What's So Beautiful About Small

Are small farms as bountiful as they are beautiful? Can they really compete with large farms in the agriculture of the future? The answer is yes on both counts. Here's why.
Small farms are far more productive, producing from 200 to 1,000 percent more per acre than large farms. We are often misled by “yield” figures. The highest yield of a single crop might be achieved by planting it alone – in a monoculture. Large farms must plant monocultures because they are easiest to manage with heavy machinery. But monocultures make inefficient use of space. Small farmers often intercrop, using the empty space between rows (which would otherwise produce weeds) to combine or rotate crops and livestock, with manure replenishing soil fertility. Instead of “yield,” which refers to one crop, we should include everything the farm produces – crops, livestock, fruit, fish – when we measure their productivity.

Small farms are more efficientthan large farms, say the few studies that have actually compared them. When economists measure a farm's use of capital, land and labor, they find that large farms are very inefficient.

Small farms promote regional economic development. In farming communities dominated by large corporate farms, nearby towns die off. Mechanization means fewer local jobs, and absentee ownership means that settled farm families themselves are no longer to be found. In these corporate-farm towns, the income earned in agriculture is drained off into larger cities to support distant enterprises, while in towns surrounded by family farms, the income circulates locally, generating more local businesses, schools, parks, churches, clubs, and newspapers, along with better services, higher employment, and more civic participation.

Small farmers are better stewards of natural resources. The small farm landscape is typically filled with biodiversity. The wood lot, the orchard, the fish pond, the backyard garden, large and small livestock, and the farm itself with its varied crops allow for the preservation of hundreds if not thousands of wild and cultivated species. The commitment of family members to long-term soil fertility on the family farm is not found on large farms owned by absentee investors. In the US, small farms devote 17 percent of their land to woodlands, compared to only 5 percent on large farms. Small farms maintain nearly twice as much of their land in soil-improving uses, including cover crops and green manures.

– Peter Rossett, Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy

Adapted from “Small is Bountiful,” The Ecologist, December 1999; and from Food First Policy Brief No. 4, “The Multiple Functions and Benefits of Small Farm Agriculture in the Context of Global Trade Negotiations” (http://www.foodfirst.org/en/node/246), both by Peter Rosset.
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