Visiting a family farm in Switzerland.
Photo: © (SDC)

Smallholder family farms: What is their future?

The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) organised a “Face to Face (f2f) of its Agriculture and Food Security and Gender Equality Networks in June to discuss salient issues of regarding smallholder family farms.

In SDC, a major share of knowledge management and institutional learning is organised in knowledge networks. All major topics worked on in SDC have their own networks, for example Agriculture & Food Security, Climate Change, Water Initiatives, Governance & Decentralisation, Income and Employment, Health, Education, Gender Equality, etc. More than 2,500 members are involved in twelve a total of networks. The network members are SDC staff as well as project and programme partners of SDC. The event on smallholder family farms was organised jointly by the two networks: Agriculture & Food Security and Gender Equality. 

The three-day event was attended by 80 to 120 people from more than 30 countries. The objectives of the  f2f meeting were:

  • Creating a common understanding of smallholding family farms and debating how policy affects smallholder farmers in SDC partner countries.
  • Exploring how policy for smallholder family farmers affects gender relations.
  • Visits to Swiss family farms to observe to what extent economic and social policies manifest themselves in different regional Swiss settings.


Most of the world’s farms are small

There are around 570 million family farms in the world, with 1.3 million active workers, which is around one third of the world’s population.  Family farms provide about 70 per cent of the world’s food. So family farming is a strong economic sector, the largest employer world-wide and the most important factor for livelihood and food security. 

However, there is also a dark side to the statistics. More than 90 per cent of small farms (less than 2 ha) are located in developing countries, have a low productivity, are often in a situation of legal tenure uncertainty and are frequently managed by poor families as well as by women-led households. Young people tend to leave smallholder farms. Therefore, farming in general is facing an increasingly aging population. Around two thirds of all farm land is in the hands of farmers with medium to large sized farms.  Hence, the almost 500 million smallholders with less than one hectare land size are farming only one third of global agricultural land. 

A key question that arose from above picture is what mix of smallholder family farms, medium to large sized family farms and large industrial agricultural production units would be most sustainable.

With regard to food security small and medium sized family farms play a key role and guarantee a locally produced, safe food supply. Other key benefits include livelihoods, a potential in poverty reduction, maintenance of biodiversity and the generating of employment, particularly for women. Many workshop participants stressed that family farming was not only of economic importance but was also a guardian of culture and tradition as well as an important unit of social cohesion and a social safeguard.  Hence, one could conclude that smallholder family farms are crucial for a sustainable world in all its dimensions: social, economic and ecological. 

At the end of the event the participants emphasised the following focus areas as the most relevant ones:

Aging agrarian population: The majority of people working on family farms are older than 45 years of age. At the same time, millions of non-professionally qualified young people enter the labour market each year in favour of an urban live. Many young women and men are no longer attracted by a small family farm where poverty persists and government services such as health care and education are absent.

Lack of solid rule of law especially with regard to land tenure for women and men: Lack of land tenure security is perceived as a major limitation of conducive rural development and sustained agriculture based on economic growth. The negative consequences are felt by many producers, especially by women and/or single mothers. 

Role of smallholders in an increasingly urban world: Intensification and mechanisation is difficult for smallholdings because of small land size and a lack of access to inputs, credits and markets. Smallholder family farms at a large distance from urban markets have little chance of growing much beyond subsistence level. 

Implication of labour-intensive and livelihood-focused smallholder family farms versus industrial-mechanised production units: This is one of the crucial questions that there is no simple answer to. The advantages of small-scale family farms, such as livelihood security, cultural identity, relative independence and food security, should be further developed. On the other hand, the high workload – especially for women – as well as difficult access to inputs and markets speak against smallholder farms.

The role of women and men in the smallholder system…

… was a special focus of the event. The topic of smallholder farms lent itself to demonstrating the high relevance of the gender equity issue in smallholder agriculture. Most agriculture policies in Swiss development co-operation partner countries are neither really enforced, nor are the economic instruments available to successfully implement policies. Many interventions financed by international development co-operation are not closely planned around national or local policies, because policy is either absent, of low conceptual quality or not enforceable. Conducive policy to foster gender equity aspects is rare in developing countries. 

Three lessons learnt 

In the framework of sustainable development, a sound debate on the role of smallholders and their potential for further development is urgent. Structural change in one direction or the other in the agricultural sector will take place in any case.  The forces influencing negative change need to be understood and implications to be analysed and possibly abated.

Favouring factors that are  highly relevant for rural development in any context  include:  i) land tenure rights for women and men (rule of law); ii) access to inputs and markets; iii) agricultural vocational education for young people (social investment).

A joint F2F between Agriculture & Food Security and Gender Equity is a worthwhile investment. Informed by more than ten practical case studies, participants learnt that gender was a natural “ingredient” of any project reality. The challenge is to be open and contextually empathetic and not to be tempted to generalise or to take the gender equality debate of Switzerland or Europe as the benchmark.


Felix Fellmann, Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC,) Bern/Switzerland