On The Benefits of SmaIl Farms
Food First newsletter, Winter 1999
For more than a century, pundits have confidently predicted
the demise of the small farm, labeling it as backward, unproductive,
and inefficient-an obstacle to be overcome in the pursuit of economic
development. But this is wrong. Far from being stuck in the past,
small-farm agriculture provides a productive, efficient, and ecological
vision for the future.
If small farms are worth preserving, then now is the time
to educate the world's policy-makers about the genuine value of
small farm agriculture.
Small Farm Productivity
How many times have we heard that large farms are more productive
than small farms, and that we need to consolidate land holdings
to take advantage of that greater productivity and efficiency?
The actual data shows the opposite-small farms produce far more
per acre or hectare than large farms.
One reason for the low levels of production on large farms
is that they tend to be monocultures The highest yield of a single
crop is often obtained by planting it alone on a field. But while
that may produce a lot of one crop, it generates nothing else
of use to the farmer. In fact, the bare ground between crop rows
invites weed infestation. The weeds then make the farmer invest
labor in weeding or money in herbicide.
Large farmers tend to plant monocultures because they are
the simplest to manage with heavy machinery. Small farmers, especially
in the Third World, are much more likely to plant crop mixtures-intercropping-
where the empty space between the rows is occupied by other crops.
They usually combine or rotate crops and livestock, with manure
serving to replenish soil fertility.
Such integrated farming systems produce far more per unit
area than do monocultures. Though the yield per unit area of one
crop-corn, for example-may be lower on a small farm than on a
large monoculture farm, the total production per unit area, often
composed of more than a dozen crops and various animal products,
can be far higher.
This holds true whether we are talking about an industrial
country like the United States, or any country in the Third World.
Figure 1 shows the relationship between farm size and total production
for fifteen countries in the Third World. In all cases, relatively
smaller farm sizes are much more productive per unit area-200
to 1,000 percent more productive-than are larger ones. In the
United States the smallest farms, those of 27 acres or less, have
more than ten times greater dollar output per acre than larger
farms. While in the U.S. this is largely because smaller farms
tend to specialize in high value crops like vegetables and flowers,
it also reflects relatively more attention devoted to the farm,
and more diverse farming systems.
Small Farms in Economic Development
More bushels of grain is not the only goal of most farm production;
farm resources must also generate wealth for the overall improvement
of rural life-including better housing, education, health services,
transportation, local business diversification, and more recreational
and cultural opportunities.
Here in the United States, the question was asked more than
a half-century ago: what does the growth of large-scale, industrial
agriculture mean for rural towns and communities? Walter Goldschmidt's
classic 1940s study of California's San Joaquin Valley, As You
Sow: Three Studies in the Social Consequences of Agribusiness,
compared areas dominated by large corporate farms with those still
characterized by smaller, family farms.
In farming communities dominated by large corporate farms,
nearby towns died off. Mechanization meant fewer local people
were employed, and absentee ownership meant farm families themselves
were no longer to be found. In these corporate-farm towns, the
income earned in agriculture was drained off into larger cities
to support distant enterprises, while in towns surrounded by family
farms, the income circulated among local business establishments,
generating jobs and community prosperity. Where family farms predominated,
there were more local businesses, paved streets and sidewalks,
schools, parks, churches, clubs, and newspapers, better services,
higher employment, and more civic participation. Recent studies
confirm that Goldschmidt's findings remain true.
If we turn toward the Third World we find similar local benefits
to be derived from a small farm economy. The Landless Workers
Movement (MST) is a grassroots organization in Brazil that helps
landless laborers to organize occupations of idle land belonging
to wealthy landlords. When the movement began in the mid-1980s,
the mostly conservative mayors of rural towns were violently opposed
to MST land occupations in surrounding areas. In recent times,
their attitude has changed. Most of their towns are very depressed
economically, and occupations can give local economies a much
needed boost. Typical occupations consist of 1,000 to 3,000 families,
who turn idle land into productive farms. They sell their produce
in the marketplaces of the local towns and buy their supplies
from local merchants. Not surprisingly those towns with nearby
MST settlements are better off economically than other similar
towns, and many mayors now actually petition the MST to carry
out occupations near their towns.
Local and regional economic development benefits from a small
farm economy, as do the life and prosperity of rural towns. Can
we re-create a small farm economy in places where it has been
lost, to improve the well-being of the poor?
