Family farming, which broadly speaking means any farm owned or managed by a family, is the most predominant form of agriculture around the globe. Over 500 million family farms in the world currently supply more than 56 percent of food, feed and fiber . And they are as diverse as they are numerous. Family farmers range from smallholders and medium scale farmers, to peasants, indigenous peoples, traditional communities, pastoralists and many other groups.
While family farms differ greatly across regions – for instance in Europe 60 percent of the largest family farms span over 100 plus hectares compared to very modest land holdings of less than one hectare in developing regions – they play important part in the transition towards sustainable development .
Not only is family farming providing jobs and food in the world’s most food insecure areas such as Africa, Asia, Latin America or the Near East, it also provides a useful model for how agriculture can help redress environmental degradation.
Why are small family farms important for the environment and sustainable future?
Today, approximately 70 percent of the world’s freshwater is used in agriculture, our current food production system emits as much as 19 to 29 percent of greenhouse gases while soils are getting depleted up to 40 times faster than is their capacity to regenerate . This paints a bleak picture for the future of our food production, as agriculture undeniably puts strain on our resources and contributes to climate change.
But the picture has also a bright side.
While heavy machinery keeps spraying large swaths of monocrops with pesticides and fertilizers, millions of family farmers are applying agroecological approaches to redress those impacts and revive rural areas.
Through the set of agricultural practices, such as agroforestry, intercropping, cover cropping, green manuring, or integrated pest management, family farms achieve long-term sustainability and greater productivity than industrial farms.
Yes, that’s right. Thanks to the management focused on the highest efficiency, family farms achieve higher productivity from their land. In some cases, it can be as much as 200 to 1,000 percent more than large farms do .
What is the key to their success and what are the benefits of family farming for the environment?
Let’s start right from the bottom. From the medium that also determines the success of our ability to grow food–from the soil…
#1 Special care for soils
Family farmers often inherit their land from their ancestors. This inheritance represents decades of successful work of previous generations. It also represents a great deal of responsibility to care for the land with the same determination and meticulousness as their predecessors did.
Soil is the farmer’s most important resource and it comes naturally that family farmers look for ways to maintain good soil fertility on their farm. Given that they are also limited by the space (some farmers have less than two hectares of land ) and need to produce as much as possible from their piece of land, they usually lead the way in transitioning to soil regenerative practices.
These practices comprise of a few important steps that certainly differ from conventional large-scale farming.
Firstly, on smaller farms, soils are much less disturbed by heavy machinery and unnecessary tilling. Family farmers work with higher precision because every decision they make affects farm’s yearly budget. They think twice and often decide in favor of minimum soil disturbance and reduced intervention, which greatly benefits the soil health.
Additionally, lot of work is done manually or with smaller and lighter technology. This protects soils from compaction that can be so often seen on large monoculture fields.
To achieve the highest productivity, family farmers often combine variety of crops. Every inch of land is utilized either for the direct production of food crops, or is covered by patches of cover crops that are later used to enrich soils as green manure or are harvested as animal fodder. Farm diversification protects soils from erosion, helps them retain moisture longer and supports various activity of soil microorganisms that are crucial for healthy soil structure.
As Gabe Brown, a family farmer from North Dakota, wrote in his book “Dirt to Soil: One Family’s Journey into Regenerative Agriculture,” soils need to be covered at all times .
This is a widespread practice on many family farms because it simply correlates with efficiency of the farm management—growing diverse plants close together, intercropping, planting legumes to enrich soils of nitrogen and produce feed for livestock, rotating crops, but also leaving crop residues on the ground until new planting.
#2 Sensitive management of resources
In natural ecosystems, nothing goes to waste. Materials are reused, nutrients are recycled. Wastefulness and depletion of natural resources is one of the attributes of the highly industrialized agriculture where maximum profit not sustainability sets the pace.
Family farms, on the contrary, strive for long-term sustainability. Farmers have deep connection with their land and possess good understanding of how they need to manage available resources in order to achieve the best outcome for themselves and their land.
According to Peter Rosset, world expert in food and agriculture, small farmers are brilliant managers of natural resources. We can, for example, find three times more trees on their farms and two times more land being used for healthy soil building practices (like green manuring) when compared to industrial farms .
