farming vouple looking over their cattle

Why do farmers do what they do?

We know that farmers grow food but why do they do it?

Farmers have been around for 12,000 years. 

The obvious reason to be a farmer is to feed your family with a little leftover for rent, taxes, and tithes. Generations of people have grown food and fibre for themselves and others. 

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), there are at least 570 million farms in the world today, most of them “smallholder” farms working less than 2 hectares (5 acres) of land. 

Many of these small farms operate subsistence agriculture—farm output for survival and for mostly local requirements with little or no surplus—that feeds about 2 billion people in 500 million households living in rural areas of developing nations. 

In the last 100 years or so some farmers have adopted technology and fossil fuel inputs to grow vast amounts of food on much larger farms using systems of intensive agriculture. These farmers grow food for others, hopefully at a profit.

Subsistence and intensive agriculture tell us broadly ‘why farmers do what they do’, but little about the detail.

photo by Quang Nguyen Vinh from Pexels

Rice paddies terraced in small fields grow much of the rice consumed in Asia

Farming takes courage

You would think that with such history and volume of farming we would know in intimate detail what farmers do and why they choose to do it. 

Instead, the specific choices farmers make are still something of a mystery. Not so much whether a farmer wants to be a farmer, but what he or she grows, how to grow it, whether to rear livestock or mix them in with crops. 

Why farmers choose a farming system (the strategy of food production) or the specifics of tillage, sowing, variety, fertilizer use, herbicide application, irrigation, harvest and post-harvest processing (the farming practices) are poorly known by the research community. 

Researchers would deny this of course and it is not for want of effort. 

Researchers in many disciplines from agronomy to economics, sociology, and even psychology, have all had a go at trying to understand how and why farmers make decisions. 

Despite piles of evidence, the conclusions as to why farmers do what they do are of the “well, maybe because” variety. 

It seems there are many influences on farmers, from their family to their mates, money, tradition, the environment, peer pressure, and government policy. 

And as with all humans, into the mix is a bunch of behaviour that is not always rational.

Farmers tend to exist outside of what is normal for city folk because they have unique situations and decisions to make. They are at risk, financially and from the weather, even to their own health and safety from the manual labour that comes with the job. Farming is still one of the most dangerous professions.

Isolated in rural areas with a handful of connections to their fellow farmers and a long way from their customers. 

It takes courage to be a farmer.  

Photo by Syed Rifat Hossain on Unsplash

Failure to get up and till the field or harvest the crop means the family does not eat.

Not just profit

Researchers still don’t understand farming decisions because profit only explains some of them. There is a human or two in the mix. 

It’s about how humans decide and how complex that can be in relation to different cultural and contextual circumstances. What you do, where you do, is a function of what you are and where you are. 

And that makes any generalities quite hard to pin down. 

So the researchers and the non-farmers can’t decide whether farmers are 

  • risk-averse or risk-takers 
  • conservative or liberal
  • whether they will stick to a particular decision or twist 
  • environmentally friendly or not. 

Farmers are all these things to various degrees. 

They are a complex mix of people with a common link and that is that they are primary producers using natural resources to create saleable commodities. 

A fascinating study of innovation uptake by farmers, one of dozens undertaken across the world, showed that uptake will stall unless the communication is undertaken by women in the community who needed the innovation to be portable so that they could actually show it to their friends. 

And there are a lot of specific context examples like this where the solution at the local level comes down to fully understanding not just the production factor or the production efficiency or how much profit you’re going to make from an innovation. But in how the innovation is communicated and developed and sits within a range of values and requirements that people have in their lives. 

Fewer farmers 

There are fewer farmers than before.

What we do know is that farmers across the world are fewer in number than in the historical past. 

graph of the number of farmers in selected countries showing a decline with agricutlural intensification

The number of farmers in selected countries shows a decline consistent with the onset of agricultural intensification from the use of oil that began in the early 1900s.

This reduction in the rural workforce is an overlooked consequence of the intensification of agriculture. Fewer employees are needed to grow an ever-increasing yield of foods thanks to mechanisation and inputs of energy and nutrients.

Intensive agriculture is bigger, input-driven through energy, machinery, fertilizers and pesticides at a scale not seen even in the most complex subsistence systems.  

The farmer on a tractor covered in sensors and guided by a satellite is a different person to the farmer weeding a multi-species kitchen garden by hand.

Tractors have reduced the need for human labour but they still have to be driven across the fields—photo by Ofir Eliav from Pexels

What sustainably FED suggests…

It is remarkable that the mindset of farmers around the world remains elusive. Remember these brave people grow the food that keeps us alive.

They do it with great tenacity and are mostly isolated from the people who consume their produce. 

We don’t know what makes them keep doing this for us. 

We have no idea if they are happy, sad, stressed or rolling along to the bank with this year’s wad of cash. We don’t know if there is anything we should be doing to help.

This needs to change because feeding everyone well is only possible if farmers do what they do.

Hero image modified from a photo by Jessica Rockowitz on Unsplash


Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

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