The president of the Agricultural Economics Society, Steve Wiggins, has written some interesting reflections on this enduring topic in their latest newsletter which I reproduce below.
'Small-scale family farms remain an enduring feature of agriculture across the world, and especially so in the developing world. Some 418 million farms in the developing world, 95%, have less than five hectares, according to broad estimates made by FAO from (inadequate) surveys and censuses. What's more, in most developing countries the average holding size still tends to fall with each decadal census.
Debates over the productivity of small farms and their likely evolution go back to the nineteenth century if not before. The end of the peasantry has been repeatedly announced, yet reality has proved otherwise. Concerns that smallholdings could not be efficient and would never allow sufficient increases in production to sustain development were voiced in the 1950s and early 1960s; but laid to rest when the green revolution showed what could be achieved on the small farms of Asia. Analyses confirmed that many smallholders ran efficient farms and responded to price incentives. Indeed, diseconomies of scale were apparent, since small farms could manage labour better than larger scale farms.
But like Malthusian pessimism, doubts about small farms periodically resurface. The latest bout began around the turn of the new century, inspired by observations of the new supply chains run by supermarkets and exporters springing up across the developing world. Small farmers would be at a definitive disadvantage in these chains, since they could not meet the exacting demands for standard, high quality production, to strict timetables, in large lots and preferably certified and traceable.
Contemporary Asia, where only a small fraction of farms exceed five hectares, provides some insights into changes and likely future trajectories. Even in rural areas well connected to cities, where supply chains are modernising for staples and not just high-value produce, family farms persist. These farms are, however, increasingly differentiated, as a minority specialise in farming and intensify their production; while most farms provide some income for rural households that increasingly rely on non-farm activities and remittances from migrants.
This throws up two challenges. One, land markets need the flexibility to permit some concentration of holdings in larger operating units, while rural households that want to retain ownership, but lack the means or inclination to cultivate, can do so. At issue are small-scale transfers, perhaps temporary arrangements, with rentals, share-crops and loans predominating over outright sale. Tenure policy needs to facilitate these exchanges.
Two, if small farms are to prosper they need to find ways to overcome the failures that typically apply in markets for inputs and credit. That can be done, of course by the state, but the costs can be (ruinously) high. The alternative is to look to private and collective institutional innovations - contracting, farmer associations, local agencies and franchises for inputs and finance, etc. - to overcome current market shortcomings. A plethora of such initiatives can be seen, even if most operate at limited scale. The challenge then is to learn from these, to find working models - not pilots - that can be replicated or adapted to wider circumstances.
Get these two things right and we can hope to see a gentle transition as most smallholders gradually leave farming on their own terms, while allowing specialising smallholders to expand their holdings.'
One might add that many family farms in countries like the US and the UK have become successful large-scale enterprises but that was dependent on a number of factors including: (i) a facilitating legal framework on inheritance; (ii) good infrastructure to get products cheaply and quickly to markets; (iii) mechanisms to learn about and adopt technological innovations; (iv) ready availability of credit at realistic rates; (v) some government financial support for modernisation. No doubt one could add to this list.