What is small holder farming? And why is it so important across the globe?

What is small holder farming? And why is it so important across the globe?

What actually defines a 'small holder'? Often 2 hectares (ha) seem to be the upper limit for farm size. Definitions usually point to a closely related family, working in a small area, typically varying in size depending on the country. Typical farm sizes vary between 0.5 ha to 10 ha, while the returns to the family could be either subsistence crops to feed themselves, or cash crops to sell at local markets. Indeed, some small holders may have a commercial relationship with an exporter, via a local business intermediary.

The website Our World in Data in 2021, reports this: “Most (84%) of the world’s 570 million farms are smallholdings; that is, farms less than two hectares in size. Many smallholder farmers are some of the poorest people in the world. Tragically, and somewhat paradoxically, they are also those who often go hungry.” 

Of course, small holder farms differ from each other in terms of size, production capacity and numbers of people working. Research on the global numbers of small holder farmers varies, but other estimates put the figure at around 520 million to 525 million small holder farms worldwide. However, 84% of 570 million is 479 million, and this figure, which is obviously lower than 525 million, is probably due to urban migration and industrialisation in recent years.

According to the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) “there are some 500 million smallholder farms worldwide; more than 2 billion people depend on them for their livelihoods. These small farms produce about 80 percent of the food consumed in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.”

Major commodities including soy, cocoa, coffee, and cotton are produced by small holders in developing markets, as cash crops. Clearly, small holders play an important role in the supply of these commodities to developed nations. 

How many family dependents do these farmers feed?

It is not easy to determine the exact number of family dependents that small farmer’s feed. However, past studies by organisations such as the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) show the world's reliance on small farmers to be extremely significant. Some of the FAO's analysis has revealed that around 60-70% of the world's food is produced by small farm holders, while Our World Data claimed in 2021 that smallholders produce 33% of the world’s food. The difference may be due to different definitions of small farm sizes, plus the growing impacts of climate change on global agriculture, as well as urban migration. Therefore, a definitive modern study on this subject would seem a helpful idea.

How much development aid per year is spent on small farmers?

Technical assistance, education, and resilience strategies are needed to help small farmers to flourish, especially given the persistence of rising global temperatures, due to climate change, however, in the last few years the COVID-19 pandemic has unfortunately contributed to a lack of aid for them.

Many studies by reputable universities and think tanks put the estimated figure needed by small farmers in the developing world, at around US 240 billion, or more, to tackle droughts, flooding, and the aforementioned rising temperatures – all of which reduce yields.

In reality, small farmers are receiving less than 10% of this figure – thus highlighting the fact that the lack of adequate support they are receiving hampers their ability to generate income and rise above the poverty line. In addition, the implications of this situation result in a serious threat to the security of consistent a supply of food to the rest of the world.

What is the situation concerning impoverished farmers and any agricultural aid?

As of 2022, 23% of the global population (1.8 billion people) were living on less than the $3.65 poverty line threshold, set by the World Bank. According to FAO, “the highest incidence of workers living with their families below the poverty line is associated with employment in agriculture.”

Many of the poor population reside in rural areas that are often neglected by governments, and many basic services such as health care, access to clean water sources and sewage treatment infrastructure are not present. 

Covid-19 lockdowns of the population, in many developing markets, from 2020 to 2021, resulted in shortages of labourers, increased food prices, restrictions on the availability of foods, and produced high rates of poverty. 

What are the effects of climate change on them? And crop yields? And what can be done?

Changes in temperatures and growing seasons, accompanied by persistent year-on-year droughts, can also indirectly affect the spreading of particular species or pests, such as insects, persistently growing weeds, and diseases, which individually or collectively can significantly reduce crop yields.

Lastly, we know agriculture is seasonal and follows specific time schedules, but the fact is these aforementioned disruptions will last for many, many years unless addressed with concerted aid, which has sustainability its core. 

Agricultural extension services promoting sustainable low-cost shallow borehole development for irrigation are needed. So too is aid promoting low-cost but highly effective soil water retention strategies such as deep bed farming, and permaculture, while mixed crop rotations within the context of “conservation agriculture” and zero tillage, can help reduce pest and weed infestations as well as promote soil stability.

All of these sustainable and low-cost strategies can double, or even triple, crop yields with very little additional effort on the part of farmers.

What is the alternative, and what is the result of rural poverty?

Systemic poverty, which encompasses long-term food-hunger and unemployment or under-unemployment, results in low-level, widespread hidden fear in a population, which sometimes increases the chances of social unrest.

Further Reading

Smallholders produce one-third of the world’s food, less than half of what many headlines claim.

Viewpoint. Small holders can feed the world. IFAD  (Under this definition a small farm is a farm of less than 2 hectares)

"Investing in smallholder agriculture"  fao.org. June 2013.

Five Big Questions about Five Hundred Million Small Farms. Keynote Paper presented at the IFAD Conference on New Directions for Smallholder Agriculture, 24-25 January, 2011

Factsheet Small Holders FAO

Hunger to Violence: Explaining the Violent Escalation of Nonviolent Demonstrations (2019), Daniel Gustafson, Journal of Conflict Resolution