The right kind of helping hand for small farmers

by Caity Peterson | | CIAT (International Center for Tropical Agriculture)
Monday, 13 January 2014 14:13 GMT

Smallholder farmers can still be the backbone of national food security, but they need the right kind of help. CCAFS/CIAT: C. Peterson

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

There's a lot smallholders can do for themselves to become more resilient to climate change, but targeted support is important too

Luis Eduardo lays another slab of beef onto the smouldering dug-out barbeque he and his family have lit for their weekly Sunday get-together in Macaregua village, Colombia. He stabs a generous chunk of boiled cassava with his fork.

“The day that I can’t eat with my own hand,” he says in an expansive mood, waving the cassava chunk in the air, “that will be the day that I die.”

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


Especially if they have the foresight of a farmer like Luis Eduardo, there are many things that smallholders can and should do for themselves to build resilience to the impacts of climate change. In a meandering monologue between mouthfuls of T-bone steak, Luis Eduardo hits upon several.

“You can consume what you produce for yourself, or you can sell. But no matter what, you have to have some chickens. When you want to eat a chicken, well there you have it. If you want an egg, that’s there too. I don’t ever buy eggs or chicken – if anything, I bring some into town now and then to sell,” he explains.

Always an agriculturalist but never a specialist, he has often adapted his strategy to changing times. “I’ve planted maize, I’ve planted tobacco - I even grew tomatoes about eight years ago. Now I grow only maize and beans. Five years from now, I’ll probably be harvesting coffee,” he says.

“Around here you can’t live on just agriculture. You have to help yourself out with whatever comes along,” he stresses. Luis Eduardo works on Saturdays and Sundays slaughtering beef cattle for neighbours, earning a few pesos for the week and meat for the house.

Bioversity International and CCAFS research has found that most small farmers in Macaregua village, like Luis Eduardo, have branched out into commercial agriculture.

Although Luis Eduardo’s beliefs on the mainstay of a rural livelihood are clearly embodied in the humble creole chicken, he also exploits the local market and seeks off-farm sources of income. He readily makes big changes in his principal crops when the situation demands – an ever-more likely possibility as the climate changes. “As long as you’re always working,” he concludes, “you can get by.”


Luis Eduardo’s positivity pervades the smoky but congenial atmosphere of the family barbeque. But he is aware of the real difficulties facing smallholder farmers in this shifting environment.

“It’s true that agriculture has gotten more difficult. You know why?” Gesticulating with a half-gnawed rib bone, he answers his own question: “Because everything sells at the same price as it did years ago, but all the inputs cost more.”

“That’s where there’s no support,” he says. Not one to ask for handouts, he’s careful to clarify that assistance shouldn’t be simply a gift. “But at least some of the critical inputs like fertilisers could cost less,” he suggests.

What’s more, smallholders often can’t compete in a free-market setting. “I’ve got mountains of beans piled up in this barn here that didn’t sell,” he says. “Some countries produce much more of certain products, and when those get brought in cheap, well that hurts us.” The same happens with cut flowers and eggs. “The biggest guy wins,” he says.

The recent uncertainties brought on by the climate have also begun to weigh on Luis Eduardo’s mind. Referring to unseasonal rains, he says: “In 30 years farming here, I’ve never seen this before. This is when we would normally prepare the land for planting, but right now it’s raining. You can’t get a tractor out into the fields to plant.”

Knowing when to perform critical aspects of farm labour has become guesswork. “We just don’t know if the rain will continue or not! That’s something that’s really difficult for me.”

Targeted subsidies for key inputs, smallholder-friendly economic policies, and clear, accessible and accurate weather information - these are the areas where Luis Eduardo indicates a helping hand would make a difference. But is there any justification for supporting smallholder agriculture in the first place?

The shrinking size of small farms and growing focus on non-agricultural activities for household income may indicate they are not the highly efficient enterprises they’ve long been held to be. Nevertheless the increasing diversity in types of smallholders means aid can and should be targeted according to the goals of each kind of farmer. 

“I plan on working until my last day,” says Luis Eduardo. The right kind of support could ensure that farmers like him can continue to contribute to personal – and national – food security even in the face of rapidly changing conditions.

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 on Colombia - you can find previous posts on Caity's profile page or at the links below.