Shrinking family farmsThe sight of those tiny fireflies glowing on the far horizon at dusk in the Ba Vi national park on the outskirts of Hanoi reminded me of my childhood.
The sight of those tiny fireflies glowing on the far horizon at dusk in the Ba Vi national park on the outskirts of Hanoi reminded me of my childhood. The first time I saw fireflies was 30 years ago in my father’s farmhouse through a wooden framed window overlooking the paddy field amid a symphony of croaking monsoon frogs.
Gone are the days when children would climb mango trees, run down to the pond for tadpoles, herd ducks, feed cows or harvest vegetables from the farmyard. Children and youth nowadays want more screen time. They are not attracted to things that happen in farms. I have started to feel that sprawling rural landscapes and family farmers as a social category are becoming endangered. Land, undoubtedly, has been an alarmingly shrinking resource due to the continued practice of monocropping with intensification of chemically derived inputs.
The conventional image of a farmer, who is a tiller of the land, whose village would be surrounded by small fields tended by family labour, primarily producing subsistence crops and marketing the surplus has been disappearing.
An anecdotal example
Two years ago, when I was in my home town, a conversation with a rickshaw puller made me realise the reason behind the rapidly swelling city slums. While sharing an anecdote, he made a point about how his family farming tradition disappeared.
“My family and I used to engage in family farming in Chitaha, Sunsari. When our son decided to go to Saudi Arabia to work as a labourer in 2014, we had to sell the only plot of land we owned to pay for costs associated with his employment. As no plot was left for us to continue farming, we moved to Duhabi. I started pulling a rickshaw and my wife started working as housemaid. Our son has been given a wage much lower than what was promised, and the amount we earn in Duhabi is hardly sufficient for our survival. I often regret selling our plot in Chitaha.”
Today’s generation looks down on farming and strives for better city lives; aging farmers are retiring without a younger family member who is willing to take over the farm work. It gets even more disturbing if we think of the number of youth migrating to Arab countries every day. Is this happening due to waning family farms and the readily available option of migration as an alternative to farming?
Generally, family farms are owned and operated sustainably by one family and passed on to the next generation. Family farms in many parts of Nepal are diverse in terms of their size, farming practices, and access to resources and markets. Farms operate in different agro-ecological and socio-cultural contexts.
For centuries, family farmers have been using agro-ecological approaches to combat climate variability and develop resilience to shocks and natural disasters. Until the early 1980s, almost 90 percent of the total farming population was dependent on family farms for livelihood, but now this has declined to nearly 65 percent.
Although family farms are eco-friendly, they need to have access to new technologies and markets. They also need to be recognised and supported by scientists and policy makers as systems that contribute to rural poverty reduction and ensure food and nutrition security.
Supporting the livelihood of family farmers through facilitating access to markets can have a significant effect on increasing rural incomes. The challenge is to find innovative ways to keep the family farming tradition alive while also attracting the youth. Lately, there have been a few positive examples of youths who return to their homelands and start toiling on their farms. This move has been triggered by the realisation of the socio-economic value of agricultural prospects associated with their homeland.
Experts argue that such initiatives should be supported by effective implementation of appropriate schemes like financial incentives, crop and livestock insurance, bio-technology, ICT in agriculture and market infrastructure.
As a city dweller, I often wonder how we can uphold the values and knowledge inculcated in children who are raised on family farms. Disappearing family farms already pose a serious threat to our fragile ecosystem. They have not only been the keeper of agro-ecological traditions but also the provider of food for years. It is unfortunate that this class of society is waning.
Upadhyay writes on contemporary social issues, natural resources and sustainable development practices