World Agriculture Watch

FAO’s definitions of family farming

Substantive definition: Family farming is “a means of organizing agricultural, forestry, fisheries, pastoral and aquaculture production which is managed and operated by a family and predominantly reliant on family capital and labour, including both women’s and men’s. The family and the farm are linked, co-evolve and combine economic, environmental, social and cultural functions.”

Statistical definition: “A family farm is an agricultural holding which is managed and operated by a household and where farm labour is largely supplied by that household.”

WAW’s working definition of family farming

FAO adopted these definitions of family farms during the International Year of Family Farming (IYFF) in 2014. For operational and analysis purposes, WAW defines family farming as “a form of agricultural operation in which domestic and farming activities are intrinsically linked. Family farms rely solely on family workers and do not have any permanent hired labour. Productive assets and family heritage are deeply rooted in family farms.”

This working definition allows us to undertake analysis based on a predefined set of criteria and differs from many of the normative definitions countries adopt for policy and project purposes. It allows us to gauge and quantify the importance of family farming – something that is not possible using current information systems, as there is no agreed definition of family farming to date.

The definition further places emphasis on the social unit that is the workforce of the majority of farms around the world. This can be just a single worker or couple in western EU countries, but in most of the developing world, the family (in all its many forms) is the social unit in charge of agricultural production. 

Documenting labour is crucial

Family labour is the engine of agriculture, but labour use and tasks tend to be poorly documented in censuses and surveys. Agricultural output is of economic interest to governments, so priority is given to land-area and production data for statistical purposes.

Documenting family labour and the wide range of activities performed locally or by migrants gives us an opportunity to understand the rationale behind pluriactivity (the combination of farm and non-farm activities performed by a farming household) and migration strategies.

Documenting family and hired labour is also way to address issues of social protection and the provision of public services, such as access to clean water, sanitation, energy and schooling.

Labour is a key asset for family farms

The input of farms and households is key to making policy and investment work and essential to agricultural transformation, as final decisions on resource allocation and investment are made at farm and household level.

Most studies focus on agriculture from the perspective of economic activity and neglect to document the social dimension of the family. Most often, they do not document the non-agricultural activities and income that underpin the resilience of family farming.

Labour is often the main means of investment in family farming, with neighbouring family farmers in all continents joining efforts to improve the management of natural resources and creating landscapes that limit erosion and increase low-cost water capture.

This organizational  component demonstrates the close relationship between the social (domestic) sphere and the economic sphere. It explains in part the resilience of family farms. The fluidity of family farms’ operating and domestic budgets and the fungibility of their operating and asset capital allow adjustments to limit the effects of shocks.

Other types of farm

Family business farms fall within the definition of family farms, as they have many characteristics in common. What makes them different, however, is their use of paid labour. Consequently, we define family business farms as agricultural holdings that combine family labour and permanent paid labour.

Corporate farming refers to forms of organization of agricultural production where the holdings exclusively use paid labour. The operating capital is owned by private or public actors who are disconnected from family logics.

Three policy areas