Thursday, January 15, 2015

The future of small farms

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.

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Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Review of the CAP in 2014

Agra Europe have provided a useful review of developments in farm policy in 2014 and a look forward to 2015: Year in review

They claim that it was an 'eventful' year and although decision-makers were certainly busy, it would be difficult to claim that there was fundamental change, although some unanticipated changes such as events in Russia which have added to the problems of the dairy sector.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Will flexibility underline common policy approach?

Will the amount of flexibility allowed in the latest CAP reform package undermine the common policy approach and create an uneven playing field in the European Union in terms of competitiveness? This is the question posed in an informative House of Commons Library briefing paper: Flexibility

The UK and Ireland have made full use of the flexibility allowed around eighty decision points to create bespoke policies, the paper finds.


Monday, October 13, 2014

Phil Hogan approved as commissioner

Phil Hogan has been approved as agriculture commissioner by a majority of over three to one in the European Parliament's Agriculture and Rural Development Committee. He was asked some awkward questions about his career in Irish politics, as well as some standard agricultural questions, but did not encounter the level of difficulty experienced by some candidates for commissioner roles: Phil Hogan

He said that he would review the CAP in 2016 after one year of the new policy mix with particular reference to direct payments and the arrangements on greening and ecological focus. However, he said that his immediate priority was responding to the Russian ban on the import of EU agricultural products.

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Friday, October 10, 2014

Greening of CAP has been a failure

Researchers have suggested that the 'greening' of the CAP has been a failure. The latest version of the CAP is no greener than its predecessor and would fail a basic Advertising Standards Authority test in terms of its claims: No greening

The researchers conclude that it fails to encourage greater wildlife abundance or adequate protection for vulnerable habitats such as grasslands.

I would not wish to dispute the specific conclusions made. Policy instruments have often not been well designed and policy effectiveness insufficiently monitored. The sums of money available do not match the scale of the challenge, but have often not been well used.

However, one must beware of reducing environmental policy to the protection of biodiversity or landscape effects. Reducing water pollution from agricultural activities has been a key policy objective and some progress has been made. Climate change mitigation is surely the key objective, but little progress has been made, despite the contribution of modern agriculture to greenhouse gases.

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Sunday, October 05, 2014

The rise in farmland prices

Over the past decade farmland prices have grown at twice the rate of prime London property with good agricultural land increasing 270 per cent in value compared with a 135 per cent rise in London house prices during that time according to Savills. This makes it three times the price of farmland in North America and 15 times the price of such land in Australia, reports The Economist.

The reasons cited include limited and diminishing supply and constraints on world food supply. However, it should be pointed out that a lot of land in reach in London is bought at least in part as sporting estates which offer the additional incentives of a safe haven for money and tax breaks, such as exemption from inheritance tax after seven years.

However, of course, a lot of the demand is driven by farmers themselves. Economies of scale demand bigger units and although land can be rented, this may not offer security of tenure and often results in a patchwork quilt of land which means that time and money is taken up moving equipment around, not to mention complaints about slow moving agricultural vehicles on the roads.

What this means is that it is now very difficult to get into farming on your account unless you inherit a farm or a large pot of money. This has been exacerbated by the decline of county council entry level smallholdings. This means that farming is deprived of people who might bring in a fresh perspective and innovative ideas.


Friday, September 12, 2014

Farm commissioner job goes to Ireland

With outgoing agriculture commissioner Dacian Ciolos not re-nominated by Romania, the role has gone to Ireland's Phil Hogan. As this report makes clear, it is a decision likely to be welcomed by farmers: Hogan

The Irish Farmers' Association have certainly welcomed the appointment, implying that it will offer new opportunities for them to exert influence and secure better deals for farmers: Irish welcome

This report suggests that he has been none too popular in his role as environment minister in Ireland, although it does describe Brussels rather colourfully as a 'dross magnet': Ministerial record

The farm commissioner role often goes to a small member state with strong agricultural interests and it has, of course, been occupied by Ireland before, most notably by Ray MacSharry who brought about a significant reform of the CAP with long-lasting effects.

This article makes the interesting point that Ciolos failed to make sufficient progress on the integration of agricultural and environmental policy which is a clear direction of travel. It also notes that a central flaw of the CAP is the fragmented nature of the management and control systems: Environmental policy

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