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Family farmer: The healer of the land

There is not a single working model for the country for small landholders. But, there are several models based on the diversity of the soil and landscape. Small farmers enrich the knowledge and culture through practicing different approaches towards producing food, fodder and medicine. For a small farmer, practicing agriculture is not just about increasing the yield, but is a way of life.

“The benefits of investing in small holders farming is likely to be equal or ever greater than the investment in conventional chemical intensive agriculture”.
– Action Aid Report

Who produces food to meet the demands of growing population in the world? Is it the industrial agriculture with large areas of monoculture crops? The myth propagated by modern agriculture experts is that the conventional agriculture is the only way forward to produce food and feed the hungry. In contrast, according to FAO, almost 80 percent of the food produced in the non industrialised world comes from small family farmers. In Africa, almost 90 per cent of the food grown comes from small farms, especially by women.

Though India is home to largest number of small landholdings in the world, their contribution towards mitigating hunger and malnutrition is rarely recognised. The most fascinating fact is that the small family farms exist in almost all diverse ecological regions.

From the hill regions in Himalayas, to the central plains in the tribal hinterland, to the east and to the tropical forest region of Western Ghats, the small farms have existed for centuries, taking care of land and soil. For each region and within each region, they have evolved cultivation practices that are based on deep knowledge of soil, climate and biodiversity of cultivated and wild species. Similarly, they have been practicing multiple cropping in hostile dry climate in Deccan plateau as well as in high rainfall regions of tropical forests on west coast.

There is not a single working model for the country for small landholders, but there are several models based on the diversity of the soil and landscape. They enrich the knowledge and culture through practicing different approaches towards producing food, fodder and medicine. In fact, 92 percent of farmers in India belong to small farmers cultivating 40 percent of cultivable land. The importance of small holder farming is best highlighted in the Action Aid’s report which says, “we need to support small farmers because it reduces the need for expensive agro chemicals, saves money and cuts their need for credit. The wider variety of crops improves nutrition and resilience to weather shocks and other moisture stress, ensuring food supply. The benefits of investing in small holders farming is likely to be equal or ever greater than the investment in conventional chemical intensive agriculture”.

Farming, a way of life

The small farmer is a cultural product rooted to his land. His learning is through knowledge accumulated over the generations. It teaches him to evolve strategies to address the most difficult situations, and the required skills to tackle the vagaries of weather, pests and diseases.

Small farmers have their own culture, working hard to maintain the soil fertility and producing diverse crops, both for family and livestock. Most of the family members work on the farm; women play an important role in decision making. The relationship with soil is deeper, not to exploit the soil, but to be the trustee of the soil, to get produce and enhance the soil fertility. Similarly, the bonds with the farm animals are entirely on a different level, human touch is visible in every aspect of the farm. This human element is based on the philosophy of mutual co existence, rather than competition. The animals are no longer just machines that produce milk or meat, but they are part of the larger farm family. This core idea of living together in totality leads towards practicing ecological ethics that is based on long-term sustainability, rather than the objective of short term production. For a small farmer, practicing agriculture is not just about increasing the yield, but is a way of life that provides quality food and fodder for the entire family and farm animals. He is a healer, rejuvenating the land.

The living farm of a small farmer is a celebration in itself and is a visual treat. The standing fruit trees which serve as live fencing on the borders, diversity of crops and vegetables and healthy farm animals reveal the success of the farm. In most cases, the farmer is willing to share his knowledge, skills, produce, practicing the concept of sharing and caring. This ethical and cultural value is the basis for building a sound community that is strong and self reliant.

The success of small farms is based not only on the individual farmers but collective cultural practices that is dependent on other institutional factors. One such institution in the countryside is the common property resources like grazing land and forests. Similarly, the community control of seeds and informal seed exchange is the basis for shared knowledge, rather than privatising the seeds for profit. The value of sharing and caring is accepted as a cultural trait to produce food.

Ironically, these institutions on which small farmers thrived have been destroyed over the years due to intervention by state sponsored policies and changes in society. The cultural values of cooperation and community sharing have been replaced by individualistic approach of greed to produce higher quantity rather than emphasis on quality. The holistic knowledge and experience over the generations has been replaced by half-baked knowledge from agricultural extension units. Instead of diversity of crops and approaches, the emphasis is on single crop, with the only objective of increased yields and use of chemical inputs.

Policies, negatively influencing family farming

Most of the agricultural policies favor large and medium farmers with the sole emphasis on production of cereals like wheat or rice. The diverse crops produced by the small landowner with his own farm yard manure is not a criterion for subsidy, though it is based on ecological principles and not dependent on fossil fuels.

The implementation of the Public Distribution System (PDS) through provision of wheat and rice in the name of providing food security has been one of the biggest threats to the small farmers. The dumping of these cereals produced thousands of kilometers away has forced the small farmers to abandon their food production, as well as local food culture based on diverse crops like millets and coarse grains. Instead, the PDS has to be decentralized, giving priority to local food produced by small landholders in the nearby villages.

Another national level programme of providing rural employment has also impacted negatively on the lives of small family farms. This programme has increased the wage rates for agricultural operations and the small farmers have to incur higher costs for prime agricultural activity of transplantation, weeding or harvesting. Unable to pay higher wage rates, small farmers are shifting to crops that need little labor or are forced to quit farming. However, by adopting certain changes one can assure the survival of the small farmers. For example, NREGA can incorporate provision to support agricultural operations of the small family landholders.

Future of family farming

With all its merits, unfortunately, the family farms are being neglected and their importance is not being recognized. Moreover, low returns is forcing them to quit farming. The most disastrous impact is on the younger generation farmers who do not have the required experience and skills to manage the soil and other resources. This cannot be acquired through academic learning in agricultural colleges that teaches fragmented knowledge based on reductionist principles. It is not just the passing of skills, but is a culture of learning which requires constant attention and deeprooted attachment to the land, which is apparently lacking in the younger generation. They do not see agriculture, especially the smallholder agriculture, as a desirable occupation to pursue.

To overcome the crisis facing the small farmers, we need a multiple strategy of policy level interventions while assuring them a decent livelihood. Contribution of small holders in terms of fixing carbon through use of farmyard manure, maintaining crop diversity and producing quality food with minimum impact on the environment, need to be recognized. The solution to modern day crisis in agriculture and health can be resolved only through a sustained effort to strengthen small farmers.

References

– Action Aid, Fertile Ground: How governments and donors can halve hunger by supporting small farmers, 2010

– Sukhpal Singh and Shruti Bhogal, Punjab’s Small Peasantry: Thriving or Deteriorating? Economic and Political Weekly: Vol 26-27, 2014

– Grain, Hungry for Land: Small Farmers Feed the World with less than a quarter of all Farmland, May 2014

Panduranga Hegde

Basavarj
Nilaya
Chowkimath
Sirsi
North Kanara 581401
Email: appiko@gmail.com