farming vouple looking over their cattle

Why Farmers Farm—Understanding the Complexities of Farming Decisions

Growing food to support their families. An obvious answer to why farmers farm takes courage and intimacy with risk.

Why farmers farm—because they want to; they can make a livelihood and a lifestyle by using the land to produce food and fibre. 

Farmers have been around for 12,000 years. They were the stars of pre-history and the foundation of every social system on record. No king or despot could rule without them. Today most urban dwellers have never met a farmer and would starve if farmers decided not to farm. 

Generations of people have grown food and fibre for themselves and others. The apparent reason why farmers farm was to feed the family with a little leftover for rent, taxes, and tithes. It was a hand-to-mouth existence for many but still way more efficient than gathering and hunting.

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 mostly local requirements with little or no surplus—feeding about 2 billion people in 500 million households in rural areas of developing nations. 

In the last 100 years, some farmers have adopted technology and fossil fuel inputs to grow vast amounts of food on larger farms using intensive agriculture systems. These farmers leverage external energy, initially from animals, literally horsepower, and then from machines driven by internal combustion engines to focus plant production into food for others, hopefully at a profit.

Subsistence and intensive agriculture tell us broadly why farmers farm, but little about the detail.

A farm scene in Asia with rice paddies on the side of a hill
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 given the long history and massive volume of farming, we would know in intimate detail why farmers farm 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 they grow, how to grow it, and whether to rear livestock or mix them in with crops. 

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

It is not for want of effort. 

Researchers in many disciplines, from agronomy to economics, sociology, and even psychology, have all tried to understand how and why farmers make decisions. 

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

It seems there are many influences on farmers, from their families 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 often under strain financially, from the technical demands of the job, sheer physicality and even from the weather. Their health and safety are at risk from the manual labour that comes with the job. Farming is still one of the most dangerous professions.

They are isolated in rural areas with few connections to their fellow farmers and a long way from their customers. 

And if all this wasn’t enough, there is the psychological pressure that every year there has to be some production to eat or to sell. The niggle that the crop might fail or the livestock succumb to a disease is a constant stress.

It takes courage to be a farmer. 

An Asian farmer tending his field—why farmers farm because they want to
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.

Why farmers farm—not just profit

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

It’s about how humans decide and how complex decisions can be given 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
  • stickers or twisters once the risk is clear
  • environmentally friendly or not. 

The truth is that farmers are all these to various degrees. 

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

The family effect cannot be understated.

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

There are many context-specific examples like this. Solutions at the local level come down to fully understanding not just how innovation improves production efficiency or how much more profit there is in it but in how innovation is communicated and developed and how innovation sits within a range of values and requirements that people have in their lives.

Farmers do what they do as rational economic actors and as emotional human beings with their notions of risk and reward that go beyond profit.

Fewer farmers 

What we know is that farmers worldwide 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.

The rural workforce has declined dramatically since the arrival of the internal combustion engine in the early 1900s. Fewer farmers are an overlooked consequence of the intensification of agriculture. Machines powered by oil reduce the need for people and horsepower to grow an ever-increasing yield of foods.

Intensive agriculture is bigger than ever, input-driven through energy, machinery, fertilisers 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 from the farmer weeding a multi-species kitchen garden by hand. He is out there on his own in a glass sided box listening to the sound of the diesel engine and the rhythmic clatter of the bailer… or maybe a podcast.

A modern farmer can complete tasks independently with the help of the tractor that gives him the equivalent of a day’s work from 500 horses with just a gentle push with his right foot.

In all countries where intensive production dominates agriculture, the farmer has fewer people on his farm than his grandfather. This matters for future production and the mental health of today’s farmers. 

Future farms might extend the sensors to robots of all shapes and sizes that the farmer operates from an app on his phone as he sips tea on his porch.

Why farmers farm will change if the job morphs around the skills of video games, software and fixing drones.

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…

Remarkably, the mindset of farmers around the world remains elusive. Remember, these brave people grow the food that keeps us alive. And yet most of us know very little and why farmers farm.

What we should all know is that they farm with great tenacity, skill and endurance and are mostly isolated from the people who consume their produce. 

We don’t know what makes them keep doing this for us, but we should be thankful. Sure they make a living, but why to choose this career over many other more profitable, less physically demanding and less stressful options?

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, the people who eat the food that farmers grow, should be doing to help. 

We could always pay a little more for our food.

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.

Add comment

Subscribe to our explainer series

* indicates required

Most discussed