The core image of a family farm consists of a farming household which owns and lives on the farm, doing most of the work on the farm, and controlling the use or sale of its produce. Deviations from this pattern of course occur, as when the farming family does not own the land but rather rents it, or when substantial numbers of laborers are hired (particularly during peaks of labor demand, such as at harvest time). However, as long as the farming family both does most of the work and obtains most of the income from the produce, family farming goes a long way toward ensuring that those people who put their labor into the land also reap its rewards. A sense that the current generation of farmers is part of a long lineage that will continue to depend on the same land also tends to contribute to sustainable land use practices.
This page explores how family farming can be maintained as a viable livelihood for a substantial percentage of the world population, while addressing concerns of sustainability as well as gender equality.
Context within NORA
Relationships to Needs
Family farming produces a large part of the world's food supply, including food for the farming families themselves. Nutritious food is essential for health. Family farms also provide some of the fiber (such as cotton) and other materials used in producing clothing.
For most family farmers, this mode of production offers a deeply meaningful livelihood; it provides continuity with previous generations, close connection to the land, and the production of food that is essential for human life. For some, this occupation offers a sense of spiritual connection to the land and its people.
Supportive relationships within farming communities are vital to the continued viability of family farms, especially during times of hardship.
The farm itself can be a place where the farming family has shelter, is at home and feels secure.
Opportunities to learn are important so that farmers learn to improve their farming practices, or to adapt them to changing ecological, social and economic conditions.
Family farmers need to be able to participate in economic and political decision-making in order to ensure that the economic rules that are made do not put them at a disadvantage with respect to large farms or to suppliers of agricultural inputs or large-scale buyers of agricultural commodities.
Relationships to Organizational Forms
Family farms are a form of natural resource management, taking care of the land, water and living things of a place.
Most family farms engage in at least some degree of self-provisioning, where some of the food and other farm products is consumed by the farming household or family (otherwise called subsistence production). Most family farms also sell much of their produce, either via individual sales or committed sales or services , either directly to final consumers (farmers markets, community-supported agriculture), or to wholesalers or other businesses (as one-off sales or involving long-term contracts). The committed sales or services cluster of organizational forms also includes associations formed among family farms, such as grower or marketing cooperatives. All sales, whether by individual farmers or cooperatives, involve currencies and markets, as does the purchase of agricultural inputs by farmers.
Structures of mutual support, or community solidarity, play a very important role in family farming. This includes networks for the exchange of free knowledge about farming methods, market prices and so on, as well as for the exchange of seeds or the sharing of equipment.
Relationships to Resources
All types of farms, including family farms, have an impact on the quality of the air and atmosphere, water, and the land., as well as the well-being, abundance and diversity of living things (both domesticated and free-living). Family farmers typically have the knowledge and the interest to manage these resources well, even if structural factors may lead them to use them unsustainably. For the economic viability of family farms, it is vital that they have equitable access to these resources.
Farming, including family farming, requires energy resources, and can provide biomass (including organic wastes) for use as an energy resource.
The farms buildings, as well as the equipment and machinery used in farming, are physical, human-made assets; they need to be maintained in good condition.
Agricultural knowledge, including knowledge about local agroecosystems, is a vital intangible asset needed for sustainable agriculture; family farmers are arguably the most important repository of such knowledge.
Understanding current patterns of abundance and scarcity
Family farming in simplest terms consists of a family using an area of land next to or near the house where they live, to grow food and other crops for their own use or for sale. They decide themselves what to grow, and how to use the produce of their land; they literally reap the fruits of their own labor.
The following sections explore how family farming can contribute to sustainable land use as well as supporting stable livelihoods.
How family farming contributes to sustainable land use
Small family farms have represented a major land use in all densely populated parts of the world for some thousands of years. Their very survival for such a long period of time provides evidence of their sustainability and their adaptability to diverse environments. While it is dangerous to generalize across many different cultures, some key strategies that have ensured the continued viability of small farms include:
- Mutual aid within farming communities: people in small rural communities know that they depend on each other, particularly during times of hardship, and have devised numerous ways of helping each other that are adapted to their lifestyles. Working as a group (for example, bringing in the harvest, dredging irrigation ditches, building a house) is also much more fun than working alone, and builds a sense of community (along with the festivals that may come after).
- Commons for some assets, household or individual property for others: Some resources are best managed in common (often these may include grazing lands, or access to forest resources), but others are best managed by each household separately (often these include the agricultural fields). For both, there tend to be intricate customs, rules, obligations, privileges etc. to ensure their good and sustained use, and to ensure that everyone in the farming community has access to the resources they need in order to make a living.
- Don't put all your eggs in one basket: people need many different foods for healthy nutrition, and so small farmers grow most of what they need. Diverse crops also reduce risk, because for example a drought may kill only those crops with the greatest water requirements and that happen to grow during the season when the drought hits. Also, pest outbreaks will affect one crop but not others (and polyculture reduces the likelihood of pest outbreaks occurring in the first place).
- Waste not want not: making good use of all the resources at your disposal is always prudent. The unavoidable wastes of one farm activity (such as dung from animals, crop residues after harvest) can be used as useful inputs elsewhere (for example, sources of soil nutrients and organic matter).
- Avoid exclusive reliance on the market: markets are unpredictable and beyond the control of small farmers; major players in the markets can manipulate them in their own favor. If farmers produce enough for their own food requirements, they can ensure that their survival is not at stake even if market prices plummet.
- Be cautious of anything newfangled: practices that have worked in a place as long as anyone can remember are likely to be sustainable – and hence a good rule of thumb is to stick with them and modify them only with caution! This pertains even to practices where it may not be easily apparent exactly why they are beneficial, or that may even appear harmful to some.
