For years, small farms have been described as backward, inefficient, and unproductive, with some even regarding them as an obstacle in efforts to overcome economic constraints. However, this could not be further from the truth – small-farm agriculture provides an efficient, productive, and ecological vision for the future. Read on to discover how they fare in comparison to large farms.
Studies have shown that small farms tend to produce far more per acre or hectare than large farms. While yield almost always favors the result towards larger farms, total output almost always shows the true productivity edge of small farms. One of the main reasons large farms have low levels of production as compared to small farms is that they tend to be monocultures.
Small farmers, especially those in Third World countries, are much more likely to plant crop varieties – intercropping, where the empty space between the rows of crops is occupied by other crops. Additionally, small farms are known to combine or rotate crops and livestock, with manure from the animals helping to replenish soil fertility.
Why are Small Farms More Productive?
Small farms are more productive for the following reasons:
They are Much More Likely to Plant Crop Mixtures
Small farms, unlike large farms, are much more likely to plant crop mixtures, a practice that is known as intercropping – this is where the empty niche space that would have otherwise produced weeds is occupied by other crops instead.
On the other hand, large farms tend to lean towards monoculture. Granted, the highest yield of a single crop is often obtained by planting it on its own on a field, but while you may produce a lot of one crop, it generates very little of anything else that is of use to the farmer.
In fact, the ground that is left bare between crop rows invites weed infestation. Small farms may not yield more of a single crop than large-scale monocultures, but they produce more total output per unit of land thanks to the practice of having an array of crops growing simultaneously on the land.
They are More Likely to Have Integrated Farming Systems in Place
Another common practice among small-scale farmers is integrated farming – you’ll often find small farms combining or rotating crops and livestock, with manure serving as the primary source of fertilizer.
In addition to playing an important role in replenishing soil nutrients and contributing to other aspects of soil structure, keeping livestock also ensures that the farming land remains productive even as it remains fallow between crop cycles.
Such integrated farming systems have been shown to produce far more per unit area than large-scale monoculture. The total output per unit area in these systems, often composed of more than a dozen crops and various animal products, can be significantly higher.
Other explanations offered for the greater productivity of small farms include: output composition, labor quality, irrigation, labor intensity, input use, land-use intensity, and resource use.
What are the Advantages of Small-scale Farming?
Optimum Use of Soil
Small-scale farming practices such as intercropping make the most of the available soil. Naturally, the soil contains nutrients and water. Planting one type of crop, as is the case with most large-scale farms, strips the soil of nutrients at a much higher rate.
Additionally, the lack of crop diversity increases the likelihood of pests and harmful soil microorganisms. Small-scale farming promotes the optimum use of soil especially if you grow different varieties of crops.
Insurance Against Crop Loss or Damage
Intercropping in small-scale farming can serve as insurance against crop loss or damage, especially if you live in an area that is vulnerable to extreme weather. Elements such as torrential rain, drought, or hurricanes can affect the yield of a given season or year. Having diverse crops allows you to continue being productive even if the primary crop is damaged or doesn’t yield as much as expected.
Systems such as intercropping and integrated farming, which are often associated with small-scale farming, promote increased yield. Intercropping involves the use of the same portion of land available, which not only increases yield but also diversifies produce. This in turn generates more income for you without taking up any major expenditure.
Similarly, integrated farming systems (such as those that incorporate livestock) have a high total output per unit per area, which simply means they are highly productive and generate more income for the farmer.
Small-scale Farming is Good for Primary Crops
Planting a variety of crops in small-scale farming is good for your primary crops. This is because the secondary crops can provide shelter for the main crop, which will subsequently promote sustainable productivity.
Difference Between Small-scale and Large Scale Farming
Key differences between small-scale and large-scale farming are as follows:
Small-scale farming works on a small parcel of land. On average, small-scale farmers work on 1-10 acres of land, and sometimes even less especially considering backyard farms in cities.
Some small farms may be bigger; however, these focus on animal husbandry instead of solely growing crops. On the other hand, large-scale farming requires a lot more land to cultivate yield.
Large-scale farming tends to focus on the production of a single crop or agricultural product. This is known as monoculture, and it is often associated with commercial or industrial agriculture.
On the other hand, small-scale farming is much more likely to have two or more crops at the same farm. The simultaneous cultivation or exploitation of several crops is known as polyculture and is typically associated with genetic diversity, food security, resilience, and techniques such as companion planting and forest farming.
Large-scale farming requires the use of heavy machinery such as plows, harvesters, diggers, trailed sprayers, and planters to efficiently manage sizable farms. On the contrary, small-scale farms usually include a lot of manual labor. Tractors and other machinery may also be used but to a lesser extent.
Fertilizer and Pesticide Use
Large-scale farming focuses on high-yield crop varieties that are highly dependent on chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
Small-scale farms on the other hand are much more likely to rely on manure from livestock, and as a result of the wide array of crops on the farms, they have a higher resistance against contagions, reducing the need for pesticides.