Climate change

What are smallholder farms?

Smallholder farms refers to farms that are less than five acres in size. Most people think they only exist in developing countries. The truth is smallholder farms are common in both developing and developed countries. And, though individual acreage is small – what they do is not. Smallholder farms produce 80% of the world’s food supply. They are mostly efficient, high-yielding enterprises!

Smallholder farms contribute tremendously to:

  1. food and nutrition security,
  2. raw materials,
  3. income,
  4. economic markets through the flow of other goods and services and,
  5. overall development of nations.

There are about 475 million smallholder farms worldwide. They are in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, Europe and some in the United States. About two-thirds of all farms in Europe are smallholder.

Smallholder farmers sell their food locally, reducing the carbon footprint of the food. In addition, they grow a variety of crops, increasing both food diversity and biodiversity. Credit: Terry Tindall

Although smallholder farms produce 80% of the world’s food supply, they only take up about 12% of the arable* land. Women in developing countries are key players on smallholder farms and provide about 43% of agricultural labor.

Smallholder farms are higher yielding than their larger counterparts, despite their reduced acreage. A bigger percentage of their land is allocated to production of food crops. These farms also play a vital role in environmental sustainability and conservation. There is a respectful relationship between farmer and land, fostered by use of local/traditional knowledge and farming techniques for crop and animal husbandry.

women lined up in rows bending over planting seeds along a string over soil
Work on a smallholder farm is tedious and takes many hands. Shown, a group of farmers in Uganda planting seed along rows – note the furrows as well as the markers for straight planting. Credit: Rosemary Bulyaba.

Smallholder farms are often centered around communal environmental responsibility. They use fewer pesticides and thus they have reduced environmental negative impact. (Admittedly, part of this is because smallholder farmers still often live in poverty – see below.)

These farms are also big promoters of biodiversity. Because the farmers plant a variety of crops for food and market, this provides a variety of natural habitats. Additionally, most smallholder farms are not heavily mechanized, and a bulk of their produce is often marketed locally. Combined, this reduces their carbon footprint.

One downfall is that smallholder farms are reported to have is a slightly higher percentage of carbohydrate production. This is because they mainly grow cereals, roots and tubers. Large-scale farms have a marginally higher percentage of protein production from larger acreages of pulses (dry beans) and fish farming, among others.

Despite smallholder farms being higher yielding, poverty is still rampant among farmers and their households. They often cannot afford basic needs. Investing or reinvesting in equipment is often difficult.

All farmers must continue to work with extreme weather patterns like drought and floods. These events hit smallholder farmers especially hard, as they have less land to work with, and fewer resources. Credit: Rosemary Bulyaba.

Farm work is also labor intensive and tedious. They face other problems like poor infrastructure such as roads to reach markets. They often don’t have proper storage facilities and limited access to financing. Farmers also have limited access to agricultural services. Getting a consultation from extension, or quality inputs especially seeds, fertilizers and equipment is difficult.

Climate change and ever-changing weather patterns worldwide affect all farms. Today, many smallholder farmers and their households are one seasonal drought or flood away from hunger and malnutrition.

So, what is the way forward for this very important smallholder farming? Scientific answers like training on climate-smart farming techniques and access to drought-resistant seed for crops can help. Social answers like cooperative farm-equipment sharing and maintenance can also help. But, for either of these to work, governments and policy makers must extend resources to smallholder farmers by building infrastructure, providing access to financing and other technologies. Eighty percent of the food supply depends on smallholder farmers; they deserve support in return.

Answered by Rosemary Bulyaba, Iowa State University

*Arable refers to land that can be used to grow food.

About us: This blog is sponsored and written by members of the American Society of Agronomy and Crop Science Society of America. Our members are researchers and trained, certified, professionals in the areas of growing our world’s food supply while protecting our environment. We work at universities, government research facilities, and private businesses across the United States and the world.

10 replies »

  1. Smallholder farmers cultivate only 12% of the arable land appears to be wrong. Please verify the data. They cultivate about 87% of the agricultural land and produce 80% of the global production of foods and commodities. Thank you.

  2. As rightly mentioned the small holders need governments support by way infrastructure like cold storage,credit availability, road connectivity and thus tha marketing.the study also show that women are main source of labour
    Our govt.policy makers must study this report and take corrective action instead of washing off thier hands and leaving the market forces to determine the fate of these millions of small holders who grow mostly foodgrains n yet contribute for clean environment by less carbon emissions.

    • I have been searching for clear data on how much an average smallholder farmer in Africa earn per crop cultivation. I am getting conflicting figures. Can someone point me to an accurate data source..? I will be most grateful.

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