It may sound surprising to some, but nomadic pastoralists like Bedouins or Mongolian herders, that have been extensively grazing their herds in the world’s drylands, are also great protectors of natural resources (if left to do their work according to their traditions).
Despite raising animals in semi-arid regions where even the slightest push over the limit can trigger severe soil degradation, these farmers have always known how to achieve perfect balance in using natural resources sustainably to produce high quality animal products .
It is thanks to their ancient knowledge in sensible animal herding that soils, diverse grassland vegetation and scarce water resources remained healthy throughout the centuries. This allowed people benefit from resources native grasslands had to offer, and ecosystems benefit from the presence of grazing animals that help to rejuvenate vegetation.
#3 Prevention of pollution
Being a farmer is an important job with great responsibility. Perhaps even greater than many of us realize. Why? Because everything is connected. Decisions that farmers make in regards of their farm management can affect many people in surrounding communities and even in distant cities.
Most family farmers treat their soil like a living medium. They feed it, let it recover, observe its health closely and take steps to protect it. Such soils are, in return, not only capable of growing nutritious food, they are also free of pathogens and capable of warding off diseases and pests naturally. This results in reduced (or zero) input of pesticides and fertilizers.
Additionally, diversity of plants grown side by side on these small farms protects soils from erosion caused by heavy rain. Diverse vegetation with thick network of roots underground helps to stabilize the soil and prevent runoff.
The deposition of soil nutrients into water bodies from the agricultural runoff, especially from intensively fertilized fields, is the main cause of eutrophication of many lakes and the reason for the appearance of dead zones, such as the gigantic dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.
The Gulf has become a dead zone spanning over 8,000 square miles almost devoid of marine life due to fertilizer and pesticide runoff from the Corn Belt along the Upper Mississippi River .
Modern agriculture is a substantial emitter of air pollutants, including potent greenhouse gases methane and nitrous oxides. The biggest part of these emissions originates from the intensive way of farming. Processes like fertilizer application, diesel exhausts from heavy agricultural machinery, soil tilling and other soil disturbances, or burning of organic residues release health-threatening air pollutants like fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) .
Luckily, sustainable methods of farming that are largely promoted on family farms emit smaller amounts of these gases. In fact, some regenerative practices like agroforestry or cultivation of perennial crops even promote carbon sequestration .
#4 Maximized application of water saving measures
Smallholder farmers are more inclined to take measures and use technologies that conserve water. By being directly in touch with their land, they see the potential for improving water retention on their farms. They are also aware that water saving measures will make their work easier in the long-term and that improved water management will increase resilience of their farms during dry spells.
The core of the problems with water for farmers is too quick loss of rainwater from the property by runoff, or increased evaporation from soils lacking vegetation. By following the principles of sustainable farming and soil conservation, these problems can be addressed along the way .
For instance, a very effective measure is leaving soils covered by living plants or organic residues from the farm (for example corn stalks). Ground covers enhance water infiltration by capturing rainwater, allowing it to enter into deeper soil layers, protecting soils from the sun, and thus, preserving soil moisture content for longer time.
Increasingly popular measure among small farmers is prevention of runoff and improved rainwater harvesting. Farmers greatly reduce their demand on water for irrigation by building ponds, swales, or even artificial wetlands in areas where water tends to accumulate during heavy rains . The captured water then slowly infiltrates into the soil as well as gets used for irrigation.
More sophisticated way of watering crops includes drip irrigation. This method can save up to 80 percent more water than conventional irrigation methods. Drip irrigation allows the water to drip slowly to the roots of different plants, either onto the soil surface or directly onto the root zone, through a network of valves, pipes and tubing.
According to the experience of some farmers, drip irrigation to the roots makes crops healthier and stronger because they have water available right where it is needed. Additional advantage is that when underground, evaporation from the surface is minimized . No wonder that more family farmers across the world are investing into this technology lately.
#5 Stewardship of seed diversity and traditional breeds
Family farmers are the main custodians of agricultural biodiversity.
Given that they usually have less resources to work with, many family farmers focus on special crops or indigenous livestock breeds which often originate from the area and bear unique characteristics and qualities that have been developed through the meticulous selection of the best seeds or animals.
