2014 is the International Year of Family Farming. Andrew MacMillan reflects on home-grown food.

Andrew MacMillan

A couple of months ago, the United Nations launched the International Year of Family Farming. Hopefully, by the end of the year many more people around the world will come to appreciate the enormously important role that family-run farms play in producing our food in sustainable ways.

When I was turning my compost heaps a few days ago to speed up the processes of decay and have lots of organic fertilizer available for the spring-time planting of vegetables, it struck me how often we risk creating confusion with the difficult words scientists and economists use to describe the kinds of things that small-scale farmers do, let us say naturally, every day.

And so, if my wife was to ask me what I had been doing all morning, I could truthfully have said that I had been “busy harnessing ecosystem services and investing sweat equity”, and she would have probably thought that I had become a little bit madder than I already am.

Yet these are the kinds of terms that academics like to use to describe the actions that hundreds of millions of farmers are taking with great success to produce most of the food consumed today by the world’s seven billion people.

Turn, turn, turn

This is the kind of thing that “harnessing ecosystem services” is all about.

Periodic turning of compost speeds up the breakdown of fibrous plant material by letting more air into the heap and by thoroughly mixing up the wet and the dry pockets which tend to develop in the absence of turning. You cannot of course see the bacteria which contribute so much to the decomposition process, but you can easily observe a great scurrying of larger forms of life looking for comfortable new homes in the re-formed heap – woodlice, worms, beetles and their large white maggots and, in the winter, a few mice, rudely awoken from their hibernation.

Bugs and grubs: composting recycles nutrients back to the soil. Image: A. MacMillan

Bugs and grubs: composting recycles nutrients back to the soil. Image: A. MacMillan

This congregation of enormously diverse forms of life is transforming a pile of weeds, dried grass, household waste (such as peelings from fruit and the outer leaves of vegetables) and ash from the wood-burning fire into a dry brown crumbly nutrient-rich material with which I can mulch and feed the next season’s crops.

It takes, however, quite a lot of my time and energy to bring together the material, create the heaps and turn them over several times. And so this is what the experts define as a “sweat equity” investment, in the sense that I am converting my physical labour into a productive asset.

Looking back for 30 to 40 years, I suppose the most important asset that we have ever created through sweat equity was to build terraces on steep and stony land close to our house in Italy. We – I, my wife and our two young children (who would now be declared child labourers) – used pick axes, crow bars and spades to create four large flat-topped steps, one above the other, climbing up the slope.

It was hard work but it converted unusable land into a highly productive area from which – with the help of compost – we have met most of our needs for fresh vegetables over the years. As farmers in Peru, Yemen, Nepal and the Philippines learnt hundreds of years ago, stones, instead of being an obstacle to cultivation, can play a fundamental role in preventing soil erosion.

Feel a whole lot better

The question that naturally arises is how one can improve the performance of such systems which are typically used by small-scale farmers. As long as sufficient land is available, probably the most critical requirement is to ensure that the family has secure rights to it and that its ability to work is not constrained by poor nutrition, especially during the seasons when labour demand is highest.

Investing ‘sweat equity’: growing food usually starts with some hard work. Image: A. MacMillan

Investing ‘sweat equity’: growing food usually starts with some hard work. Image: A. MacMillan

The best strategies for assuring a large measure of self-sufficiency will vary from place to place but are often centred on farming systems that are highly diversified. Diversification helps to ensure a well-balanced diet, to spread risks, to even out labour demand and to minimise wastage, for instance through feeding crop residues to small livestock. In many situations securing a stable food supply also requires the preserving and storage of crops so that they can be carried over from seasons of plenty to seasons of shortage.

In this International Year of Family Farming, let us call for a rapid growth in publicly-funded research to create more knowledge on farming methods that help family farmers harness ecosystems and invest sweat equity, enabling them to become less dependent on the purchased inputs which so many farmers have been persuaded are essential ingredients for increased output.

Finally, let us hope, too, that people will vocally condemn the ignorance of those who portray small-scale farmers as primitive, inefficient, unscientific and incapable of feeding the world’s future population.

This article is adapted from one first posted on www.hungerexplained.org

About Andrew MacMillan

Andrew MacMillan is an agricultural economist specialised in tropical agriculture, former Director of FAO’s Field Operations Division. He recently co-authored a book with Ignacio Trueba entitled How to End Hunger in Times of Crises – Let’s Start Now, Fastprint Publishing.

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