Family farmers living with climate change

26 June 2017

Even though the current president of the USA, Donald Trump, denies climate change, for hundreds of millions of small scale family farmers it has become a daily reality. “We are living with climate change,” say farmers in the Sahel. “We just have to deal with it.” People have always lived with unpredictable circumstances but due to climate change these have become more violent and more unpredictable.

Agroecology is about climate resilient family farming. What makes the strategies of agroecological farmers unique and resilient? In the December issue of Farming Matters in 2013, Jan Douwe van der Ploeg wrote an insightful article about ten qualities of family farming. With the help of his ‘ten qualities’ flower I will attempt a basic answer to this question.

Knowledge about agriculture and biodiversity: The family is a place for knowledge building. Family farmers share and build knowledge about crops, animals, trees, weather signals, seeds, insects, soils, risk management, and the landscape wherein they live. Men and women farmers hold different complementary knowledge. This knowledge does not exist in a vacuum, it is there because family farms exist. This knowledge is unfolding every day and is crucial for climate resilient farming.

Power balance: In the farm family there is cooperation and sometimes conflict. The aim of the farm family is to provide continuity over the generations. However, there may be a skewed division of labour, or unequal access to and control over resources between men and women, and between generations. Climate change can worsen imbalances and thus contribute to ‘resilience deficits’, i.e. farm families struggle to deal with crisis after crisis and land in downward spirals. It is crucial to invest in the resilience of family farmers as a core strategy in development, and to look for upward spirals to restore power balances within farm families.

Nexus between family, farm and agroecology: As Jan Douwe van der Ploeg says, the farm-family nexus is at the core of many decisions about the development of the farm. There is yet another connection here. The farm- family nexus provides an ideal setting for agroecological practices to be developed, tested and shared. Family farming and agroecology go well together. This does not mean that all family farms are agroecological or vice versa. But many stories published in Farming Matters over the years show that the ten qualities of family farming are coherent with the logic of agroecology.

Edith van Walsum ( is the director of ILEIA.