Small farms the word over are more productive per unit of land, especially in Asian nations (China, India, Japan) where land is a limited resource per head and average farm size varies between 0.6 to 1.4 hectares (and is fragmenting each year). This is in significant contrast to the USA, Canada, Australia and some some nations in Europe where average farm size is much larger (and growing), ranging from 52 hectares in Denmark to 178 hectares in USA and 273 hectares in Canada.
In this 2011 article in the Economic & Political Weekly, the authors conclude that smaller farms in India are more productive per acre than larger farms, in contrast to the USA where labor saving technology (farm specialization in crop or cattle, heavy mechanization, genetically engineered seeds, chemical herbicides and a host of inventions to increase productivity of labor) has enhanced productivity.
Marginal and small peasants (80% of all landowners in India) work harder on their land, use more fertilizers, have more land under irrigation, have more crops per year than their larger and wealthier cousins. They are better at every aspect of farming than the bigger farms, simply because their survival depends on it. However, they remain dirt poor and below any kind of reasonable ‘poverty line’ as the land they possess is so very little.
The authors conclude “Smallholders do not lag behind other farm size categories in adoption of improved technologies and use of fertiliser and irrigation. Moreover, marginal and smallholders make better use of inputs as revealed by the lower fertiliser imbalance index. Crop intensity, which is the main source of growth in agriculture in India was found to be the highest in marginal holdings and it declined with an increase in farm size. The inverse relationship between farm size and productivity based on the aggregate of all crops has been quite pronounced in the recent years. Advances in technology and the scale factor in production did not dilute the superior performance of lower size holdings.”
What is critical is that “holdings despite higher productivity due to lower per capita availability of land” – which means land with the marginal farmer is inadequate to make ends meet. 62% of our landowners own less than 0.8 hectares of land, which is why they are so very hand-to-mouth despite being ahead in productivity of their larger compatriots.
The solution by these authors, which I fully support …. “Serious steps should be taken to create employment avenues for smallholders outside agriculture, but within the countryside so that the workforce in small farms gets work and income from rural non-farm activities without leaving the farms. This seems to be the only way to achieve higher productivity and to sustain agricultural growth together with augmenting the income of smallholders for improved livelihood.”
Chaudhary Charan Singh’s peasant and farm-first ideology influenced me deeply in my younger years, not quite surprising in some ways seeing that he was my grandfather, though I live this reality up close now as a small farmer with less than 2 hectares farm land. He would have been delighted to read the analysis and policy prescriptions of these authors : he believed the solid foundation for India’s progress was through peasant agriculture, by giving primacy to small and marginal farm holders, and simultaneously creating small (‘cottage’) industry work opportunities near the villages so these hundreds of millions of pitifully poor peasants do not migrate to a life of even worse servitude in the slums of our cities.
Not going to happen though. The governments in Delhi and in the States are busy finding ways to enjoy their hard-won privileges in the cities they inhabit, and finding ways and capital from big business to win the next election.