Benefits of Small Farm Agriculture


By Peter M. Rosset

For more than a century mainstream economists in both capitalist and socialist countries have confidently and enthusiastically predicted the demise of the small, family farm. Small farms have time and again been labeled as backward, unproductive and inefficient, an obstacle to be overcome in the process of economic development. The American model of large scale, mechanized, corporate agriculture is held out as the best, if not the only way to efficiently feed the world's population.

If small farms are worth preserving — if indeed a small farm model of rural development makes more sense than does the large-scale, mechanized, chemical intensive, corporate dominated and socially excluding model toward which business-as-usual is carrying us — then now is the time to act. The first point worth noting is that while small farmers have been driven out of rural America by the millions, and we have seen a similar, though lessor rural-urban migration in the Third World, the fact is that family farmers do still persist in the U.S. and continue to be numerically dominant. In the Third World they are central to the production of staple foods. The prediction of their demise continues to be premature, though their numbers have dropped substantially and they face new threats to their livelihoods on an unprecedented scale.

The second point is that small farms are far from being as unproductive or inefficient as so many would have us believe. Peasants have stubbornly clung to the land despite more than a century of harsh policies which have undercut their economic viability.

The third point is that small farms have multiple functions which benefit both society and the biosphere, and which contribute far more than just a particular commodity. These multiple and beneficial functions should be seriously valued and considered before we blithely accept yet another round of anti-small farm policy measures — this time at the level of the global economy.

I am not alone in speaking to the value of small farms and calling for policy change to take advantage of their potential dynamism. The United States Department of Agriculture's (USDA) National Commission on Small Farms released a landmark report in 1998 titled "A Time to Act." What the USDA calls the public value of small farms includes: Diversity; Environmental benefits; Empowerment and community responsibility; Places for families; Personal connection to food; and Economic foundations. The USDA Commission calls for a change in policies that have favored large, corporate-style farms for so very long, with hideous costs to rural communities and the environment.

To face the current challenges of agriculture, we need to address agriculture and land in a broader context by integrating multiple roles (economic, food production, nature and land management, employment, etc.). Sustainable agriculture and land use is not just a means to obtain more food and income in socially acceptable ways which do not degrade the environment. Rather, it has an all-encompassing impact on communities, environments, and consumers. Sustainable land use is an opportunity to improve the quality of the environment, including its physical (increased soil fertility, better quality air and water), biological (healthier and more diverse animal, plant, and human populations), and social, economic and institutional (greater social equity, cohesion, peace/stability, well-being) components. Land is not just a resource to be exploited, but a crucial vehicle for the achievement of improved socioeconomic, biological, and physical environments. Concretely, by paying attention to the multiple functions of agriculture and land use, all economic, social and environmental functions of agriculture, at multiple levels, are recognized and included in decision making in order to promote synergies between these functions and to reconcile different stakeholder objectives.

Likewise, if we are to fairly evaluate the relative productivity of small and large farms, we must discard "yield" as our measurement tool. Yield means the production per unit area of a single crop, like "metric tons of corn per hectare." One can often obtain the highest yield of a single crop by planting it alone on a field — in a monoculture — producing nothing else of use to the farmer. The bare ground between the crop rows — empty "niche space" in ecological terms — invites weed infestation. The presence of weeds makes the farmer invest labor in weeding or capital in herbicide.

Large farmers tend to plant monocultures because they are the simplest to manage with heavy machinery. Small farmers on the other hand, especially in the Third World, are much more likely to plant crop mixtures — intercropping — where the empty niche space that would otherwise produce weeds instead is occupied by other crops. They also tend to combine or rotate crops and livestock, with manure serving to replenish soil fertility. Such integrated farming systems produce far more per unit area than do monocultures. The total output per unit area, often composed of more than a dozen crops and various animal products, can be far, far higher. Therefore, if we are to compare small and large farms we should use total output, rather than yield. While yield almost always biases the results toward larger farms, total output allows us to see the true productivity advantage of small farms. In all cases of data examined relatively smaller farm sizes are much more productive per unit area — 2 to 10 times more productive — than are larger ones. There are a variety of explanations for the greater productivity of small farms in the Third World including: multiple cropping; land use intensity; output composition; irrigation; labor quality; labor intensity; input use; and resource use.

