March 14, 2018 | By Jill Wheeler

Guest Commentary - The Business of Farming

By Jill Wheeler, head of sustainable productivity for Syngenta North America, and co-manager of her family farm

It seemed like the perfect project.

As a global agricultural company committed to sustainability, Syngenta had sponsored a grant contest seeking proposals from anyone with a great idea on how to increase food, shrink waste, enhance biodiversity, rescue farmland, reduce poverty and improve safety. And we got some great ideas –everything from tweaks on existing ideas to out-of-the-blue moon shots. We quickly realized there was passion and interest in the topic.

After weeks of discussion and sifting through entries, we had a winner. A small non-profit working in Kenya’s Upper Rift Valley wanted to research why in this day of hybrid seed, modern crop protection products and widespread agronomic data, smallholder farmers were still getting meager yields on their cropland. Did they not have the right agronomic information? Did they lack access to modern crop inputs? Was their soil simply degraded?

We decided to find out.

Our partners set to work scoping out their methodology. They worked with local experts to consult on cultural norms, standard local practices and other potential causes of the low yields. They poured through the existing agronomic literature on the region, focusing on the most problematic diseases and the biggest crop stressors. Then, they traveled to the villages, sat down, and talked.

They talked to farmers and input suppliers. To extension specialists and grain marketers. They talked about practices and traditions. About worries and dreams. About agronomics and financial constraints and market opportunities. The non-profit team listened, and observed, and recorded. Then, they returned and reported on the project.

We listened. And we puzzled. Because for myself and many others working primarily in developed markets, the barriers were nothing like we had imagined.

Low crop yields were not a result of a lack of available agronomic knowledge. There was plenty of that available had they wanted to access it. Nor were those low yields solely the result of a lack of access to modern crop inputs such as improved seeds and crop protection products. Their soil? While not always perfect, it was not the key issue either, according to our team. Rather, our researchers reported, the underlying problem of the smallholders stemmed in large part from how they saw themselves.

These smallholder farmers did not see themselves as professional farmers. Farming for them was a means to an end, with the end being just enough food to get their families through the year. They were not farming to serve a new market, or to generate extra income or to build a small business. In the most classic sense, they were farming to subsist.

For those of us in working in agriculture in developed markets, this reality comes as a surprise. We see our farmers embracing the tools of any modern business, from data analysis and best management practices to market evaluation and continuous improvement in sustainability. Our farmers are heroes, role models, and successful business people innovating to produce more food on less land using fewer resources.

They also are in the minority.

The world has approximately 8 million large-scale farms, defined as more than 250 acres. It has 450 million smallholder farmers working off of less than five acres. Typically, these smallholders are not the heroes of their developed market counterparts. Nor are they role models, and therein lies one of the biggest challenges for a world facing a youth bubble.

Who wants a future of subsistence farming? From Africa to Asia, the answer from youth is “We don’t.”

If we wish to avoid a future of hunger, conflict and instability, we must act now to improve the status, perception and wellbeing of smallholder farmers around the world. That begins with the farmers themselves, and working with them directly to help them see the potential inherent in their land and their dreams for their families.

Farming will struggle to be perceived as a widely desirable profession as long as it relies on backbreaking labor and unmanaged risk. It takes 200 hours to hand weed just one hectare of cropland. Frequently, that job falls to women and children, decreasing even further those children’s opportunities to get an education. As for the women, while female farmers are critical contributors to agriculture and the rural economy, their yields are 20 to 30 percent lower than for men. This is due largely to less access to credit, land ownership and crop inputs. Attracting young women in particular to farming therefore becomes an even steeper climb.

Likewise, risk remains an ever-present shadow over smallholder farmers of both genders. In Africa right now, there are 35 million hectares of maize at risk from the fall armyworm, which destroyed 20 percent of that country’s maize last year. And while advances have been made in low-cost crop insurance provided via mobile phones, many smallholders remain uninsured and vulnerable.

Finally, agriculture will not attract new farmers if it cannot scale and widely distribute the digital technologies that improve efficiency, sustainability and profitability. Supply chains are demanding ever more transparency in this arena, creating both challenges and opportunities for farmers who see the business value in embracing these technologies and becoming suppliers of choice. Trends of this kind will only increase the growing divide between commercial farmers and subsistence farmers if we do not work with smallholders to help them advance.

Things are changing in the developed world as well. One of my colleagues recently visited a group of farmers in the U.S. Southeast. As they talked about the biggest issues facing their farms, the issue of labor came up again and again. Brawn and muscle is fading as the primary qualification to get a young person hired on to a U.S. farm crew. These farmers already were struggling to find workers with the knowledge and technical skills necessary to run their increasingly-sophisticated equipment and farm management systems. These changes, have, unfortunately left both farmers and unskilled laborers with fewer choices.

The fact remains that innovation is what farmers around the world will need both to compete and to feed a growing population. The future lies in employing crop production and advanced plant breeding technologies to free up human resources in the battle against weeds, diseases, insects and a changing climate. At the same time, we need the determination and capabilities to move young people from the traditional path of subsistence farming (in emerging markets) and from either urban migration or unskilled farm labor (in developed ones) to highly skilled agricultural operators. Concurrently, adopting digital technologies to improve sustainability outcomes and land utilization will provide economic and environmental benefits to be enjoyed by rural communities and society at large.

Developed market farmers continue to show us how farming can be a professionally satisfying choice. And, as our project demonstrated, encouraging that same mentality can create opportunities in developing markets as well.


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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