Sustaining Family Farming

Rahul Devnath
Published: May 2014

Immigration to the city for more lucrative jobs is one of the major challenges to the sustenance of family farming

In the evolution of mankind, perhaps the most important discovery that changed the course of civilisation, is farming. It led to our ancestors eventually leaving a nomadic mode of life for settling down in one place. Not surprisingly, farming remains one of the oldest and one of the most common occupations in the world even today.
According to the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), both in developed and developing countries, the farms that rely primarily on family members for labour and management – produce the food that feeds billions of people. Still, in the broad discussion of farming, family farmers often do not get as much attention as large-scale industrial farming operations. In fact, in most countries including India, small- and medium-sized family farms are struggling to survive. Extreme dependence on rain water, bad harvests, rejected loans, droughts and many other such reasons drive these farms out of business.

Fortunately, the United Nations has nominated 2014, as the International Year of Family Farming to celebrate the world’s more than 500 million family farmers. UN’s initiative will go a long way in creating the perfect atmosphere for non-governmental organizations, research institutions and governments to take notice and resolve to invest in family farmers. This series of articles in Aventure in 2014 is aimed at raising awareness about the challenges being faced by family farms.


There are many in India who have taken up farming despite the challenges it throws. At 30, Devraj, who owns five acres of land in a small village, located just about 50Kms from the IT city of India, Bangalore, ploughs the same land which has been handed over to him through generations. His younger brother, like many others from the village, has opted to migrate to city and have a better salaried job. My brother visits us when he can,” says Devraj. He is enthusiastic about farming but is upset with the government for denying them electricity for farming. “If this continues, we too will have to move out,” he says.

He insists that the cooperation of all members of family is essential in sustaining their agriculture produce over the years and requires his brother’s help too. But agriculture keeps them busy just for a few months in a year. “For more than six months in a year there is nothing much to do, while we strive to keep up the production of crops during rains, lack of water is a major deterrent post the monsoons,” explains Devraj. In tropical countries like India, effective irrigation system represents a chance to double the amount of crops they can grow in a year.

farming1While governments have been forthcoming in providing easy availability of loans, pesticides and other such amenities, the financial state of these farmers has remained dismal. Even a borewell installation, which costed Devraj about a lakh of rupees, has dried up in few months. Adding to their woes is just few hours of electricity, which doesn’t help either. Devraj’s father is upset with the government for denying them electricity for farming. “If this continues, we may have to give up farming altogether,” he says.

Excluding the social-causes, small farmer’s loans are generally on the order for purchase of seed or fertilisers. However, they remain always “on the edge” and any untoward incident, natural or man-made, can cause a failure of the small farm, leading to financial ruination of the farm owners.

The gravity of the situation further increases when we consider that very often entire villages or even a district is dependent on farming. For instance, agriculture is the mainstay of Nagamangala, a town of 16000-people in Mandya district of Karnataka. Like many farmers here, Bette Gowda is busy during the harvest of his 8 acres of land. But mostly, he stays in Bangalore and has witnessed the frenetic pace at which people are leaving the villages. The declining viability of agriculture has forced the youth to move out. “I had to move out, leaving my family behind, simply because I had no other way,” says Gowda who now works full time as a driver but still wants and hopes to go back to village. For years now, rainfall, or rather lack of it has forced farmers like him to look for alternate sources of revenue. Bette Gowda’s story is glaring reflection of the seriousness of this problem.

The way forward

Innovative technologies can change the future. While electricity is not easily available and diesel-powered irrigation tends to be expensive, innovations like, solar drip irrigation represents a potentially transformative technology for many such farmers and reduce the dependence on traditional sources. This enables farmers in remote, dry regions to grow crops that are high in nutritional and monetary value all the year round.

Still, technology can only go as far as the end user can make best use of it. The key to improvement is to infuse skill based education and hands on training, which makes for informed farmers. For example, in the United States organizations such as the “Community Alliance with Family Farmers” are reaching out to farmers with educational tools and resources, including information-sharing programs and technical assistance, while winegrowers in drier areas of the state are integrating water conservation and other sustainable techniques into their farms.

Family farming can be a growth industry — one that the world desperately needs. A 2002 World Bank report examining 61 countries with contributions from more than 400 agricultural scientists determined that small-scale farms have the best potential for alleviating global hunger. But young people in both developing and industrialized countries often see agriculture as something forced upon them, not as something they want to do, which calls into question future growth possibilities. In essence, the challenges faced in farm based industries drives a chunk of youth to migrate to cities.

While governments can empower family farmers, especially women and youth, by creating policies favourable to equitable and sustainable rural development, it’s the private investors who can ensure accountability and social and environmental responsibility throughout the value chain from farm to fork. Too much food is lost after harvest because small-scale producers are not able to store, process and transport their goods.

In India, the problems are many folds and unfortunately there are no specific solutions. From poor land space due to neglected land reforms to soil erosion due to deforestation, developing countries are definitely at disadvantage when it comes to simple development. For example, while easy availability of pesticides can bring some relief, the long term loss of soil fertility due to continued use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides pose a serious threat as well. Solving the issues faced by the farmers will help to target multiple issues at the same time. Firstly, it would ensure continued employment in rural areas as farmers work on their lands. Secondly, it will increase food grain production. While the significance of family farming and its potential for a more sustainable food system are clear, a lot of work is still necessary on the ground to get coherent state, national and international policies to strengthen family farmers. Hopefully, this International Year would be used to reposition family farming as a central tool for sustainable development.

 - Rahul is a well travelled Bangalore based photo journalist with experience in reporting, writing and communication. Currently, onboard The Jain University Press, he specializes in aviation and technology.