On the Benefits of Small Farms

By Peter Rosset, Food First, February 8, 1999

The following article is a condensed version of Food First Policy Brief number 4, The Multiple Functions and Benefits of Small Farm Agriculture in the Context of Global Trade Negotiations. The complete policy brief contains extensive bibliographic references, and can be ordered from the Institute or read here.

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 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.