Despite much policy attention to agricultural development in South Africa, efforts since democratisation have failed to raise smallholder engagement in agriculture and to break the trend of persistent rural poverty. This paper presents results from a study of the Massive Food Production Programme (MFPP) in three villages in Eastern Cape Province, South Africa. The MFPP aimed to reduce poverty by raising maize yields. Following a trend of introducing maize varieties developed for large scale farming, the MFPP introduced hybrid and genetically modified maize varieties suited to high-input farming environments. These varieties did not perform well under smallholder conditions. In particular, they were highly sensitive to local storage conditions. Furthermore the restrictions on saving and sharing seed associated with new genetically modified varieties were resented locally. The results show how farming was most important for the poorest households who depended on it for their food security. While these households were in most need of agricultural support, they were also the least supported by the programme. Support with fencing, cattle traction, and locally attuned agricultural advice, which was not prioritised in the MFPP, would have been beneficial across wealth groups. Such support could, in contrast to the MFPP, lead to sustained and positive impact on smallholder livelihoods. In contrast, the strong emphasis on raising yields in the programme did not prove to have the desired effects on poverty.