For example, some crop varieties are tastier or richer in nutrients. Other varieties are salt, drought, or pest resistant; therefore, yield better under local conditions.
Traditional animal breeds also prove being more valuable in some areas than the few high production breeds that can be seen on every large farm across the world these days. There are countless examples of high production breeds losing productivity due to unsuitable climate, while the indigenous breeds prosper and are a walking example of the perfect health. Careful breeding of the best and the strongest animals ensured that many ancient breeds carry traits shaped over the centuries by local farmers to suit their needs .
Thanks to the perseverance and wisdom of family farmers, local breeds and crops haven’t been entirely replaced by their commercial, high yielding counterparts. In some cases, this is due to the lack of finance of not being able to buy the industrial varieties because they are more expensive. In other cases, it is because farmers are aware of the qualities and improved resistance of the traditional types.
For example, Shreya Dasgupta wrote an article for Ensia about traditional rice seeds saving livelihoods of farmers in the region of the Ganga-Brahmaputra delta in eastern India. After the area has been hit by Cyclone Aila in 2009, agricultural lands were flooded with salt water which left behind soils with increased salt content that couldn’t support modern rice crops. Luckily, traditional rice seeds were tolerant to higher salt concentration, as they have adapted to periods of salt water inundations over the centuries.
Many small farmers are also aware that “putting all eggs in one basket” is not the safest approach. It is fairly common to find diverse varieties even within one family farm–where farmers grow their traditional crops but also experiment with modern strains. When the season is favorable for both, their harvest is doubled. When the weather is rather unusual, they may have granted at least some harvest from the more resistant type, which often means the traditional one .
#6 Respect for ecosystems and support of biodiversity
Being a farmer is not a job. Being a farmer is the way of life.
Successful family farmers can be only people who inherited the feeling for land, plants, animals; people, who have strong instincts towards living organisms and natural cycles; people, who are capable of seeing their farm as part of the bigger unit—natural ecosystem.
Family farms are often teeming with diversity of life. They are managed in a way that insects, pollinators, birds, small wildlife can find sources of food and shelter on their grounds. For example, in hedgerows along the boundaries, in cover crops, or more abundant trees. Compared to hectares of uniform monocultures, smaller farms offer plenty of spaces and diverse habitats to support other life, including predators that help to rid the farm of pests naturally.
Perhaps even more interesting is the fact that in some places, subsistence farmers created valuable ecosystems filled with biodiversity of plants and animals. One such example are High Nature Value Grasslands in Romania created through the traditional management of hay meadows, when grass is mowed by scythe and hay is hauled by horse-drawn carriages until the present day .
Throughout the centuries of this gentle management, Romanian farmers have perfectly preserved grasslands that display such a rich wildflower and small fauna biodiversity that cannot be find anywhere else in Europe .
Similar scenario happens in Polish Carpathian Mountains, where a traditional breed of cattle, called Polish Red, helped sustainably maintain vegetation on hilly slopes while protecting soils from erosion. This sturdy breed of cattle has proven to do excellent job in preserving delicate mountainous ecosystem . But despite performing an important service for the ecosystem and despite being well adapted to harsh climate of mountains, while producing excellent quality milk rich in protein and fat, this breed is on the edge of extinction due to the on-going intensification of agriculture in Poland .
#7 Connection of rural communities with their natural resources
The biggest problem of the industrial world is how disconnected people are from the nature. Being disconnected means not being aware. Not being aware means not caring about it. How can we care in this busy world about something we don’t know about?
The same principle is at work in the industrial agriculture. Large farms employ people to work in an industrial mode. Food produced this way is presented in a factory-like manner to people in distant cities who have no idea how it was grown and by whom. Large distances are covered during these farming operations. Large machines are driven by a handful of people.
Family farmers, on the other hand, are people who are directly involved with the food production process and wellbeing of the community where they live. They want to raise their children in a clean environment, in prospering communities where they can have a healthy future. They want to serve nutritious food free of chemicals to their families and friends. The prosperity of their closest circle is why they have primarily chosen to farm, and they have the best motivation to do it well.