While small farms are clearly more productive than large farms, claims are often made that large farms are still more efficient. To start with, this depends on the definition of efficiency that one chooses. Small farms make more efficient use of land. Large farms generally have higher labor productivity due to mechanization, so they might be considered to be more efficient in labor usage. The definition of efficiency most widely accepted by economists is that of "total factor productivity," a sort of averaging of the efficiency of use of all the different factors that go into production, including land, labor, inputs, capital, etc. Tomich and others (1993) provide data from the 1960s, 70s and early 80s, which show small farms have greater total factor productivity than large farms in Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, Mexico and Columbia. In industrial countries like the U.S. the pattern is less clear. The consensus position is probably that very small farms are inefficient because they can't make full use of expensive equipment, while very large farms are also inefficient because of management and labor problems inherent in large operations. Thus, peak efficiency is likely achieved on mid-sized farms that have one or two hired laborers.

Here in the United States, the question was asked more than a half-century ago: what does the growth of large-scale, industrial agriculture mean for rural towns and communities? Walter Goldschmidt's classic 1940's study of California's San Joaquin Valley compared areas dominated by large corporate farms with those still characterized by smaller, family farms. In farming communities dominated by large corporate farms, nearby towns died off. Mechanization meant that fewer local people were employed, and absentee ownership meant that farm families themselves were no longer to be found. The income earned in agriculture was drained off into larger cities to support distant enterprises, while in towns surrounded by family farms, the income circulated among local business establishments, generating jobs and community prosperity. Where family farms predominated, there were more local businesses, paved streets and sidewalks, schools, parks, churches, clubs, and newspapers, better services, higher employment, and more civic participation. Studies since Goldschmidt's original work confirm his findings remain true today.

The benefits of small farms extend beyond the economic sphere. Whereas large, industrial-style farms impose a scorched-earth mentality on resource management — no trees, no wildlife, endless monocultures — small farmers can be very effective stewards of natural resources and the soil. To begin with, small farmers utilize a broad array of resources and have a vested interest in their sustainability. At the same time, their farming systems are diverse, incorporating and preserving significant functional biodiversity within the farm. By preserving biodiversity, open space and trees, and by reducing land degradation, small farms provide valuable ecosystem services to the larger society.

If we are concerned about food production, small farms are more productive. If our concern is efficiency, they are more efficient. If our concern is poverty, land reform to create a small farm economy offers a clear solution. The small farm model is also the surest route to broad-based economic development. If the loss of biodiversity or the sustainability of agriculture concern us, small farms offer a crucial part of the solution.

Trade liberalization, the move toward global free trade policies, poses a grave threat to the continued existence of small farms throughout the world. Over the past couple of decades Third World countries have been encouraged, cajoled, threatened, and generally pressured into unilaterally reducing the level of protection offered to their domestic food producers in the face of well-financed foreign competitors. On the face of it, this might sound like a good thing. After all, more food imports might make food cheaper in poor, hungry countries, and thus make it easier for the poor to obtain enough to eat. However, the experiences of many countries suggest that there are downsides to these policies which may outweigh the potential benefits.

First, a sudden drop in farm prices can drive already poor, indebted farmers off the land over the short term. Second, a more subtle effect kicks in. As crop prices stay low over the medium term, profits per unit area (per acre or hectare) stay low as well. That means the minimum number of hectares needed to support a family rises, contributing to abandonment of farm land by smaller, poorer farmers, land which then winds up in the hands of the larger, better off farmers who can compete in a low price environment by virtue of having very many hectares. They overcome the low profit per hectare trap precisely by owning vast areas which add up to good profits in total, even if they represent very little on a per hectare basis. The end result of both mechanisms is the further concentration of farm land in the ever fewer hands of the largest farmers.

Agriculture produces not only commodities, but also livelihoods, cultures, ecological services, etc., and as such, the products of farming cannot be treated in the same way as other goods. While a shoe, for example, is a relatively simple good whose world price can be set by supply and demand, and the trade in which can be regulated through tariffs or de-regulated by removing them, not so for farming, whose roles are far more complex.

Agriculture not only produces/supplies agricultural products, but also contributes to food security, by reducing the risks caused by unexpected events or a possible food shortage in the future, to the preservation of land and environment, to the creation of a good landscape and to the maintenance of the local community, through production activities in harmony with the natural environment. All of these roles are known as the "multifunctionality" of agriculture. As an expert in small farm production, I completely endorse this view. Ignoring the multiple functions of agriculture has caused untold suffering and ecological destruction in the past. The time is long overdue to recognize the full range of contributions that agriculture, and small farms in particular, make to human societies and to the biosphere. Farms are not factories that churn out sneakers or tennis racquets, and we cannot let narrow arguments of simple economic expediency destroy this legacy of all human kind.


Dr. Peter M. Rosset, the author, is Executive Director, Food First, The Institute for Food and Development PoliX-Mozilla-Status: 0009 This article is an abstract of a Policy Brief prepared for "Cultivating Our Futures," the FAO/Netherlands Conference on the Multifunctional Character of Agriculture and Land, 12-17 September 1999, Maastricht, The Netherlands.