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What Is A Smallholder Farmer?

What Is A Smallholder Farmer?

field with hay bales

When we picture farming, we tend to think of vast fields, tractors, animal enclosures, combine harvesters, big sheds and processing equipment.
That’s a fair description of farming in western countries.

The majority of the worlds farmers look quite different.
Most of them are families who own a modest garden, which they work by hand.
This land is their ticket to survival – they either eat what they grow, or they sell crops to buy other resources.
We call these people Smallholder Farmers.

Life for a smallholder is tougher than for a western farmer (which is already a difficult job):
There’s no heavy machinery, so they only grow what they can afford to plant/water/harvest.
There’s no finance available to them, so they can’t invest in good seeds or tools.
There’s a limited market, so they have to sell whatever has local demand.

hectare of land

Land: Developing a mental picture
I have trouble picturing hectares.
A hectare is 100m by 100m (or 10,000 square meters)
That’s roughly the size of the inside an Olympic running track.
A soccer field is about 0.7ha, and a tennis court is 0.026ha, so you could have around 38 tennis courts in a hectare.
Alternatively, picture a large shopping centre food court, or one block in a big city.

Smallholder farmers tend to have about this much land.
If you space your plants properly, you can fit up to 400 orange trees or 1,000 coffee trees or 60,000 pineapples in your garden.
That decision is up to you.

In some countries, land is scarce and is handed down between generations.
You might have 0.3 hectares to provide your family’s income, and your prosperity in life is determined by how diligently you maintain that land.

In other countries, land is plentiful but inconvenient.
You might have 4-5 hectares of land, but with no road access and nobody to help you work the field.
For this reason, you only tend to the amount of land you can actually use, which ends up being around 1-2 hectares.

This isn’t exactly prime land either. It might be on the side of a hill, or with minimal access to water, or without nutritious soil.
But it’s yours, so you make the most of it.

smallholder farmer in field

Farmers are tough people.
Smallholder farmers operate with similar values to you and I:
They love their kids, work hard for their families, support their neighbours, place high value on traditions, and try to make the best of things.
They love to spend time with their friends, enjoy a drink at the end of a long day, and argue passionately about politics and sport.

They also exhibit a mental resilience that we probably don’t have.
Let’s say it doesn’t rain in your town for a month; your garden might suffer but your kids will still go to school.
For smallholder farmers, an event that affects their crops can devastate their family for years.
That builds in a certain work ethic – these are men and women who throw everything they have into providing for their family, and are therefore reluctant to make changes that could backfire.

Two approaches to farming
The first priority is to avoid famine – not having enough food to survive.
This generally comes through diversification, where a family uses their land to grow eight or ten crops.
This gives them a more balanced diet, and reduces the risk of total crop failure.
It’s also inefficient, since you only own a handful of each crop, you don’t get the benefits of specialisation.
We call this approach Subsistence Farming.

When farmers are comfortable that their families won’t go hungry, they look to Cash Crops.
These are the plants that have high market value, which can be easily converted into money.
Great examples of cash crops are coffee, cocoa, rubber, cotton and vanilla.
There will always be a market for these crops, although prices go up and down.

Smallholder farmer

More money vs more certainty
Like most things in life, the more you do them the better you become.
For this reason, farmers who specialise in a cash crop tend to get more and more out of their land each year.
However, if the road to the market floods or the buyer disappears, it isn’t possible for the family to eat these crops.

Humans naturally have a sense of loss aversion; it’s more painful for us to lose $100 that it is pleasurable to win $100.
In fact, as behavioural economists point out, it’s generally twice as painful (losing $100 is as strong of an emotion as winning $200).

Farmers, like the rest of us, look for certainty wherever possible.
The risk of going hungry is not something you take lightly.
If a plan has an 80% chance of tripling their incomes, but a 20% chance of lowering them even further, they’ll be unlikely to go “all in”, even when the maths is in their favour.

smallholder farmer cash crops

Families live within difficult systems
“Rich people belief that, if they were poor people, they would be rich” – Sandra Newman

It’s easy to declare that people in poverty are “lazy”.
This is the belief that if we swapped lives with them, we’d be able to do so much better.

It might be true, but then again it misses a few vital factors:
1. You’ve had an extensive education
2. You have a lot of money behind you (e.g. over $500 and/or access to credit)
3. You can take risks on new improvements (e.g. buying fertiliser, new tools, etc)
4. You have internet access and can learn from research papers
5. You have successful friends who can give you advice and support

To top all that off, you’re probably picturing the landscape incorrectly:
A. There are probably no roads where you’ll be living
B. Buyers can set whatever price they like and you have no leverage
C. Nobody near you sells crop protection products, good seeds or equipment
D. Your land might be several hours walk from the local bus
E. You need to spend $25 in transport costs and market fees to sell $100 worth of crops
F. There’s a decent chance you get robbed during your trip to the market

These problems tend to compound on each other, so the prospect of exploring a new cash crop can seem either impossible or like a poor use of time/land.

smallholder farmer training

Information does not magically create results
It’s easy to sit back and declare perfect solutions:
“Well we’ve told them what to do, why aren’t they doing it?”
You can’t just give people a manual and expect them to suddenly change their lives.

Here’s a comparison you won’t like:
It’s very possible for you to have a six-pack right now.
There’s enough knowledge out on the internet (for free) that teach you how to get that result.
So why don’t you have one?
Because life doesn’t work like that.
Just because a movie star can get ripped for a superhero role doesn’t mean it works for the other 99.9% of the population.
Maybe knowledge isn’t the missing ingredient, but instead it’s motivation and momentum.
e.g. that movie star is offered millions of dollars, and is given a team of trainers and nutritionists to keep them on track.

The same applies to smallholder farmers.
Just because a research institution finds more efficient ways to farm doesn’t mean everyone will instantly do exactly the same thing.
If you want results, try offering support, momentum and safety nets.
That means helping entire communities to plant simultaneously.
That means offering on-farm training.
That means checking in with each household every few weeks.
That means constantly reminding people of the payoff.
That means guaranteeing them that you’ll help out if something goes wrong.

At Business For Development, we believe smallholder farming is the way to get families out of extreme poverty.
The move from $2 per day to $5 per day might not sound like much, but it makes education, healthcare and safer housing a reality.

To find out more about our work, have a look at our projects.

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