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Family farms: from generation to generation

In this video, Prof Matt Lobley talks about how most of the world’s food comes from family farming and what challenges and opportunities this means.
Hi. I’m Matt Lobley, Professor in Rural Resource Management at the University of Exeter. I’d like to talk to you about where your food comes from. I don’t mean shops or supermarkets or food stores. I’m thinking of the millions of family farmers across the globe who produce our food, and who collectively represent the largest group of natural resource managers on the planet. Despite the image in many parts of the world of an industrialized agriculture, most farms are in fact family farms. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, more than 90% of the 570 million farms worldwide are managed by an individual or a family, and they rely primarily on family labor.
In terms of value, family farms produce more than 80% of the world’s food. So if you’re interested in food, farming or the management of the farmed environment, it’s really helpful to know something about family farming. An agricultural system based around family businesses presents a number of strengths, but also challenges. So what is a family farm? And although commonly held in high regard, there is no general agreement on what is meant by family farming, although the term family farm tends to be associated with smaller farms. For me, though, it’s the close link between family and business that’s most important.
It’s what’s known as the familiness of the organization that’s more important than rather a minimum or maximum criteria for size or turnover or even the family labor contribution. The idea of familiness is typically described as the unique bundle of resources resulting from the interaction of family and business, the sum of which may be greater than the individual parts. It’s a broad concept, generally thought to offer competitive advantage to family firms where vision and commitment to the business are often deeply embedded in family history. It’s closely linked to the concept of emotional ownership, the idea that the business is in some sense part of who you are as a person.
We can see this in family farming, which is often referred to as a way of life. So emotional ownership and the deployment of family capital, the commitment and participation of family members, can confer advantages on the family business. Such a strong commitment can have profound effects on the individuals involved, and not always in a positive manner. Some scholars refer to the darker side of familiness, for example, the destructive tendencies of some relationships. Indeed, too much familiness can result in a closed-minded approach to new ideas. Arguably, one of the defining features of family farming is the intergenerational dimension, a really strong desire to pass the farm on to the next generation.
In many cases the successor is the child of the farmer, raising interesting issues about shift in power dynamics and individual identity inside the family. But it also means that as well as physical business assets, intangible assets including firm specific tacit knowledge are transferred to the new business leader. In an agricultural context, in addition to succeeding to the farm the successor also benefits from the transfer of skills, and frequently a detailed knowledge of the home farm, its microclimate, and its idiosyncrasies. When this process is successful, the successor gains highly detailed, locally specific knowledge that can prove vital for effective environmental management.
It also gives rise to a sense of intergenerational accountability, which can position farmers as guardians of local history, nature, and culture. The repeated transfer of farms down the generation means that farming families are firmly embedded in the life of their communities. And they also produce food.

In this video, Prof Matt Lobley talks about how most of the world’s food comes from family farming and what challenges and opportunities this means. Following this video, read an article about the role of small farms in agriculture.

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Future Food: Sustainable Food Systems for the 21st Century

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