A farmer's dilemma: To sell or to eat?

by Caity Peterson | http://www.twitter.com/CCAFSCaity | CIAT (International Center for Tropical Agriculture)
Thursday, 19 December 2013 13:40 GMT

Harvesting experimental CIAT beans near the Colombian town of Darien. CIAT/Neil Palmer

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Small farmers must strike a balance between producing for the market and for their own consumption

“Things are much better than they used to be,” says Don Felipe, sitting at ease in a plastic lawn chair and sipping on a tinto, the sweet, miniature-sized cup of black coffee so loved by the inhabitants of Colombia’s Santander department. “Back then nobody sold anything,” he goes on. “Not beans, not maize. There was no market and nothing to make money with.”

The elderly Felipe has no shortage of reminiscences – after all, he’s lived in Macaregua village for more than 50 years. But he’s unwavering in his preference for the present. “Now everything gets sold. Leave a little for yourself and sell the rest, that’s the best way.”

Researchers from Bioversity International and the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) spent time in Macaregua to identify sources of vulnerability to climate change impacts and barriers to the adoption of climate-smart agriculture.

Climate-smart agriculture aims at improving food security even in the face of increased climate risks. When small farmers seek to boost their food security by commercialising their products, for example, they must strike a balance between the risks in producing for the market and the risks in producing for home consumption: to sell or to eat?

Although Felipe has high praise for commercialisation, his testimony sheds light on one of the problems of depending on income from produce sales for food security.

“Most everybody around here grows this red bean, and almost nothing else,” Felipe tells an audience of his complacent wife, a few overexcited grandchildren and an indifferent mulatto dog.

“Last year, they brought in this little striped bean and started trying that. It looked good at the time, but this year the price went way down,” he says. Buyers didn’t want the striped bean, but many farmers in Macaregua had already planted it. “It hit them real hard. They had to lose money just to sell it.”

The vagaries of the market can wreak havoc on small farmers who depend on consistent income to buy food. Another risk is the rising cost of inputs for commercial agriculture and the chronic indebtedness that can go along with it.

“It’s more expensive to work now,” says Felipe. “January, February, March - everybody has to run to the bank for a loan to be able to carry out the harvest. Afterwards we pay up and we’re left almost without money. It’s like that every year.”

Given these challenges, how beneficial is a change from consumption to commercialism? Can smallholder farmers really afford to abandon direct sources of food security for a cash-based living?


Despite the difficulties, there is substantial evidence to suggest that rising incomes as a result of even small-scale commercialism correlate with improved nutrition and higher overall food security. And growing climate pressures could make food production purely for subsistence a riskier wager as well.

Santander department has only recently started to feel some of the impacts of a changing climate, and farmers in Macaregua have barely had a chance to learn how to react.

 “The weather’s not the same as before. Now it rains less, and when that happens, the harvest is less, too,” explains Felipe.  Crop failure and loss of productive capacity are real threats to food security, especially if a household has no external income to fall back on in hard times.

As Felipe’s account of modern-day improvements would indicate, standards of living in the Colombian countryside have gone up. But how vulnerable is Macaregua village to the impacts of climate change?

Preliminary results from Bioversity International and CCAFS research indicate that Macareguans tend to produce in equal amounts for sale and for consumption, at least for staple foods like maize and beans. This might be a good strategy. Although it prevents profit maximisation by diverting resources from income-generating production, it is a kind of insurance substitute in case of either crop or market failure.

Even as Felipe speaks, an agricultural strike has blocked roads and brought the flow of goods to market to a virtual standstill across a large part of the country. Policy is changing to allow basic goods like milk and potatoes to be brought in cheaper from abroad, and angry campesinos fear for their livelihoods.

With government market interventions able to have such a drastic impact, the success of smallholder ventures into commercial agriculture depends heavily on the policy environment. Advocacy for policy awareness, integrated markets and smallholder-friendly economics are some of the ways forward.

 Just as important will be good management and decision-making at the farm level - those on the edge of food insecurity can’t afford to make mistakes.

So back to the question: To sell or to eat? For the farmers of Macaregua, their answer of “a little bit of both” seems to be working well, at least for now.

Caity Peterson is a visiting researcher based at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Colombia, working in the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS).

This blog is part of a series - find links to the first two blogs below. Two more will be published next month.