Wednesday, 16 April 2014

The farmer wants a life

Bumpkin, plouc, mofiz, hick – are all languages derogatory about people who make their living off the land? It seems so. Easily my favourite stupid question to ask people as I swan around the world being a researcher is: ‘so do you want your children to farm when they grow up?’

‘No’ has to date been the universal answer. People everywhere want their kids to have a great job like mine: regular salary, computer, nice office (they haven’t been to IDS, but the point is valid). Ask young folks how they feel about farming, and they look at you like you fell out of a tree: they want what all young people want: good clothes, a smartphone, somewhere to hang out with their mates after work. Factory beats farm, if no office job is available. Anything beats farm, come to that.

Back in the nice offices, there appears to be some collective delusion rooted in faith in the corrective powers of markets that this should all be changing. Food prices are higher than 10, 20 years ago, so the calculus should shift: farming will be more attractive, more lucrative, than in past generations. But our research on aspirations with respect to farming suggests otherwise.

As part of our sociology of how life is changing with food price rises we explored the ‘opportunity structures’ that shape the futures young people can imagine for themselves. We heard sober, realistic assessments of life chances on a small farm. In very different settings, people take full account of climate change, global market integration, inputs, changing land rights and uses. A successful dairy farmer in Pirhuas in Bolivia explained that his (college-going) children
don’t want to be farmers, they see how one works so hard. Nobody can be a farmer, because the producer produces blindly, at times they lose; the children see this, and for this we make them study … Now, this little rain is damaging, it is out of time … At times [people] eat well and at times no, when you grow old it is worse; for this, we don’t wish that our children become farmers.
The clever farmer invests in his or her children’s education, with the aim of exit. I wonder if that is what those who trialled the new African Farmer simulation game at IDS a couple of weeks ago found? Our researchers found the forces in play are multiple and complex, but trend in roughly the same direction: towards less local, small farmer control over the means of food production.

Screen shot of the African Farmer
It doesn’t matter how clever or how hardworking you are. It takes capital, these days, to hedge against the risks of bad harvests; in a time when climates are changing, you need to invest in fertilizer and seed and fuel; your land has probably been mortgaged to pay school fees or finance labour migration.

It is surprising that higher food prices do not generally make farming more attractive: the returns may be higher, but so are the risks and the costs of living. There are exceptions: in Indonesia and in rural communities in Ethiopia and Kenya people spoke hopefully about public investments in agricultural technology that would raise productivity and attract young blood. But the bigger picture was of smaller farmers being gradually pushed off the land by the impossibility of getting ahead while staying on the farm.

Naomi Hossain is a Research Fellow in the Governance team at IDS and a researcher on the Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility project. Who Wants to Farm? is an output from Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility which is funded by UK Aid and Irish Aid and led by a partnership between Oxfam GB and IDS. Who Wants to Farm? is co-authored by Jennifer Leavy at the University of East Anglia ( and was supported by the Future Agricultures Consortium.

Previous blogs on Food Price Volatility:


  1. Excellent insight and great paper. You could add fishing to that, or mining - or any other productive activity that involves back-breaking work, is dangerous and involves anti-social work times and loctions (long hours, days away, migrating to difficult locations). You raise a good set of challenges - is the only option highly capitalised agriculture? Does it have to be large scale? What I take from all your work on food price volatitlity is that markets left to themselves make a mess of food.

    1. Thanks Allister - good questions of course. Does farming being less attractive mean relying more on Big Food? i think not, and i also don't think that young people find farming unappealing supports the fashionable idea that smallholder farming is unviable or no longer the answer to rural poverty reduction (Dercon-Collier) - instead it shows that the odds are unfairly stacked against small farmers. And compounded by inflation and climate change. I think it confirms again that small farmers and the rural poor need to be better organised. Maybe that will happen, ironically, if rising food prices mean more rural citizen power as agricultural economies grow?

  2. Naomi, your short story confirms own experience after having asked, directly or indirectly, the same question to farmers. But I have recently also seen and heard quite a few different stories in Zambia. A number of small farmers manage to increase productivity and get more time and money to invest in expanding their farms - or rather cultivating more of it. Conservation agriculture (starting with reduced tillage) is a good start, it seems. And I have met young sons (mostly) back from high school or college, ready to give farming a chance after having seen their parents improve. But yes, many small farming families will be stuck in very low productivity and be out of agriculture in a few years. If I am right, we will see economic development accompanied by a reductioni in the number of farmers. Not for the first time in history? (Warning: I make my living managing financial support to a conservation agriculture programme).


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