Ten qualities of family farming

Even in the International Year of Family Farming there is confusion about family farming: what is it actually, what makes it unique, and what distinguishes it from entrepreneurial farming or family agribusiness? Confusion tends to be highest in places where modernisation of agriculture has led society further away from farming. At the start of the International Year of Family Farming, Jan Douwe van der Ploeg provides some conceptual clarity. He takes us into the world of family farming, which is considered “both archaic and anarchic, and attractive and seductive”.

What is family farming?

Family farming is one of those phenomena that Western societies find increasingly difficult to understand. This is due to many reasons. One of these is that family farming is at odds with the bureaucratic logic, formalised protocols and industrial rationale that increasingly dominate our societies. This makes family farming into something that is seen, on the one hand, as both archaic and anarchic, whilst at the same time it emerges as something attractive and seductive.Family farming is also difficult to grasp and understand because it is, essentially, a complex, multi-layered and multi-dimensional phenomenon. Below, I identify ten qualities of family farming. These qualities are not always present at the same time in each singular situation. The most important thing to remember is that the reality of family farms is far richer than the two single aspects that are most commonly used to describe them: that the farm is owned by the family and that the work is done by the family members.

Family farming is not just about the size of the farm, as when we talk about small scale farming, it is more about the way people farm and live. This is why family farming is a way of life.

A balance of farm and family

Let’s start take a closer look at the ten qualities. Indeed, the farming family has control over the main resources (1) that are used in the farm. This includes the land, but also the animals, the crops, the genetic material, the house, buildings, machinery and, in a more general sense, the know-how that specifies how to combine and use all these resources. Access to networks and markets, as well as co-ownership of co-operatives, equally represent important resources.

Family farmers use these resources not to make a profit, but to make a living; to acquire an income that provides them with a decent life and, if possible, allows for investments in order to develop the farm further. This applies even if the farm uses expensive machinery or irrigation systems and terraces that the farmers themselves have constructed.

Then indeed the family farm is the place where the family provides the main part of the labour force (2). This makes the farm into a place of self-employment and of progress for the family. It is through their dedication, passion and hard work that the farm is developed further and the livelihood of the family is improved.

The farm is to meet the many needs of the family, whilst the family provides the possibilities, the means and also the limits for the farm. This nexus between the family and the farm (3) is at the core of many decisions about the development of the farm. Each particular farm has its own specific balances, for instance between the mouths to be fed and the arms to do the work. These balances tie family and farm together and make each family farm into a unique constellation.

Linking past, present and future

But there is more than ownership and labour. Family farms provide the farming family with a part (or all) of its income and food (4). Having control over the quality of self-produced food (and being sure that it is not contaminated) is becoming increasingly important for farmers around the world. However, the family farm is not only a place of production (5). It is home to the farming family. It is the place they belong to, as much as it is the place that gives them shelter. It is the place where the family lives and where children grow up.

The farming family is part of a flow that links past, present and future (6). This means that every farm has a history, it is full of memories. It also means that parents are working for their children. They want to give the next generation a solid starting point within or outside agriculture. And since the farm is the outcome of the work and dedication of this and previous generations, there often is pride. And anger when others try to damage or even destroy the jointly constructed farm.

The family farm is the place where experience accumulates (7), learning takes place and knowledge is handed over, in a subtle but strong way, to the next generation. The family farm often is a node in wider networks that make new insights, practices, seeds, etc., circulate.

Tied to its environment

The family farm is not just an economic enterprise that focuses mainly, or only, on profits, but a place where continuity and culture are important. The farming family is part of a wider rural community, and sometimes part of networks that extend into cities. As such, the family farm is a place where culture is applied and preserved (8), just as the farm can be a place of cultural heritage.

The family and the farm are also part of the wider rural economy (9), they are tied to the locality, carrying the cultural codes of the local community. Thus, family farms can strengthen the local rural economy: it is where they buy, spend and engage in other activities.

Similarly, the family farm is part of a wider rural landscape (10). It may work with, rather than against nature, using ecological processes and balances instead of disrupting them, preserving the beauty of landscapes. When family farming works with nature, it also contributes to conserving biodiversity and to fighting global warming.