Recreating a Small Farm Economy
In recent history shows that the re-distribution of land to
landless and land-poor rural families can be a very effective
way to improve rural well-being. We can examine the outcome of
every land reform program carried out in the Third World since
World War 11, being careful to distinguish between genuine land
reforms-when quality land was really distributed to the poor and
the power of the rural oligarchy to distort and "capture"
policies was broken-and "fake land reforms"-when the
poor have been relegated to the poorest, most remote soils. In
every case of genuine land reform, real, measurable poverty reduction
and improvement in human welfare has invariably been the result.
Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Cuba, and China are all good examples.
In contrast, countries with reforms that gave only poor quality
land to beneficiaries, and/or failed to alter the rural power
structures that work against the poor, failed to make a major
dent in rural poverty. Mexico and the Philippines are typical
cases of the latter.
More recently IBASE, a research center in Brazil, studied
the impact on government coffers of legalizing MST-style land
occupations cum settlements versus the services used by equal
numbers of people migrating to urban areas. When the landless
poor occupy land and force the government to legalize their holdings,
it implies costs: compensation of the former landowner, legal
expenses, credit for the new farmers, and others. Nevertheless
the total cost to the state to maintain the same number of people
in an urban shanty town-including the services and infrastructure
they use -exceeds in just one month, the yearly cost of legalizing
Another way of looking at it is in terms of the cost of creating
a new job. Estimates of the cost of creating a job in the commercial
sector of Brazil range from two to twenty-times more than the
cost of establishing an unemployed head of household on farm land,
through agrarian reform. Land reform beneficiaries in Brazil have
an annual income equivalent to 3.7 minimum wages, while still
landless laborers average only O.7 of the minimum. Infant mortality
among families of beneficiaries has dropped to only half of the
This provides a powerful argument that using land reform to
create a small farm economy is not only good for local economic
development, but is also more effective social policy than allowing
business-as-usual to keep driving the poor out of rural areas
and into burgeoning cities.
National Economic Development and "Bubble-Up" Economics
A relatively equitable, small farmer/ - based rural economy
provides the basis for strong national economic development. The
post-war experiences of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan demonstrate
how equitable land distribution fuels economic development. At
the end of the war, circumstances including devastation and foreign
occupation, conspired to create the conditions for "radical"
land reforms in each country, breaking the economic stranglehold
of the land-holding class over rural economies. Combined with
trade protection to keep farm prices high, and targeted investment
in rural areas, small farmers rapidly achieved a high level of
purchasing power, which guaranteed domestic markets for fledging
The post-war economic "miracles" of these three
countries were each fueled at the start by these internal markets
centered in rural areas, long before the much heralded "export
orientation" policies which much later on pushed those industries
to compete in the global economy. This was real triumph for "bubble-up"
economics, in which re-distribution of productive assets to the
poorest strata of society created the economic basis for rapid
development. It stands in stark contrast to the failure of "trickle
down" economics to achieve much of anything in the same time
period in areas of U.S. dominance, such as much of Latin America,
and to the Asian financial crisis, which happened after many of
the original policies had been discontinued.
Good Stewards of Natural Resources
The benefits of small farms extend into I the ecological sphere.
Where large, industrial-style farms impose a scorched-earth mentality
on resource management -no trees, no wildlife, endless monocultures-small
farmers can be very effective stewards of natural resources and
the soil. To begin with, small farmers utilize a broad array of
resources and have a vested interest in their sustainability.
Their farming systems are diverse, incorporating and preserving
significant functional biodiversity within the farm. By preserving
biodiversity, open space, and trees, and by reducing land degradation,
small farms provide valuable ecosystem services to the larger
In the United States, small farmers devote 17 percent of their
area to woodlands, compared to only five percent on large farms,
and keep nearly twice as much of their land in "soil improving
uses," including cover crops and green manures. In the Third
World, peasant farmers show a tremendous ability to prevent and
even reverse land degradation, including soil erosion.
Compared to the ecological wasteland of a modern export plantation,
the small farm landscape contains a myriad array of biodiversity.
The forested areas from which wild foods and leaf litter are extracted,
the wood lot, the farm itself with intercropping, agro-forestry,
and large and small livestock, the fish pond, the backyard garden,
allow for the preservation of hundreds if not thousands of wild
and cultivated species. Simultaneously, the commitment of family
members to maintaining soil fertility on the family farm means
an active interest in long-term sustainability not found on large
farms owned by absentee investors.
The Small Farm Path
To the productive, economic, and environmental benefits of
small farm agriculture, we can add the continuance of cultural
traditions and of the rural way of life. If we are truly concerned
about rural peoples and ecosystems, then the preservation and
promotion of small, family farm agriculture is a crucial step
we must take.