The Global Connection between Family Farmers

July 24, 2014 10:09 AM

By Gloria Nantulya, Farm Journal Foundation

The International Year of Family Farming (IYFF) represents an effort to shift the world’s attention towards the importance of family farming, particularly in developing countries where family farming is a way of life and pivotal in poverty alleviation. According to Food Tank, more than 98% of farms in the world are family farms, which as a group contribute more than half of the world’s agricultural product. So as we use this important year to explore family farming on different parts of the globe, in this case farmers in the United States and in Sub-Saharan Africa, it becomes clear that all family farmers have commonalities and they all stand to benefit greatly from investments in agricultural development. These investments could be the tipping point in our fight against global hunger and poverty.

At the surface level, when we look at family farming in the U.S. and Sub-Saharan Africa, it appears like we are looking at two different worlds. Food Tank estimates that there are 33 million family farms in Sub-Saharan Africa, 80% of which are smallholder farms that depend almost entirely on family labor and are largely manual. These small, family farms are usually less than two hectares in size and are generally used to grow subsistence crops plus one or two cash crops. Family farmers in this region typically start farming because it is a family practice and/or they have no other options. They farm to feed their families and once they can provide enough food for their households, they farm to feed their neighbors, their communities, and in the long run, if productivity improves and markets are accessible, they farm to feed the world.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines a farm as any place from which $1,000 or more of agricultural product is produced and sold. Based on this definition, the USDA reports that there are 2.2 million farms in America, 96% of which are family farms. Farms in the U.S. are classified as small, large or very large, based not on their size but on their annual gross farm revenues. A small farm in the U.S. is defined as grossing less than $250,000 annually. Although this number may look high in comparison to smallholder or even commercial farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa, it covers a wide range in scale of production and overhead costs that farmers here incur to maximize efficiency.

Although there are fundamental differences between family farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa and the United States that should not be overlooked, it is important to also consider the context of these differences and recognize the abundance of commonalities farmers everywhere share. Family farming, and agriculture as a whole, plays a vital role in the economic development of Sub-Saharan African countries, just as agriculture has served as a driving force behind the U.S. economy since the country’s founding. Today the U.S. exports roughly $149 billion in agricultural products. Family farmers in the United State and Sub-Saharan Africa share common values such as determination, feeding the people around them and caring for their land. They also face similar challenges such as climate change, constrained land and water, and struggles to keep youth engaged in farming.

When we compare the two regions in the context of their respective agricultural experiences, the core differences between the farmers on these two continents can be attributed to a variety of factors such as availability of purchased inputs like improved seed and chemical fertilizer, infrastructure, education and poverty. However, the reality is that even if all these elements were not a factor, there is a reason why the U.S. continues to be a global leader in agriculture and the most food secure country in the world, even in comparison to other high-income countries. The answer lies in its sustained investment in agricultural research and development.

From as early as the introduction of technology like the cotton gin in 1794 and the mechanical reaper in 1831, farmers have benefitted from innovation. Policies such as the Homestead Act of 1862, which gave Americans huge incentives to become farmers through the low-cost provision of land; the Morrill Act of 1862, which created the land-grant system; and the Smith-Lever Act of 1914, which established agricultural extension, the U.S has continuously supported its farmers through a sustained investment in agricultural development. Farmers have been fortunate enough to have safety nets, like the marketing loan program and crop insurance, that were implemented over the last 80 years to protect them from the risky and volatile nature of farming. This continuous public investment gave American farmers the opportunities and technology they needed to turn subsistence farming into a global business. As a result, the average American farmer now feeds 155 people per day as opposed to a few decades ago when it was 39 people per day.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, most of these farmers do not have access to even the kind of technology that was introduced to farmers in the U.S. a century ago. They use rudimentary tools, lack access to basic technology and information, and those who do find some success in farming often encounter limited access to markets. So when we look at the two regions and their farming history, we can see that what actually distinguishes family farmers in the U.S. from most farmers in the Sub-Saharan region is over a century’s worth of public investment in agricultural development. The truth is African farmers are not so different from American farmers. They just find themselves at a different point in their agricultural development. So by focusing mainly on their differences, it is like asking farmers in the U.S. to compare themselves to farmers from several generations before them. Is it really worth wasting even more valuable time focusing on how we’re different rather than learning from our journeys?

The world’s population is projected to increase by more than 2 billion people by 2050 and we will need to increase our agricultural production by 70% to meet the nutritional demands that will result from this population increase and the accompanying growth in the size of the global middle class. The U.S. cannot tackle this issue alone. We will need to work together with the global farming community. It is therefore imperative that we empower family farmers in developing countries so that they can provide not only for themselves and their communities, but also play a part in ending global hunger. We should continue working with these countries to invest in modern agricultural development for their farmers. If family farmers around the world have access to better information, resources, and are able to adopt more advanced agricultural practices, regardless of how these agricultural systems compare to the U.S., the impact on food security, poverty, public health and development would truly be significant and life altering.


Gloria Nantulya is Farm Journal Foundation's Program Communications Specialist. Prior to joining FJF, she worked with smallholder poultry farmers for Brentec Vaccines in Uganda. Gloria received her Bachelors degree in Public Relations from the Newhouse School and her MA in International Relations at the Maxwell School both at Syracuse University.

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