Development research is often associated with issues of policy. Researchers aim to increase our contextual and theoretical knowledge to enhance the creation of "good" development policies. One way of doing this is to identify and learn from harmful policies of the past. The objective of this article is to examine such policychoice explanations by looking at the dominant understandings of the modern history of agriculture in Malawi. These perspectives share the view that the high level of rural poverty is, to a great extent, an outcome of the agricultural policies implemented by the colonial and postcolonial governments. Of crucial importance are the mechanisms whereby the state actively tried to transfer resources from the smallholder sector to the state or to the estate sector. This had a negative impact on the production capacity of the smallholder sector. This article notes that the focus on policies alone is not a sufficient approach to understand the dynamics and limitations of the smallholder sector. The article also points to some methodological weaknesses with policy-choice explanations that are relevant for development research in general.