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Big Farm / Small Farm

maize_smallholderDebates on the scale of farming are back on the agenda. In a number of recent articles, Professor Paul Collier, author of ‘The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can be Done About It’, made the case (see Position 1 below) for encouraging large-scale commercial farming as way to get African farming moving. Favouring small farmers, he argues, is romantic but unhelpful.

During 2008 there have been many reports of private companies in the North and state corporations in the South reacting to the opportunity and threat of higher food prices by planning to acquire land in Africa, South-east Asia, Brazil and Central Asia to produce food.

The most startling of these announcements is that of the Daewoo Corporation of the Republic of Korea that revealed that it was acquiring the rights to farm no less than 1.3 million hectares of Madagascar, a position from which the company and the government have now backed away from following a storm of local and international protest. In many cases the reports suggest that the aim is to farm the land on a large scale, rather than to contract production through existing family smallholdings.

It is now more than three years since IFPRI, Imperial College, and ODI organised a workshop at Wye for specialists to debate the issues surrounding small farms. It looks to be time to revisit those arguments in the light of higher food prices, the arguments being made for large-scale farming and apparent intent of capital-rich investors.

To start the debate, a reply to Professor Collier was drafted by Steve Wiggins (Position 2) who argued that that large farms in Africa are unnecessary, have had their failures in the past, and carry significant risks; and that if additional food is needed, then small farmers — given the right conditions — can do the job. They have in the past and there is no reason to imagine that they cannot do so again.

FAC invited contributions to the debate that responded to the points made in the two position papers or the suggested themes listed below:

1) Small and large farms: definitions, trends and patterns
2) Small and large farms: environmental, livelihood and food security costs and benefits
3) Farm scale, economic efficiency and competitiveness
4) Agriculture policies: agri-business, rural areas, food quality and safety


Toyin Kolawole

The current discussion on 'Making science and technology work for small-scale farmers' is closely linked with the earlier debate on the appropriateness of farmers' voices in the African Green Revolution [AGR] initiative. Essentially, the thinking of agricultural scientists and technologists will be more effectively put to use if they align with those of the smallholder farmer. As I had earlier indicated, there is the need to revisit and strengthen Research-Extension-Farmer linkage if the dream of realising a sustainable AGR is to be achieved. There are a lot of lessons to learn [either way] in the process of a 2-way information sharing within the linkage system.

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Wolfgang Bayer

One thing that is missing in the contributions I saw thus far, are definitions of large farms or small farms. 25 years ago I was in Australia and found interesting statistics for Australian conditions of course. To gain an income from farming equal to average national income a beef farmer in the North needed 100 km² of land or 1000 head of beef cattle. A sugar cane farmer needed 50 ha and a farmer growing green pepper 1 ha . Things have surely changed in the mean time and Africa is not Australia, yet looking at income potential instead of at size might be a useful way of looking at farming.

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The Politics of Hunger: How Illusion and Greed Fan the Food Crisis

"…reluctant peasants are right: their mode of production is ill suited to modern agricultural production, in which scale is helpful. In modern agriculture, technology is fast-evolving, investment is lumpy, the private provision of transportation infrastructure is necessary to counter the lack of its public provision, consumer food fashions are fast-changing and best met by integrated marketing chains, and regulatory standards are rising toward the holy grail of the traceability of produce back to its source….

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Colin Poulton

Perhaps predictably, I find it hard to disagree with Steve’s arguments. There is a pro-smallholder and pro-science - even pro-GM! – position, drawing on a strong empirical record, that Paul completely misses in his attempt to slay the giants of romanticism. I will, therefore, confine myself to two main points:

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