The potential of goat husbandry as a tool for poverty alleviation is not visible yet. A dairy market oligopoly is a main drawback. This is partly linked to brucellosis in flocks, because the industry does not pay for high-quality milk; hence, there is no interest in tackling the brucellosis problem. Farmers are powerless against the dairy industry. There are opportunities for a better dairy market if brucellosis could be eradicated from the flocks. This could also reduce the risk of brucellosis in humans. Natural capital (i.e. communal grazing land) is key in goat husbandry. Historically, goat husbandry has persisted because of the abundance of this ‘unproductive’ land. Powerful external organizations have interests in this land and are therefore a threat for smallholder goat husbandry. Given the relatively low amount of crop land available for each household, we have shown that small-scale goat husbandry is productive, in contrast to the dominant discourse that smallholder goat husbandry systems are ‘unproductive’.
aEMBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization) were MX$ 7,191 million (Bimbo ).
bA jar of 660 g of cajeta Coronado was MX$ 61 (PROFECO ). Cajeta main inputs are milk and sugar; for 660 g of cajeta about 2 L of milk and 660 g of sugar are needed (employee, personal communication).
Foundation Alfa and Omega in the Netherlands and The National Council for Science and Technology in Mexico (CONACYT) sponsored the first author and generously funded this research. We thank all farmers for their participation and hospitality during the field work. The authors wish to thank Dr. Anne Pearson for editing the manuscript and for valuable suggestions and comments with content of the manuscript. We also wish to thank Marco Antonio Hernández Andrade for his help in producing the map (Figure 1). Finally, we are thankful for the comments of an anonymous reviewer and to Carol Kerven for kindly editing the manuscript. The usual disclaimers apply.
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