Focus on Small Farmers

Bharat Dogra

In recent years in many countries a peculiar trend has been noticed. On the one hand there is increasing recognition of the importance of small farmers and of their potential to increase farm productivity using eco-friendly methods while on the other hand at the same time policies which are unfavourable to small farmers and promote the interests of big farmers and agribusiness have been adopted.

This obviously raises an important question—why is the farm policy of many countries going against what is obviously suggested on the basis of the ground reality? When research confirms the need to support small farmers then why policies favourbale to big farmers and agribusiness interests are actually adopted?

This trend has also been noticed in India. While at the ground level there are several reports of the remarkable initiatives of small farmers when they get suitable opportunities, several politicians at senior levels as well as technocrats have been making loose statements suggesting that in the era of modern farming small farmers are not in a strong position to increase farm output and in this way gradually a background is being prepared to justify the large scale displacement of small farmers as well as the adoption of farm policies which are more favourable to big landowners and agribusiness interests.

In this context it is extremely important to look very carefully at what the available studies and information say regarding the potential of small farmers. Peter Rosset is a senior researcher who has looked carefully at the existing studies and his review of many such studies is very significant. Rosset writes, "Surveying the data, we indeed find that small farms almost always produce far more agricultural output per unit than larger farms. This is now widely recognized by agricultural economists across the political spectrum, as the 'inverse relationship between farm size and output'. Even leading development economists at the World Bank have come around this view, to the point that they now accept that redistribution of land to small farmers would lead to greater overall productivity".

Rosset has also explained why some studies tend to underestimate the productivity of small farmers. Hard working small farmers have a much greater ability to nurture mixed farming systems of several crops and trees growing in harmony with each other. On the other hand large mechanized farms are equipped to handle a single crop or a monoculture grown over a large area. When the output of only the main crop is estimated then the additional output of many lesser but nevertheless very significant crops grown on small farms may be missed out and hence the yield on small farmers is likely to be underestimated.

Small farmers are likely to cultivate their fields more intensively and carefully, working hard to improve land fertility and productivity. Particularly in the context of sustainable farming practices and organic farming practices, it is the ability of farmers to carefully nurture and cultivate their fields, prepare organic manure and pest-repellents which is more important. This is clearly better achieved on small farms and family farms.

In a widely quoted publication titled 'Agriculture Towards 2000' the FAO has emphasised that more equal land distribution is likely to increase productivity of land, "It is important to stress here that yields per hectare are as high on small as on large farms or, under traditional agriculture, even higher. With a few notable exceptions, total output per hectare is higher on small farms, chiefly because their intensity of land use is higher."

This view is also supported by a World Bank publication titled—'The Assault on World Poverty Problems of rural development, education and health'. This study notes that in Thailand plots of two to four acres produce almost 60 percent more rice per acre than farms of 140 acres or more. An analysis of the differences in the value of output on large and small farms in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Guatemala revealed that small farms were three to fourteen times more productive per acre than the large farms.

Despite all the evidence regarding the need to focus on helping small farmers and also using land redistribution to help landless peasants and farm workers to emerge as small landowning farmers, the recent decades have witnessed farm policies in India as well in several other countries to be moving in an opposite direction. As the Planning Commission stated, "Land reforms seem to have been relegated to the background in the mid 1990s. More recently, initiatives of state governments have related to liberalising of land laws in order to promote large-scale corporate farming".

For achieving the objectives of sustainable increase in farm production using eco-friendly methods and also improving the income and food security of small farmers it is important to emphasise farming policies which are favourable, to small farmers and landless peasants who can be helped to become small landowner farmers.

Vol. 49, No.1, Jul 10 - 16, 2016