Is getting out of farming the best bet for smallholder farmers?

Author // Dr. Achim Dobermann Categories // Achim Dobermann's blog

25 September 2013

Today, the UN General Assembly will meet for a special session to discuss progress made towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals and to launch the process for developing a set of new Sustainable Development Goals for the post-2015 era.

A lot of good discussion on this has already taken place in recent months, including excellent proposals made by the High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda, the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), and many others. One thing is clear: agriculture will play a central role in the new sustainable development agenda, not just for food security but also for development goals related to poverty, health, rural economic and social development, education, and the environment. A key question is: what kind of agriculture should this be?

I was reminded of that, traveling to eastern India three weeks ago. On my way to India, I read an interesting paper by Miguel Altieri—Agroecology, Small Farms, and Food Sovereignty. The central argument he makes is that the model of a commercialized globalized agriculture is wrong, and that a new model for agriculture should focus on agroecological farming principles applied in millions of small farms worldwide, making effective use of local resources and knowledge and also leading to greater food sovereignty. He suggests that small farms are more productive, conserve more resources, preserve greater biodiversity, and are even more resilient to extreme weather or climate change.

Go small and wide?

I readily agree that enhancing the productivity and income of small farms worldwide should be at the center of an integrated approach for improving agricultural systems and rural livelihoods. It is the most effective intervention for reducing poverty and hunger. Hundreds of millions of smallholder farmers also represent a fantastic army of environmental stewards. But don't we need to be more realistic about their future? What do they aspire to? How sustainable is smallholder farming in reality, and how would it fare when the social and economic dimensions of sustainability are taken into account? Aren't such farmers caught in a poverty trap because of a lack of land and other resources? What should be the future development path for these communities? These are questions that are often on my mind, and they are not easy to answer.

What I have observed while traveling through villages in Asia and Africa did not seem to support what Professor Altieri is proposing. My observations did not differ much when I went to Jharkhand State in eastern India. Some 33 million people live there. Although the state is rich in mineral resources, these have not brought any benefits to a largely poor rural population that tries to make a living from rainfed agriculture in small farms. Many villages here do not have reliable access to electricity. Roads are bad. Going to a hospital usually involves a long trip. Farmers still use mostly traditional farming methods, and scarcely even simple machines, good quality seeds, or fertilizers. The soil is of poor quality in most areas. Small pumps for irrigation are rare. Women and men, and perhaps also many children, have to do a lot of hard work in the fields. Crop yields are low and erratic, and so is the income of these families, many of whom are part of tribal communities.

And these people are exposed to great risks. This year, there was some rain in June and farmers prepared their rice nurseries for planting. But then drought struck throughout July. Driving around for two days in Jharkhand, I saw large areas not planted simply because the farmers did not have the means to do it when the rains finally came. How can that be a more productive or a more resilient system?

Are our goals the same as the farmers'?

On the bright side, I did see large green areas planted with a new drought-tolerant rice variety, Sahbhagi Dhan, bred by IRRI in collaboration with local partners. The variety was brought to the villages for the first time, along with some basic agronomic improvements. The response from hundreds of farmers we met with was overwhelming. They told me that rarely does any new technology or government program ever reach their villages, whereas this one had immediate and visible results.

The farmers were able to plant or directly sow the new variety, and it was looking really good for them. Because of the high level of drought tolerance in Sahbhagi Dhan, a much higher yield was expected in an even shorter period, as the variety matures within 105–110 days only. Traditional varieties in the area take as long as 140 or 150 days. Now, the farming households have access to food much earlier. This, indeed, is a transformative technology that can make a huge difference in the life of these poor rural families. And perhaps there are many other agroecological improvements one could make, in addition.

But will this be enough for the people living in poor rural areas to advance economically and socially, like anyone aspires for in life?

rice fields in Jharkhand (left); fields planted with Sahbhagi Dhan (right)

Many farmers were not able to plant rice this year in Jharkhand (left) but fields planted with Sahbhagi Dhan are doing well (right).


couple expecting twice the amount of their usual harvest

By growing the new drought-tolerant variety combined with better agronomy, this couple expects to harvest twice as much as usual.

I have doubts about that. Wherever I talk to farmers and their families, their main desire seems to be to enable a better life for their children by getting them out of farming. In Jharkhand, one farmer told me that his main goal was to save enough money to get at least two of his children through college, and to be able to come up with a dowry big enough to marry his daughter off to a college-educated engineer. A group of women told me that one of the biggest benefits of having a cellphone these days was that they could look for work elsewhere. In another area, people told me that the biggest change in their village over the last 20 years was access to better education, which provides a whole new perspective on life for children and the youth—a chance that their parents never had. I could go on and on with examples like this.

a farmer and his son

Will he follow in the footsteps of his father?

No single solution for everyone

My main point is that, instead of idealizing the future of smallholder farming, we should accept that this is often a drudgery—perhaps even a dead-end—in terms of advancing in life.

Lopsided proposals to transform agriculture to low-input smallholder systems will neither meet the needs of rural people nor help in ensuring future food security. While recognizing the huge importance and potential of smallholder farming for current and future agriculture, we also have to accept that for many small farmers and their families, the best roadmap for development is to move out of farming. Nonfarm rural and urban employment will drive this process, but, hopefully, also will many jobs in small- and medium-size enterprises along agricultural value chains. Access to better education and jobs may offer the next generations a chance for a better life, while those who remain in farming may have a greater chance to consolidate landholdings and thus modernize many operations for greater income potential and more efficient use of available resources.

A recent analysis of trends in urbanization and farm size in Asia and Africa suggests that the momentum of population growth will continue to drive the declining total land area per farm for many more years in sub-Saharan Africa, with corresponding reduction in natural resources available per farm family. Land available per farm will continue to shrink until nonfarm opportunities expand enough to absorb all new workers entering the labor force.

Asia, on the other hand, may have already passed this turning point. Its average farm sizes can rise, compounding the opportunities afforded by new business models that may also overcome the current constraints of smallholder farming. Of course, such structural transformations will take time and they will also differ by country and by agricultural sectors within a country. While many hinterland farms continue to face high transaction costs and thus remain largely self-sufficient, farms closer to markets will have it much easier becoming increasingly specialized and linked to agribusinesses.

We should not be dogmatic about what is right or wrong for smallholder farmers. Different models can and should co-exist, but all require good policies, improved rural infrastructure, and other enabling systems—including secure land tenure, better education, and health care.

I don't know what the most suitable development path for the rural areas in Jharkhand will be, but it is clear to me that demographic and socioeconomic drivers will have huge implications for agricultural policies, rural development, and IRRI's own research. We need to ensure that our efforts support these transformational changes by providing science-based actionable solutions that can be tailored to local situations.

Sahbhagi Dhan is a fantastic example for this, and I'm looking forward to more of its kind, for Jharkhand and for many other regions. Our next generation of drought-tolerant varieties—e.g., IR64 equipped with two new drought tolerance genes by marker-assisted selection—are about to be released. Hopefully, first, in Jharkhand.


About the Author

Dr. Achim Dobermann

Dr. Achim Dobermann

Achim is a soil scientist and agronomist with 25 years experience working in Asia, North America and Europe. He is recognized internationally as an authority on science and technology for food security and sustainable management of the world's major cereal cropping systems. He has authored or co-authored over 250 scientific papers and two books on nutrients in rice and has received numerous awards from various academic, government and industry organizations. He is a Fellow of the American Society of Agronomy and a Fellow of the Soil Science Society of America.

Read his profile | more blog articles