- Experiment at small scale: Despite the above point, it is good to test out new practices, or to introduce new crops into one's repertoire. This can be done by trying something new only in a small plot and never putting all one's eggs into one – untested – basket.
None of these strategies are fail-safe, but they do tend to create farming systems that are highly resilient in difficult times as well as being productive of stable though not extravagant livelihoods in good times. One must always remember that one exceptionally good year does not outweigh one year of starvation.
How family farming can support stable livelihoods
Many people associate small-scale farming with poverty and backwardness, but these characteristics stem from the exploitation of farming communities by others, rather than resulting from inherent characteristics of family farming. Promoting family farms does not mean that rural people should go back to pre-industrial poverty, but rather that family farmers be given their due so that they can contribute to sustainable food production and sustain their own livelihoods.
While farming communities can be highly self-reliant, they cannot produce manufactured products that require an advanced division of labor, or services that require highly specialized skills or education. In many countries, small farmers are unable to afford such goods or services. However, this reflects an imbalance in exchange relationships between farming and other communities, rather than an inherent deficiency in family farming as such. It is such imbalances that need to be addressed.
Sedentary agricultural populations have always been easy to exploit by armed men – nobles, knights, soldiers, kingdoms, all the way to the modern state. This was done via outright theft, or by excessive taxation, or by markets stacked against small producers. Property laws that allow a few people to own all the land while others work it (as agricultural laborers or tenants) assure that those who actually work the land do not enjoy the fruits of their own labor. It is such exploitative arrangements that make tenant or sharecropping farmers poor, not the limitations of family farming as such. Those family farmers who do own their own land, who are able to participate in local decision-making, and who enjoy reasonably good access to markets, generally achieve a reasonable degree of prosperity.
Means to achieving greater abundance for family farmers thus include security of tenure (including for women farmers), various forms of mutual aid or commons, access to collective economic and political decision-making, and strategies to ensure that they are fairly treated in markets (such as fair trade, and marketing cooperatives).
Rural communities, whether dominated by family farmers or other types of farmers, are often accused of being overly conservative, not only in matters that may be justified as careful use of the land and other resources, but also in matters of social mores. While such conservatism is by no means a monopoly of rural communities, individuals who do not fit the mold may indeed be treated harshly due to strong pressure to maintain traditional ways and beliefs. There can be highly entrenched views of gender roles, and how young people are to treat elders. Such attitudes compromise the ability of the affected individuals to realize their dreams and to live abundantly. Beyond this, they can also affect the ability of the community as a whole to adapt to economic and cultural change, because the most creative members of the community may be pushed to leave, while newcomers from elsewhere, who may introduce new ideas, may be kept out. Therefore, it is important to work toward greater tolerance for diversity (of belief, of gender roles, sexual orientation, etc.) within rural communities.
Addressing economic pressures that undermine sustainability of small farms
Despite the strategies for sustainability mentioned above, family farms may use unsustainable methods of farming, such as excessive applications of fertilizers and pesticides, or cropping practices that lead to soil degradation. These often result from economic pressures beyond the control of the farmers themselves.
Increasing labor costs create pressure to mechanize, especially in wealthy countries. Mechanization as such does not necessarily compromise sustainability, but mechanization can make it more difficult to do intercropping (more than one crop in a single field, such as alternating rows of two different crops), and can promote monoculture in large fields. This is because the use of machinery to harvest one crop may damage the other crop in an intercropped field, and multiple different crops on the same farm may require more different types of machinery, increasing investment costs. Increased labor costs also can lead farmers to rely more heavily on pesticides (especially herbicides) instead of more labor-intensive forms of pest control. Finally, the effort to reduce labor requirements discourages the composting of farm waste as a source of fertilizer, increasing reliance on artificial fertilizers. Diverse crops, non-chemical forms of pest control, and the use of compost are all key features of organic or agroecological methods in agriculture, that are more expensive where labor costs are high. Since farmers compete with other farmers to sell their produce at a low price, it is often economically impossible to use the more expensive methods.
To promote sustainable farming methods, it is possible to create labels (for example, “organic” standards and labels), or to make the destruction of environmental resources more expensive (which can be achieved by regulations or potentially by commons trusts or land value taxation).
Advocates of large-scale industrial farming often assume that small farms are less productive than large ones, and thus claim that a conversion to small family farms would require more land to be devoted to agriculture, implying greater loss of natural habitats. In fact the relationship between farm size and land productivity is more often reversed, because small farmers make more careful use of each part of their farm. The amount of labor input per hectare does not automatically decline with farm size, and so farms of modest size can also achieve high labor productivity. However, large farms that employ large numbers of agricultural laborers spend less money on labor per unit area because those laborers are typically paid very little (both in rich and in poor countries). It is thus when they are forced to compete with underpaid labor on large farms that small farmers get into economic difficulty. Labor protections for landless agricultural laborers would therefore tend to help those small farmers who themselves employ little or no outside labor.
Government subsidies for agriculture are often designed in such a way that large farms obtain more subsidies than small ones, which fact can be converted into a competitive advantage of large farms that has nothing to do with their actual productivity of either land or labor. To the extent that subsidies are retained at all, they should be redesigned in favor of small farms where the owners are also the workers, rather than large farms which typically employ workers at very low wages.
Approaches to creating greater abundance
Cooperation among family farmers
Agricultural credit unions
Reform of agricultural subsidies
Grazing and other agricultural commons
Recognition of customary land rights among peasant or indigenous communities
Agricultural extension and research appropriate for small farms
Land and other rights for women farmers
Programs to support women farmers
Land value taxation
Organic standards and labels
FIAN International (Food First Information and Action Network)
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