Family farming may need our help

Family farming is the when primary production is organized and run by a family or extended family unit with most of the labour and intellectual inputs coming from family members. 

Despite the importance of intensive agriculture and agribusiness, family run farms are  the most common form of agriculture in both mature and emerging economies. The food and fibre they produce feeds and resources well over half the global population.

Family enterprises have a huge bearing on future food security given that nearly half the world’s people grow their own food. 

The smaller scale of these farms also helps to 

  • maintain traditional food products and practices
  • help retain global agro-biodiversity assets 
  • promote the sustainable use of natural capital

And in almost all countries the family run farm is important to the social fabric of rural communities.

Not just subsistence | Family Farms in Australia

In Australia the farm sector generates over $30 billion in export revenue and makes up 3% of the nations gross domestic product. 

According to the National Farmers Federation an average Australian farmer grows enough food to feed 600 people [450 of them outside Australia] and collectively Australian farms provide 93% of the nations daily domestic food supply.

Smaller family run farms make up 99% of the 135,000 farms in Australia even though 

  • in the last 30 years the number of farmers has declined steadily, 
  • the average age of a farmer has risen to 52 — this is 12 years older that the average for other professions] 
  • youngsters are leaving farms — 18,000 people left the sector in 2011, and
  • farm size has increased 

Despite the numerical dominance of family farms and importance to food security even in Australia the small farm is under threat from declining terms of trade and profitability — especially from low commodity prices and rising costs of inputs and finance. 

The year of the family run farm

The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations [FAO] has made 2014 the International Year of the Family Farm to encourage policies that promote and raise awareness of farming and the importance of agriculture at the family scale with an overall goal to… 

“…reposition family farming at the centre of agricultural, environmental and social policies in the national agendas by identifying gaps and opportunities to promote a shift towards a more equal and balanced development” [FAO Year of the Family Farm website].

This is an interesting move. Why would the FAO have such an initiative?

Food security is a more serious issue than we realise. As the human population continues to grow [at over 8,000 per hour] and affluence slowly spreads food production will need to double from present levels within a few decades.

This is a big ask given that production has already doubled in living memory.

There is also huge risk in high food prices. Nearly one in three people around the world must spend more than half their income on food.  Even small price rises in basic commodities impact heavily on these people who are mostly in the developing world with already unsteady socio-political systems. Promotion of family run farms helps mitigate some of this risk.

There is also a reason unsaid. 

Intensive agriculture is run as and by big business ensuring that the 80:20 rule applies to farming just as it does to many other human activities. The most efficient operations deliver most of the production. 

Except this 20% of productive farms are not as robust as we imagine. They rely heavily on inputs [fertiliser, pesticides/herbicides and fossil fuels] to achieve consistent yields moving away from the buffering capacity of natural capital to be more financially efficient.

The FAO know that a spike in the oil price will hurt these operations most. Small farms are the only insurance we have against agri-business failure.

Read more about agriculture as an environmental issue on Ask Alloporus...  food crisis | industrial agriculture | intensive agriculture | natural resource management | subsistence agriculture | urban farming

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