Arid Lands Newsletter--link to home pageNo. 46, Fall/Winter 1999
Tools for Small Farmers

Diversity, an essential tool for small farmers

By Katherine Waser


When it comes to tools that will help small farmers of the world's drylands to survive and thrive, the common denominator clearly appears to be a need for diversity, operating on many different levels. In contrast to large corporate farms and agribusiness where standardization and monoculture crops appear to drive profitability and success, small farmers are favored by the development of versatility, site-specific techniques and crops, and "niche farming" of various kinds. That this fostering of diversity is crucial to the survival and strength of small farmers is the underlying thread that can be seen running through the articles published in this issue.

First, of course, is the importance of selecting, growing, and preserving seeds of regionally and situationally appropriate crops. The first article in this issue touches on growing techniques and crops that are suitable to the cold and dry areas of the Hindu Kush-Himalaya region. The specific plants discussed in the article are not necessarily ones that are indigenous to the region; rather, they include plants that may be non-native but that are particularly suited to the growing conditions encountered in these areas and that offer multiple benefits to those growing them. Thus, as the article makes clear, not only is it important for small farmers to choose crops suitable to their regions; they are also well served by choosing crops that have a wide diversity of end uses and products.

The second article touches on the importance of the preservation of indigenous crops and, more broadly, of the traditional techniques and knowledge for growing them. In this context, the preservation of indigenous crops is an important tool in the effort to preserve genetic diversity in plants, with ultimate benefits not only for small farmers, but also for large-scale farmers and for human culture as a whole. Native Seeds/SEARCH is a nonprofit organization that carries out its work in the arid southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico, collecting, preserving, and redistributing seeds of crops developed over the centuries by the indigenous farmers of the region. It provides an important model of how such work can be carried out in other regions, as well.

Farming methods that encourage development of a diverse mix of crops, particularly perennial crops, are also important tools for small farmers, especially in terms of food security. On a farm that incorporates such diversity, if one crop fails during any given growing season, the farmer will still have other crops to provide food and/or cash income. The article "The man who farms water" tells the story of a farmer in the drylands of Zimbabwe who, through careful observation of water flows across his land and careful implementation of strategies to harvest and infiltrate water, has restored the land's ability to support just such a diversity of crops.

For small farmers in developing countries, attaining food security is often the most important goal to be achieved. For small farmers in more developed countries, who do not face such immediate pressure to achieve food security, the main challenge may be to develop a niche market in which they can compete against larger, highly capitalized agribusinesses. Many such farmers have responded to the challenge by growing labor-intensive specialty crops or by moving to techniques that are becoming more attractive to consumers, such as organic farming. Even then, however, farmers face the challenge of marketing their crops, a time-consuming effort. In such cases, a reliable marketing firm acting as a "middle man" can be a valuable tool. New Harvest Organics, an Arizona-based organic marketing firm, is such a tool for organic farmers in Arizona and northern Mexico.

There seems little dispute that large-scale farming and agribusinesses are here to stay. In fact, in a diverse world, such large-scale techniques can have an important role to play. Nonetheless, diversity on the global scale is as important as diversity within any one given ecosystem. Small farmers, growing a wide variety of indigenous and/or regionally appropriate crops, using techniques that promote and preserve genetic diversity, and providing niche crops that may not be appropriate for large-scale farming, are themselves an important link in the preservation of the cultural and biological diversity that ultimately benefits us all.

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