It is undeniable fact–family farmers keep local communities going. They supply locally produced food, they hire local workers, they reinvest money into building a local economy, and most importantly, they are managing communal resources. If they do it sustainably, everyone in their community benefits.
This doesn’t involve only having food grown from local quality soils and water, it also involves indirect benefits like previously mentioned creation of biodiversity rich natural areas. These places are then shared by everyone, either as aesthetically pleasing element of the rural life that may attract tourism into the area, or for the vital ecosystem services they produce. This includes having clean air, pure water, healthy soils and faster regeneration of other renewable resources, like timber, that are used to support more businesses in the region .
#8 Preservation of traditional knowledge
Food is fueling our actions. Nutritious food makes healthy populations capable of many great deeds for each other and for the planet. It is safe to say that without family farmers, our society couldn’t be where it is now.
Our past, present and future intertwine in hands of previous generations of family farmers who shared their knowledge with their kids; in hands of millions of family farmers who are working on their farms right now; and will in the hands of future farmers who are now welcoming their dads when they come home from daily farm work.
It has always been the family farmers who have passed on the knowledge to future generations. Family farmers raised their kids to cherish the personal connection of being able to grow their own food. They have imprinted values of sustainable farming on their children. They have taught them that quality is more important than quantity, which is something that no one else except people that truly care and speak from years of experience tell you.
In many places around the world, farmers still distribute seeds from traditional crops themselves. For example, in Africa, seed exchange between farmers produces 80 to 90 percent of crops. In these so-called “farmer-managed seed systems,” seeds from local crops are collected and stored .
This work is done mainly by women. Women are in charge of selecting quality seeds to ensure the best yields next year. They are also in charge of exchanging them and distributing them further. They either sell seeds at local markets or give them for free to relatives and neighbors.
This is extremely important for preserving diversity of traditional varieties that often perform the best in areas where agriculture is challenged by unsuitable climate.
#9 Decrease of greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and climate change mitigation
Management of family farms is in many cases strongly influenced by agroecology–a sustainable food production practice that is based on the principles of ecology . In agroecology systems, farm’s production is closely linked to ecosystem services, biodiversity and local climate.
Farmer’s success depends upon his ability of managing his farm in a way that minimizes the risk of harvest loses to unpredictable events, while making the use of natural resources in a way that maximizes this success.
This is why family farmers often combine multiple crops with animal systems on one farm in a way to complement each other. Farmers incorporate natural elements like trees or hedges to strengthen soils and protect crops from wind and pest attacks by creating natural barriers. Additionally, they recycle nutrients on farms through composting and manuring–simple techniques that increase the probability of having good harvest.
But good harvest is not all they achieve by utilizing these eco-friendly measures. This way, farmers help to mitigate climate change by emitting less greenhouse gases and boosting carbon storing capacity in soils and biomass.
According to a report by IFOAM Organics International, soil’s capacity to store carbon depends on abundancy and quality of organic matter, which is higher in sustainably managed farms that employ natural methods and materials of improving soil fertility.
For example, crop rotation systems fertilized by compost can sequester between two to six metric tons of carbon per hectare per year .
On the contrary, the overuse of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers in intensive agriculture enhances release of carbon in the form of carbon dioxide from soils. The difference can be significant. As the IFOAM report states, heavily fertilized monoculture soils actually lose about 10,000 kilograms of carbon per hectare . On top of that, the application of synthetic fertilizer also emits significant amount of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide .
Trees have a great ability for capturing and dispersing ammonia. Agroforestry practices implemented profusely at a family farm scale can help mitigate ammonia emissions from livestock production. When planted around the farm’s boundaries, or even distributed on the farm, trees can reduce close to 30 percent of ammonia emissions .
It doesn’t matter whether you live in the downtown of the busiest metropolis or in a lonely house in the countryside. Your health and quality of life is dependent upon food that will not make you sick, clean air and fresh water. Agriculture deals with all three aspects and it doesn’t have to be in the negative way like many of us think.
In majority cases, family farmers stand on the same side with you. They want the same—clean environment and sustainable food production—and they are the ones who are actively trying to achieve this. Support them by buying their products. Enjoy tasting their food. Admire the landscape they have built because it’s even your landscape to spend your free time in. Respect them for taking this path. And if you can, continue in their legacy.