Small Farms, Big Collaboration Gap

Along miles of dirt roads that wind through jungles, cloud forests and across arid plains, family farms work the land and produce harvests year after year. Agriculture is the lifeblood for billions of people across the globe. It underpins our societies and is vital to our future.

While I grew up in a city, working overseas on international development projects has allowed me to learn about the lives of rural people. It has given me a deep respect for the incredible understanding that small-scale farmers have of the natural world, the economic impact they have on their communities and the integral connection between farming and cultural identity.

I think back to getting soaked in a torrential rainstorm while planting avocado trees with Victor Vargas, a Costa Rican farmer with a grade one education. He could not read or write but taught me that it was important to plant avocados alongside other trees because they formed a mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship and helped each other grow and produce. I feel happy thinking about days spent working with a woman’s cooperative harvesting blackberries, spending hours sitting in circles talking and laughing together while our hands did the hard work. And I’m inspired when I think about the grandmothers and grandfathers I’ve met, who can plant seeds faster and swing a machete harder than I can, stronger and tougher in their 70’s than I ever will be.

I remember the first time I watched a rubber tree cracked open in Ecuador and saw this milky substance flowing out. It shocked me to realize that I had never thought about where natural rubber comes from. My mind fades to memories of walking through coffee plantations in Peru and making the connection between those beautiful red berries and my delicious morning treat. It makes me laugh to think of the first time I tasted cacao beans drying in racks on a sun-soaked farm, imagining they would taste sweet instead of the ripe bitterness that surprised my mouth. I had really never thought about how many steps were involved in making chocolate.

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When it comes to small-scale farms, the work is not easy and every family member seems to have a role. I think about the number of times that I’ve had groups of volunteers working at schools in South America or Asia and when we ask why students are missing from the class the answer is simple, “because it’s harvest season and the parents need them to help on the farm.”

Today, small-scale farmers struggle to compete with large industrial farms. They lack the resources and the efficiency to access fair markets. And they are facing unprecedented challenges related to changing climatic conditions.

But the resources are available to support these farmers. In fact, approximately $11 billion USD is spent yearly on global agricultural initiatives. Donors consider the world’s small-scale farmers essential in poverty-reduction strategies and the FAO has even declared 2014 the year of Family Farming to bring worldwide focus to the important role farmers play.

Moreover, researchers who have been studying small-scale farmers for years have documented the substantial impact these farmers have on our world economy and the preservation of our natural ecosystems. And as a result, buyers are increasingly interested in engaging with small-scale farmers because they want their commerce to create positive outcomes.

The problem however, is that many donors, buyers and researchers, through no fault of their own, end up working in isolation. With few avenues to work collaboratively, important knowledge sets wind up in scattered locations, programs are left with no coordinated structure to share lessons learned, and numerous opportunities for impact are lost.

Donors do end up developing some good programs but, due to time and research constraints, funding is frequently allocated with a top-down approach, often leaving little room to incorporate farmers voices. Researchers continue to write papers that sit on shelves and don’t get the audience they deserve. And buyers are left being frustrated with limited options to demonstrate their values and utilize their purchasing power.

What is required is better collaboration and the establishment of new partnerships in order to support the work of small-scale farmers. Collectively, we need to mobilize strengths and resources in a transparent and equitable manner, letting go of top-down approaches and single-source blueprints. We need to realize that no donor, nor researcher, nor buyer has the solution to the challenges currently facing agriculture. We need to find ways of incorporating each other’s knowledge and combining forces to have a greater impact.

I think back to Victor’s symbiotic relationship and think, well hey, if the plants can do it, why can’t we?


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