About 500 million family farmers will take the spotlight Thursday as the world celebrates World Food Day 2014, an event recognized by The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
According to FAO, family farming includes agricultural activities managed and operated by a family that are predominantly reliant on family labor.
Based on data from 93 countries, family farmers account for an average of 80% of all holdings, and are the main producers of food that is consumed locally, FAO said.
"The world cannot do without the family farmer," says Amy McMillen, Partnerships and Outreach Coordinator for FAO. "It's because of the family farmer that we eat a variety of healthy foods every day.
"And yet, family farmers still make up the majority of poor and hungry people in the world. We must do more to incentivize, celebrate and exponentially improve the lives of family farmers to ensure all people have access to fresh, healthy food."
Survey of family farmers, family members working off-the-farm
On World Food Day, Humanitas Global, FAO and Food Tank reveal the results from a new survey of 75 North American family farmers at the Borlaug Dialogue in Des Moines, Iowa.
The results show the plans of farmers who have chosen to remain on the farm, those who have taken up farming for the first time, and those who have moved away from the farm.
A consistent takeaway from the results demonstrates that North American-based family farmers remain committed to family farming.
"The survey results and our conversations with farmers reinforce a deep affinity for family farming, but they also show that farmers are torn between a love for the land and trying to make ends meet," said Nabeeha M. Kazi, President & CEO of Humanitas Global and Chair of the Community for Zero Hunger.
"For those who no longer work the family farm, the importance of feeding their communities and the world remains very much part of their identity," Kazi said.
Seventy-nine percent of survey respondents who have left the family farm said they remain involved in agriculture in their current careers. In addition, a majority of those who have left the family farm said they intend on returning in the future.
Kazi said the results illustrate the importance of keeping the universe of family farmers alive.
"We must have policies, programs and resources to enable family farmers to stay on the farm if they desire to do so and perform at their potential," Kazi said. "However, we also cannot overlook the power of those who have left the farm. These individuals have tremendous and highly credible voices as we promote and protect the family farm.
"We should deploy them to inform policy, shape programs and amplify the story of the family farmer in diverse spaces," Kazi said.
Commitment despite challenges
The greatest challenges for family farmers today include the cost of land, labor costs, government regulations and policies, climate change and the inherent risk of farming, as well as the disproportionate amount of work required given the financial returns, the survey results indicate.
"The survey results show that family farmers do not rely on farming alone to pay the bills," Kazi said. "Approximately 67% of respondents to the survey said that a family member's income or additional part-time work supplements income from farming."
On the positive side, a connection with the land and food systems, independence and working outdoors were all cited as the principle advantages of being a farmer.
Those who grew up and remained on farms, those who left farms to pursue other careers and new family farmers all spoke of tending to the land and watching food grow as the most fulfilling aspects of being a farmer.
Related: 30 Days on a Prairie Farm: Family
"Family farmers are facing economic challenges and beyond," says Danielle Neirenberg, President of Food Tank. "In addition to tools and resources, family farmers are concerned about issues that all Americans worry about – including providing health care for their families and higher education for their children. And yet, so many people stay on the family farm or are committed to returning, because farming is fulfilling, intellectually stimulating and challenging – and it has shaped their values."
Neirenberg points out that the commitment to family farming is unwavering. She notes that many respondents who have left the family farm said they still pitch in on the farm when they can. Many went on to say that if no one was available to tend the family farm, they would return home to take over rather than lose it.
The challenges that family farmers face in the United States and throughout North America mirror the challenges seen globally. Climate change, low profitability and better off-farm opportunities all emerge as the greatest global threats to family farming.
"Recognizing the external pressures on family farming, many which the global community can help alleviate, is crucial if we are to make family farming viable and desirable for the next generation," McMillan said.