Why we need small farms

A photography project celebrates the small-scale and family-run farms that produce 70 percent of the world’s food.

Photograph by Nick Ballon, courtesy of We Feed The World
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Juana Marzana, El Choro, Bolivia.
Photograph by Nick Ballon, courtesy of We Feed The World

During the 1980s, supermarkets stopped purchasing peaches from Mas Masumoto’s 80-acre organic fruit farm in Fresno, California. His heirloom peaches were deemed “too small,” they said.

He considered ripping out the trees to replant them with more commercially accepted varieties. In “Epitaph for a Peach,” an essay published in the Los Angeles Times, he asked why “no one wants a peach variety with a wonderful taste.”

He got an answer. Many of them, in fact—an outpouring that encouraged Masumoto to keep his trees and explore other venues for his peaches. His fruit went on to become a hit at local farmers markets and restaurants. And his perseverance has stirred his 31-year-old daughter to work alongside her parents and grandparents to continue the family tradition.

Small but fruitful

Large-scale, industrial agriculture is often held up as the solution for feeding the world’s growing population. But small farms—with about 25 acres or less—along with family-run operations like Masumoto’s produce over 70 percent of the world’s food.

Raising awareness of the contribution of these farmers inspired the We Feed the World photo project, a global exhibition that opens in London this week and coincides with National Farmers Day, celebrated annually in the United States on October 12. Forty photographers participated, including Carolyn Drake, Rankin, and Graciela Iturbide, who photographed the San Isidro farming community in her native Mexico.

“Big agriculture is not the only answer—it’s a myth we’re constantly peddled by,” says project director Francesca Price. “We want these images to empower people to support their local food system.”

Spanning 50 agricultural communities across six continents, 300 images—a selection seen in this gallery—highlight the resiliency of small farms, even in more extreme environments such the northern reaches of Sweden and the Amazon jungle.

Small farms face a number of obstacles to sustain their livelihoods. They battle a changing climate, with more spells of drought as well as more intense storms and rain. And finding regular buyers is difficult, especially as the global food system demands a steady stream of robust produce year-round, regardless of seasonality and how far it has to be shipped.

Increasing biodiversity

By growing heirloom and other non-commercial varieties, small farms bolster biodiversity and increase food security. With only 12 plants and five animal species making up 75 percent of what the world eats, food systems are vulnerable to natural disasters and disease outbreak.

Traditional farming communities like El Choro in Bolivia are working to preserve their ancient seed diversity. By planting and harvesting ancestral varieties of quinoa and over 150 varieties of traditional potatoes, they’re building up a store of seeds and making them accessible to growers.

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The Matsumoto family harvests peaches. The farm dates to 1948, when Takashi Matsumoto purchased several acres after he left a Japanese internment camp. Today the 80-acre farm is run by his son, David “Mas” Matsumoto, now joined full-time by his daughter Nikiko (far left) along with wife Marcy and son Korio.

Keeping variety alive is essential as the climate changes. In the future, plant breeders might need to tap the traits from one variety to make another more resilient to warmer, stormier, or drier weather, or to save a prized variety from disease.

Supporting fair trade

The food industry and policymakers both play a role in supporting small-scale agriculture. Through inclusive business models, companies can buy and promote smallholder products, and governments can create policies that protect family farmers and incentivize doing business with them.

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Pasture lands and potato farms dominate Javakheti, a mountainous region in southern Georgia.


Cacao farmers on São Tomé are demonstrating how to participate in the global chocolate industry. On this small volcanic island off the west coast of Africa, over 1,100 farmers have organized themselves into a cooperative called CECAQ-11—Cooperativa de Exportação de Cacau de Qualidade.

Companies that buy the high-quality, organic cacao from CECAQ-11 pay fair-trade prices and an additional premium to support sustainability practices like maintaining nutrient-rich soil. Investing in soil helps improve yields and mitigates climate change, since healthy soils require less tillage and hold more carbon.

Contrary to perception, small farms that practice sustainable agriculture can be highly productive. Studies show that yields rise when there’s a wider diversity of crops being grown on a farm, and money is saved since the need for fertilizer and pesticides are reduced.

For consumers, a direct way to support small farms is by shopping local. In the United States, a rise in farmers markets and grocery stores buying local produce has helped small farms by providing a reliable outlet for their produce. Since 2000, the number of farmers markets in the country has more than tripled to nearly 8,700, as the local food movement sprang up.

“The photographs of family farmers may tell a local story, but the message is universal,” says curator Cheryl Newman. The images, she hopes, will leave viewers “contemplating where their food comes from and the impact it has on the world around us."

This article originated as part of a sponsored Future of Food series.