Freedom and autonomy

The family farm is an institution that carries attraction, as it allows for relative autonomy. It embodies a “double freedom”: there is freedom from direct external exploitation and there is freedom to do things in your own way. Along this, the work implies an ongoing interaction with living nature – a feature that is highly esteemed by the actors involved.

Family farming represents a direct unity of manual and mental labour, of work and life, and of production and development. It is an institution that can continue to produce in an adverse capitalist environment, just as anaerobic bacteria are able to survive in an environment without oxygen (I derive this nice metaphor from the work of Raúl Paz from Argentina).

Why is it important?

Family farming carries the promise to create agricultural practices that are highly productive, sustainable, receptive, responsive, innovative and dynamic. Given all these features, family farming may strongly contribute to food security and food sovereignty. In a variety of ways, it can strengthen economic development, creating employment and generating income. It offers large parts of society attractive jobs and may contribute considerably to the emancipation of downtrodden groups in society. Family farming may also consistently contribute to the maintenance of beautiful landscapes and biodiversity.

External threats

However, it may turn out to be impossible to effectively realize all these promises. This is the case especially today, when family farming is squeezed and impoverished to the bones. When prices are low, costs are high and volatility excludes any possibility for long term planning, and when access to markets is increasingly blocked and agricultural policies neglect family farmers, and when land and water are increasingly grabbed by large capital groups – yes, in these circumstances we see that it turns out to be impossible for family farmers to render positive contributions to the wider society. This is why we have now ended up in the dramatic situation that land of family farmers is laying idle. Or, to use a macro indicator, that 70% of the poor in this world today, are rural people.

Internal threats

There are internal threats as well. Nowadays it is en vogue to talk about the ‘need to make family farming more business-like’. It should be oriented ‘towards making profits’. Some even argue that this would be the only way to ‘keep young people in agriculture’. In short: family farming should become less ‘peasantlike’ and more ‘entrepreneurial’. According to this viewpoint, , family farming in the Global South should be subject to a similar process of modernisation as occurred in the North.

Indeed, part of European agriculture has changed towards entrepreneurial farming. This turns the family farm into a mere supplier of labour, forgetting about all other features mentioned above. Formally these entrepreneurial farms are still family farms, but substantially they are quite different. One major difference is that ‘real’ family farms especially grow and develop through clever management of natural, economic and human resources, and through (intergenerational) learning. Entrepreneurial farms especially grow through taking over other family farms. This tendency to enter into entrepreneurial trajectories is a major internal threat to the continuity and dominance of family farms. And we see it nearly everywhere.


There are important counter-tendencies as well. Many family farms strengthen their position and their income, for example by following agro-ecological principles, by engaging in new activities, and by producing new products and new services – often distributed through new, nested markets. Analytically these new strategies are defined as forms of re-peasantisation. They make farming more peasant-like again, but at the same time they strengthen the family farm. Re-peasantization equals defending and strengthening family farming.

What is to be done?

Policy can be, and is, extremely important for the fate of family farming. Although family farming can survive highly adverse conditions, positive conditions can help family farming reach its full potential. Precisely here resides the enormous responsibility of policy, that is, of state apparatuses, multinational forums (like the FAO, IFAD and other UN organisations), but also of political parties, social movements and civil society as a whole.

By securing rights and by investing in infrastructure, research and extension, education, market channels, social security, health and many other aspects, investments of family farmers themselves can be triggered. This was recently confirmed again by the prestigious High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition.

Strengthening rural organisations and movements is equally of utmost importance. We have to keep in mind that family farmers, wherever in this world, are trying to find and unfold new responses to difficult situations. Thus, identifying successful responses, building on novel practices, communicating them to other places and other family farmers and interlinking them into strong processes of change must be important items on our agenda. In short: a lot is to be done. The good news, though, is that every step, including every little step, is helpful.

Jan Douwe van der Ploeg

Jan Douwe van der Ploeg is professor of Rural Sociology at Wageningen University and at China Agricultural University in Beijing.
Contact: JanDouwe.Vanderploeg@wur.nl

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