The Brutal Math of the One Acre Farm

As facts go, the facts of the small African farm are grim, and seldom grasped. You need to start here, though, because 70% of the world’s poorest people live on very small farms.

Their poverty is nothing but straightforward: if you’re farming the size of farm the poorest farm, with the kind of technology the poorest have access to and getting the yields that pass for normal in the poorest countries, you just don’t produce enough calories to feed  even two adults –

[A note on sources is at the end.]

A household working one acre at South Sudanese yields just can’t feed itself. Notice, we’re talking calories here. So this is before we even start thinking about protein, or micronutrients, to say nothing of the thousand other things people need to survive (cookware, salt, oil, housing, clothes, etc. etc. etc.) It doesn’t get more elemental than this.

The second column in that chart shows what happens if you take that same very poor household and endow it with three simple things: high-yield hybrid seed, a ridiculously small amount of fertilizer, and the advice on how to use them properly.

It turns out to be shockingly easy to boost small farm yields 3 and 4-fold, just by doing that. Suddenly, there are enough calories to go around, perhaps a bit to sell. Some actual cash income. A minimum of hope.

“But, there is a lot more to it than that!” Yes, I know. it’s simplistic. There’s politics and urbanization and gender dynamics and soil erosion and corruption and malaria and climate change and a basically endless list of “buts”. Of course.

And of course developing nor distributing better inputs is neither simple nor straightforward. There are bottlenecks of every imaginable sort – technological, cultural, infrastructural, financial, political – enough to keep the best development minds engaged for a long time to come.

It’s easy to get lost in the “buts”, isn’t it? Most of the development world has taken up permanent residence in these “buts” – with notable exceptions, of course. It’s not that the “buts” don’t matter, it’s that they tend to obscure the simple – brutally simple – facts in this tiny spreadsheet.

For 70% of the world’s poorest people, 70% of the development game is just about getting from that first column to that second column. How about we start there?

[Note: The figures are just for illustration, obviously, though not entirely made up. It’s challenging to generalize because actual yields vary enormously not just from country to country but from region to region, field to field, and year to year. And smallholder farm sizes vary, too. I use 0.88 MT/Ha because that’s the average yield calculated for South Sudan – where more or less nobody uses hybrid seed – by the WFP/FAO in 2013. Sadly, yields under 1 ton/hectare are far from rare in Sub-Saharan Africa, particularly where farmers use saved seed. By the same token, in neighboring Uganda maize yields have been documented to triple to over 3 MT/Ha as a result of introducing improved inputs, with mean yields rising above that level in 75% of fields a result of input-oriented interventions.]

10 thoughts on “The Brutal Math of the One Acre Farm”

  1. It is striking to me that you don’t mention “land reform”. I grew up with books like William Hinton’s Iron Oxen which took facts like the ones you mention, and argued that only larger plots, coupled with machine harvests which required longer rows of crops, could help poor peasants.

    1. For me “land reform” is sort of a red herring. In Venezuela the AD government in the 60s *did* land reform…but without a proper plan to support small farmers with things like improved seed and fertilizer. The result was a huge failure, with most people who received land abandoning it to move to urban slums. Then chavismo in the last 15 years re-visited land reform, once again screwed up the inputs side of it, and failed a second time. In both cases, farmers would’ve been much better served by a government mobilized to get them the seed and fertilizer for the land they already had going in.

      There could be places where land reform to increase plot sizes is one element in a smallholder strategy. But there are many others where smallholders already occupy all the usable land, and a good deal of marginal land too. And there you really have to look at yields…which is just as well, because the technology for far improved yields exists.

      The debate about mechanization is definitely a live one. Some very senior people just don’t believe smallholder agriculture productivity gains can scale up. I think they’re wrong, both historically and – especially – as we look into the future. But keep checking back: there’s plenty more in the pipeline about this debate!

  2. brutally simple indeed. Now I see why you want to focus all your energy on this. Unlike Venezuelan politics, this is an area where you can actually get people that matters to listen to what you have to say.

  3. Above and beyond hybrid seed impacts I’d be curious to hear your analysis of drought resistant maize (wema) as well as public GMO crops on productivity for smallholder farmers in food insecure parts of Sub Saharan Africa.

    1. Y’know, I’m in no way an expert. My feeling is that if you’re riding a donkey, discussion about whether a Ferrari is better than a Maserati is pretty esoteric stuff. And to a farmer working with saved seed, hybrids vs. GMOs is Ferraris vs. Maseratis.

  4. “70% of the world’s poorest people live on very small farms.” I didn’t know this, I guess coming from Venezuela my perception of poverty is very biased towards urban poverty. Once thing I remember from my days in Leadership and Vision ONG is that poverty is relative. If you live in Alaska, not being able to afford oil to heat your house makes you really poor, in a tropical country not having warm water in your pipes does not make you super poor. But this level of poverty is not relative, if you can’t eat your are in really bad shape! Any links to share about this statistics? I am becoming fascinated with your new obsession.

  5. Before making such a sweeping conclusion about GM crops and fertilizers being the answer to lifting the smallholder farmer out of poverty, I suggest you do a whole lot more research into the extraordinary yields that permaculture farmers continue to experience year after year. Unlike the modern hybrid maize that you seem to favor (which, studies show, is causing rampant diabetes in poor communities throughout sub-Saharan Africa), permaculture programmes in Niger, Ghana, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Peru, Columbia, Brazil, the Middle East, Europe, Australia, the US are demonstrating consistently that a 1-acre plot can feed a family of ten with surplus.

    Fertilizer depletes the soil, leaving it barren and lifeless, thus perpetuating a cycle of lesser-performing plants that are more vulnerable to drought and pest damage and after a few years the farmer ends up worse off. Whereas permaculture farms have been documented to increase yield by as much as 5-8 times and increases soil fertility more than 500%, creating a healthy ecosystem, that encourages wildlife, does not deplete the environment, and through the practice of FMNR (Farmer-Managed Natural Regeneration) which encourages agroforestry with the regeneration of trees, offers fuel, animal fodder, additional income from the sale of firewood and does not deplete natural resources!

    1. Thanks RU, I’d love to read more. Put up some links!

      My concern is the standard scalability concern: there’s a long record of farmers abandoning advanced, knowledge intense farming methods the second project support runs out. It’s clear to me that bigger, more commercially oriented farmers are much better positioned to implement advanced farming systems. For people living on the edge of caloric viability, this stuff can often just be too much to ask.

      I have to say you don’t get off to a very good start when you conflate hybrids and GM crops. They’re not at all the same thing. Nor is fertilizer microdosing the same thing as just randomly spreading tons of fertilizer all over the field.

      But really we need detente in the farm wars. Conservation agriculture boosters need to face up to the clear evidence that CA methods are often quickly abandoned in bottom billion settings. Conventional agriculture fans need to face up to very real problems with erosion and depletion.

  6. Reblogged this on Thought + Food and commented:
    We hear a lot about industrial farming and big farms but what happens if all the farmer has is one acre? Can he/she make a successful livelihood? A small change in variables, it seems, can bring about a big change on the one acre farm and in the life of the farmer.

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