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Small Farms: Ideas for a new definition

Of late, the phrases ‘small/emerging farmers’ and ‘commercial farmers’ have been receiving attention in the sector. Most farmers want to know what differentiates these two since well they are playing in the same sector.

A simple understanding of the meaning of the two phrases would be that ‘emerging farmers’ are the ones who have just started small while ‘commercial farmers’ refers to those who have been in the game for long and are capable of producing large quantities of their commodities.

However, the big question remains ‘when does one graduates from being small/emerging farmer to being a commercial farmer? What are the determining factors? If you are producing enough to meet the demands of your customers throughout the year, should you still be referred to as a small/emerging farmer?

The roles being played by these two are similar in nature in that they all contribute to food security, therefore, the role of small/emerging farmers in any country over the world should never be downplayed. Their contribution in the fight against hunger and poverty is massive.

Even the European Union has often asserted to small family farms in Europe as the ‘backbone’ of farming.

In South Africa, the same can be said about small farmers as they contribute massively to what is commonly known as the ‘informal market’.

In the quest to find the meaning of what exactly is a small farm, Mzansi Agriculture Talk reached out to Anna Gioia’s research titled, ‘Small Farms in Europe: Time for a Re-Definition’.

In the study, she noted that so far, there is no clear and unambiguous answer to this question. Most commonly, she said, definitions refer to physical and/or economic size.  Farmers’ and civic movements however prefer to put emphasis on labour input or social and environmental benefits attached to small farms.  Some definitions refer to a single criterion while others are based on multiple criteria.  There is therefore no agreed definition, on the international stage or among academics.

As Nagayates aptly states, “the sole consensus on small farms may be the lack of a sole definition”.

Gioia concluded that a comprehensive definition of small farms is not easy to develop, given the variety of agricultural realities that they come across in different European countries.

She said that available definitions of small farms, focusing on physical or economic dimension, tend to fail to grasp the diversity of small farms’ realities across Europe.

“This in turn makes it hard to focus support efficiently on similar groups of beneficiaries.  “The access to land network member organisations therefore wishes for labour input to be better included in definitions of small farms. We also found that existing EU definitions have major normative implications.  They exclude a large number of small farms from statistics, hence from policy support.  They also ignore the contributions of a number of small farms to food sovereignty, job creation and rural livelihoods.  Finally, they tend to pressure   farmers   towards   land   consolidation, mono-activity   and   full-time   work,” wrote Gioia.

She then argued that rather than for quantifiable parameters such as physical or economic size, most similarities could be found between small farms across the six countries when it came to analysing the public goods provided by small farms. 

In all of the six countries (France, Romania, Italy, Germany, Spain, and United Kingdom), small farms are considered crucial to the viability, the vitality and even the survival of rural communities.  Small farms contribute to a resilient, healthy and balanced regional development.

Gioia states that a small farm can thus be seen as a complex and multifunctional entity, which engages in sustainability in   its   broadest   sense economic, social and environmental.

“We should therefore broaden the scope of the definition of small farms to encompass the above-mentioned aspects.  These aspects, although difficult to translate into statistics and numbers, are nonetheless essential for a true understanding of the importance of small farms for regional development and are worth to be the object of further investigation.  “Therefore, the criteria currently used to define small farms are very much inadequate when applied to farms across Europe, and need to be rethought. Throughout this process, the voice of small farmers defining themselves will have to be a crucial one,” asserted Gioia.

In addition, Gioia said that subsistence farmers are more important in NMS such as Bulgaria and Romania compared to old MS. In Romania for example, subsistence and semi-subsistence farmers make up 88% of the farms and 91% of the total farmers. Subsistence farmers manage small plots of land (typically less than 2 ha) and have at least one animal (pig or cow) and a number of fowl and sheep. For the purpose of rural development support (Regulation (EC) No. 1698/2005), semi- subsistence farms have been defined as those agricultural holdings that produce primarily for their own consumption but also market a proportion of their output, however, no specific threshold is defined.

“Nevertheless, if we take the FADN methodology as a reference, we could use its definition of commercial farms to infer the maximum economical size of subsistence and semi-subsistence farms. Therefore, subsistence and semi-subsistence farms would not exceed 16 ESU in Germany and UK, 8 ESU in France, 4 ESU in Italy and Spain and just 1 ESU in Romania.”

In recent years, noted Gioia, the attention of policymakers and the general public towards small family farming has risen significantly.  The celebration of the International Year of

Family Farming in 2014 has thrown a spotlight on smallholder farmers, underscoring their role in the reduction of hunger and poverty and in the achievement of sustainable development throughout the world.

Gioia said that at the same time, however, small farms are typically associated with low incomes, they

struggle to compete with multinational agribusinesses, and their need for better support

under the Common Agricultural Policy still awaits an adequate response.  “In a context ever-expanding farm sizes are often considered as the only way forward, the member organisations of the Access to land network work every day with small farmers and new entrants eager to establish a small farm. Over two years we have compared our perspectives and explored the diverse realities and facets of small farms across Europe, as well as the challenges facing them. We soon came to realise that one of the obstacles to   the   continuation   and   future   development   of   small   farms   lies   in   the   elusive definition(s) of small farms, and the normative effects these have.

“In this paper, we therefore attempt to review existing definitions of small farms, to compare them with the realities that we encounter every day, and to pin down some of the implications of these definitions. “

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