Investing sweat equity to harness ecosystem services

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 in the soilA. MacMillan
Bugs and grubs: composting recycles nutrients back to the soil.

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.

Man digging a hole in a fieldA. MacMillan
Investing ‘sweat equity’: growing food usually starts with some hard work.

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

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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.

4 thoughts on “Investing sweat equity to harness ecosystem services

  1. It is rare indeed to read such lovely, earthy, practical common sense from an economist.

    Delightfully put, and has inspired me personally to get out there, just as soon as it stops raining to invest some of my sweat equity in a compost heap, so that I can reduce our family food-waste budget to zero, reduce our outgoings on nutrient-poor mass produced food, and start enjoying fresh & healthy organic veg grown on what was formerly that evil parasitic institution – the front lawn!

    Thank you.

  2. It feels a bit odd to post a comment on a blog by my father rather than pick up the phone but, on the basis that the answer might be of interest to others, here goes. (Or maybe my years of child labour hampered my social skills…) Approx what proportion of the world’s food is produced by sweat equity investors harnessing the ecosystem’s services? On a different note, research funding tends to demand publications of results. Do you think that high impact factor journals would be more likely to publish plainly titled articles about turning compost heaps or high falutin’ conceptual pieces about “investing sweat equity to…”?

  3. yes, lovely article, and what a contrast to the video declaring that ‘Science’ (usually a bye word for chemicals and GE crops) is the answer.
    High impact farming journals need easy to read articles on soil science; how important the organisms that live there are and how to bring them back and make them thrive.
    Here in NE Scotland I watch in despair the autumn ploughing of sloping fields and the spring cultivation of dry sandy soils on windy days, together with the huge monocultures, grown with a huge number of chemicals on the same soil year after year.

  4. There are lots of figures floating around about numbers of small-scale farmers. ActionAid claims that 1.5 billion people live from small-holder farming; that there are 404 million small farms (under 2 ha), and that small-scale farmers produce 90% of Africa’s agricultural output. Given their limited access to financial services, much of their investment must be “sweaty”….

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