AUSTRALIAN family farmers share much in common with their farming cousins in developing countries such as Indonesia, China and Vietnam.
But they also display some key differences, says Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) Country Programs general manager Dr Peter Horne.
Dr Horne has spent most of his professional life working in Asia on development programs aimed at improving the efficiency and productivity of smallholder agricultural value chains.
Speaking to Fairfax Agricultural Media about the International Year of the Family Farm, he said Australian farmers innovate with their own resources and are “pushed around by the vicissitudes of changing markets” as are those farmers in developing countries.
“The scale of operations and cultures are totally different but farmers in both worlds actually connect really well in the way they think around producing food for their families or for sale in different markets and ongoing seasonal challenges and land use,” he said.
Dr Horne said family farmers in developing countries face similar challenges to Australian farmers on compliance with regulations and increasing ethical demands from consumers, such as animal welfare and environmental sustainability.
However other big challenges - such as having less secure access of land tenure - differ in many cases to those faced by Australian farmers.
Dr Horne said typically, smallholder farmers in developing countries have no national safety net to protect them when various problems arose, like government drought relief funding, access to good information services and advice or other protective measures.
“Australian farmers also don’t have to deal with the same kinds of political instability that we see with farmers in some of the countries that the ACIAR works in,” he said.
Dr Horne said developing world farmers also face key challenges around declining terms of trade caused by increasing globalisation of commodity markets.
But just like Australian farmers, they are also dealing with an ageing population, with older farmers working longer while the younger generations move into cities for better work opportunities and lifestyle choices.
“When the kids get an opportunity to get off farm they do it,” he said.
The landless farmers
Dr Horne cited East Java as a key example where farms are developing, given it contains about one-third of the Indonesian beef herd and has the world’s highest rural population density.
He said many East Javanese farmers are landless people who may own a house on the side of the road with a shed at the rear, containing a few cows and calves.
Those farmers buy-in calves and fatten them up for sale along the supply chain and may also run mixed cow-calf operations, he said.
“As you drive through East Java, it’s very typical to stop at houses on the side of the road, walk out the back and see sheds with cattle in them,” he said.
“Landless people in East Java have no other source of income apart from selling their labour or having a livestock operation out the back.
“Being landless, these people have no access to their own feed resources so they collect feed resources from communal land, but of course with so many people competing, the feed resources are limited.
“They also buy-in feed resources but they do so in an information vacuum of what resources to buy, which animals they should target and how to maximise returns from the feed they buy-in.
“These people are largely vulnerable but if they manage their livestock systems well they can be quite profitable.”
Dr Horne said in East Java, a young cow aged three to four years old can produce a calf every 14 months or so, if they’re well managed, and be sold at market for twice the value of a similar animal in Australia, at around $1200.
“These cows are worth a lot of money for poor people,” he said.
“But many of these farmers have never seen the potential to improve the condition of their animals.
“Many of them have only seen skinny animals that only produce a calf once every three years, if they’re lucky, and haven’t actually seen evidence that you can change that.
“But the market demand for meat from these animals is increasing and the potential for those farmers to apply greater knowledge, to improve the quality of those animals, is huge.”
Dr Horne said the first thing East Javanese farmers will typically do with the money from selling their cows is to invest in the education of their children.
“That means there’s a direct link between improving animal productivity and improving the quality of life and choices available for people living in East Java,” he said.
“Our research support is not about trying to make agriculture more profitable to ensure that everyone stays on farm. We’re about making agriculture more profitable so farmers have more choices.”
Making the most of marginal resources
Dr Horne said East Java typically contained farms with good quality soils and solid rainfall, with a longish dry season, while further east in the province of Sumba, the farms are much drier.
He said Sumba has small home farm plots located in moist and fertile irrigated agriculture valleys, where rice is mostly grown
In between those valleys are open savannah grasslands where animals are grazed, at low productivity levels.
Dr Horne said Vietnam contained family farms similar to Sumba where animals are grazed on hillsides, while irrigated rice crops are grown in more intensive fertile locations.
He said small farming families throughout Vietnam are facing new pressures from climate change, which is increasing weather variability and the frequency of natural disasters like typhoons.
Another challenge, he said, especially in marginal cropping areas, is the low reliability of rainfall and unpredictability of when each growing season starts and ends.
“That’s a really big challenge for farmers living on the edge,” he said.
“They’re saying, ‘I used to know when to plant my crops but I just don’t know any more. We’re supposed to be harvesting now but it’s still raining, so what’s going on?’.”
Dr Horne said family farms are a lot bigger in the northern regions of China where there’s 400 million hectares of grasslands.
“Increasingly the Chinese government is allocating long term usage rights to individual families,” he said.
“A typical family farm in inner Mongolia may be allocated 200-300ha of grass lands where they graze animals.
“They have a very short growing season in summer and in winter the temperature gets to minus 20 degrees - so it’s not easy land to make a living off.”
Dr Horne said family farms in the lower valleys of Tibet are similar in size and operation to those in Eastern Indonesia where a typical family farm measures about 1ha growing irrigated barley or wheat with some livestock grazing across hillsides.