Who are the world’s small farmers?

Photo: CABI

It is commonly believed that there are around 500 million small farms – defined as being less than 2 hectares – in the world. The conventional wisdom is that the number of small farms is increasing whilst farm sizes are getting smaller, and this trend will continue for 20-30 years. However there is a paucity of reliable data and some debate as to what the trends are in terms of numbers of small farms, the average farm size and the relative productivity of small and large farms. Censuses are only carried out every 10 years and their country coverage is incomplete. Existing data can sometimes be conflicting and open to different interpretations. Whatever the precise number and trends, smallholders will remain an important sector of world agriculture and are the mainstay for food security in most developing countries.

At the “Future of Small Farms” conference, organised by CABI and the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture on 24-25 January in Basel, Peter Hazell (formerly of IFPRI) outlined three main categories of smallholders:

  • Business-orientated small farmers, often growing fruit and vegetables and ‘stepping up’ to link with commercial value chains. Increasing standards and demands for traceability are raising the bar for such farmers. It is estimated that there may be around 100 million of these.
  • Smallholders in transition with off-farm opportunities and ‘stepping out’ of farming as the main source of subsistence and employment. Estimates put around 200 million in this category. In Africa, many from this group are earning 40-60% of their income from off-farm activities.
  • Subsistence farmers who are marginalised and disadvantaged. They ‘hang in’ to precarious farm livelihoods with poor technologies and weak links to markets and finance, numbering around 150 million.

Specific types of intervention from different actors are appropriate for the relevant groups. Many private companies are keen to work with business-orientated smallholders, and several of the private sector organisations at the conference provided examples of their work with smallholders. The second group is addressed by foundations and impact investors who can assist in building markets for inputs and outputs. The third group is where governments come in, though not exclusively and in many cases public-private partnerships can be effective.

“Smallholders want chances, not charity”
– Michel Demaré, Chairman of the Board of Syngenta AG and Syngenta Foundation

Smallholders cannot be viewed in isolation but must be seen in the context of the wider economy which determines both the opportunities to transition between smallholder segments and the rate of movement from an agricultural to an industrial society. Rising incomes and changing diets will create demand for food produced by smallholders. At the same time off-farm income generation opportunities will influence the rate at which the rural population leaves the agricultural sector. Whilst there is a clear trend that smallholders are increasing the proportion of their income which comes from off-farm sources, lack of such opportunities (a function of the development of the wider economy), can limit the process of structural transformation. Although it is economic forces which drive this process, the social implications are also important. Surveys conducted in Ghana and Bangladesh showed that many farmers who had left the land to work in cities felt alienated and would have liked to remain on their farms had it been economically viable. As it tends to be younger people who migrate there is an ageing of the farm population (the average farmer age in Africa is 65). Another social dimension is the feminisation of agriculture as it is usually the men who migrate to cities leaving an increasing proportion of women tending the farms. This has implications for agricultural extension, 85% of extension workers being male, and land ownership, where women may not have the same rights as men in some countries.

This article is the first in a series covering the issues raised at the “The Future of Small Farms” conference hosted by CABI and the Syngenta Foundation, compiled by Jonathan Shoham. Subscribe to the Plantwise blog to receive notifications of new articles by email.

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