A new lens on the world’s small farms

December 7, 2016
A group of farmers in Ethiopia

Young men work together to prepare fields in a smallholder-dense region of southern Ethiopia. Photo: Leah Samberg.

Smallholder and family farms are crucial to feeding the planet. And successful policies for alleviating poverty, boosting food security, and protecting biodiversity and natural resources depend on the participation of small farmers.

Despite the recent spotlight on small farms and increasing consensus on their importance, detailed information on location and size of smallholder farms is virtually absent. These farms exist in some of the planet’s most diverse landscapes and are home to many of the planet’s most vulnerable people.

A new study led by researchers at the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment (IonE) fills this crucial knowledge gap by using household census data from the Minnesota Population Center to map smallholder farms in developing countries. The study was published Nov. 30 in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

“This map is a first step toward a better understanding of where and how smallholder farming can be sustainable for both landscapes and livelihoods,” says Leah Samberg, lead author of the new study and scientist with IonE’s Global Landscapes Initiative.

Information about the number, location, and distribution of small farms can be used to guide investments and target policies for agricultural development, food security, and sustainable land use, says Paul West, GLI co-director and study coauthor. “Combining both agriculture and household survey data creates a map that is a critical piece of the puzzle for targeting the billions of dollars invested in programs to improve people’s lives.”