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What does smallholder family farming mean?

Agriculture in NepalEverybody knows that Nepalese agriculture is typically characterized by smallholder, traditional and subsistence farming. The recent study (6th National Agriculture Census, 2011/12) shows that there are 3.831 million farming household in the country where agriculture is the main source of income for 83 percent of the families, but 60 percent of farmers are unable to feed from their own production. The families that were completely dependent on agriculture in the past are gradually moving away from the sector. Many farmers feel that agriculture alone cannot earn livelihood and should have at least one off-farm job to support the family farm.

This is just as an example that around 70 percent of the people living in poverty around the world lives in rural areas and depends to a large extent on agriculture for their livelihood. Smallholders produce about 50 percent of the food worldwide and 500 million small farms are located in developing countries, where hunger is most prevalent. However, the UN has declared 2014 the International Year of Family Farming - but what does this declaration mean?

It is difficult to categorize smallholders and family farmers according to a common typology of attributes since it varies in terms of the activities they engage in, the assets and resources available to them and their access to these productive resources. Smallholder farming practice keeps the population on the land, and decentralized/ local processing creates jobs in rural areas to keep the younger generation occupied. It is much better having thousands of smallholders and organizing them to supply local processing facilities than having a few large corporations exploiting the land until it is useless for the local population. It also ensures sustainable land use, preservation of the natural habitat and some up to good adaptor of climate change.

The recent decline in rural labor has made many crops less attractive to commercial farmers especially crops that require laborers to harvest. This has created new opportunities for smallholder family farms that do their own labor. Here is a very interesting trend; in Portugal, a growing number of young people, including graduates, have been returning to the land to take up farming. The government is encouraging the trend and now offers six-month paid training agricultural courses for 6,000 people aged between 18 and 35. Similarly, Greece offers subsidies to new farmers, and also provides state-owned land at a nominal price, or even rent-free, to under 35-year-olds who are prepared to cultivate it.

Family farming has three dimensions of sustainability (economic, environmental, and social) and should be in balance. Economic aspect means profitability, competitiveness and the capacity of farmers to sustain their families. Environmental aspect means farmers use and manage natural resources in a responsible way to keep their land fertile and productive, even for the grandchildren of their grandchildren. The social dimension is basically about rural employment criteria. However, problems arise when there is no balance between these sustainability criteria.

A recent publication of FAO states, “secure land tenure, empowering of women and public investment in education, health, transport and research are among the key requirements needed to promote sustainable family farming in mountain regions.” The smallholder family farms need government subsidies but these should not be permanent and family farmers should not rely on government support on the longer run. Governments (local and state governments alike) should pursue policies to create "enabling environment" to assist farmers to become stronger with no longer need of support. The ways could be various; just a few ideas: to encourage farmers to do some things together (purchase, sale), to create local farmers' markets, to make use of niche markets as well, to provide credit access for farmers, etc. 

I believe the future lies in the smallholder farmer; we need to deliver the quadruple bottom line in agricultural development as cultural, social, environmental and economical. Indeed, to increase prestige and respect for farming is an important asset towards attracting more young people into the agriculture sector. Family farming is much more essential than an economic agrarian model, since it is the backbone for livelihood, employment, food security and poverty reduction. It ensures sustainable management of land and associated biodiversity, and is the foundation of important cultural dimensions of local people.