Family farming is the most common operational farming model in Europe – representing 97 percent of the European Union’s (EU) 12 million farms. Thus it is of great importance in the EU. It covers a diverse range of situations, including farms of all sizes. While there are obvious differences across regions and countries of the world when it comes to family farming, there is also much common ground. Below some of the key challenges and opportunities for family farms across the EU are identified, together with the policy solutions introduced in the EU to address them. The new 2014-2020 Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) that was agreed in 2013 offers a robust policy to maintain the rich diversity of family farms in the European agricultural sector and to ensure sustainability. The CAP continues to provide support to farmers through direct payments and measures to support agricultural, environmental and territorial development under the rural development programs. Some of these measures are of particular relevance for family farming.
Under the new direct payment regime, Member States now have the possibility to establish a simplified scheme for small farmers under which they will be able to receive annual direct support ranging from €500 to €1,250. They will be subject to reduced administrative formalities, and exempted from certain environmental obligations. Member States can also choose to pay a redistributive payment – a top-up to support small and middle-sized farms. Furthermore, a scheme will specifically address the challenge of generation renewal by giving farmers up to the age of 40 an additional top-up payment for up to five years. As part of the market measures, the reform also contains measures to enhance producers’ organizations. Under the rural development elements of the CAP, the modified European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD) also enables spending on a raft of proven measures to strengthen the sustainability of smaller family farms through regional or national rural development programs. These measures include support for training and advice, economic improvements (such as physical investments, business development), cooperation to overcome small-scale disadvantages (such as setting up producer groups, jointly developing short supply chains, new technologies), and compensation for environmental commitments (such as voluntarily improved environmental or organic farming standards).
There is a need to promote innovation within family farms, taking into account their diversity, the different natural conditions under which they operate, and their varying degrees of technological development. There are a number of obstacles to the uptake of innovation that need to be addressed: lack of access to knowledge, insufficient information flow, weak exchange of research results, and too little responsiveness to the needs of farmers. The revised CAP is ready to support innovation, whether it is led by individuals, public sector organizations, or enterprises. A fully-fledged EU innovation package is available for the agrifood sector, comprising the new rural development policy, the Europe 2020 Flagship Initiative on the Innovation Union, Horizon 2020, and the European Innovation Partnership: Agricultural productivity and sustainability. This combination of policy measures aims to encourage researchers, farmers, advisors, and other agricultural sector stakeholders to cooperate more actively. In particular, it is hoped that a more direct and systematic exchange between farming and science will accelerate the speed of technological transfer and innovation.
Agricultural cooperatives can help family farms to overcome the scale constraints inherent to smallholdings while enabling small farmers to respond more effectively to changing market demands. Participating farmers also have more power and control over production than through contract farming, making food security less vulnerable. The increased access cooperatives provide to resources, information tools and services encourages members to increase their levels of food production, while reducing transaction costs, improving quality, and creating jobs. The CAP has supported producer cooperation working through the Common Market Organisation of products, which has enabled improved coordination of specific supply chains. The CAP provides a reinforced framework for producers and other organizations, as well as support for the setting up of producer groups. These should facilitate producer cooperation by granting legal certainty, financial support, and economic advantages to willing farmers. There are also new opportunities through the European Innovation Partnership Operational Groups that can enable new and existing cooperatives to explore and develop their own working practices and penetrate new markets.
Local food supply chains make it easier for customers to identify the origin of their purchases, and they are often willing to pay a premium for fresher and healthier options. By strengthening the relationship between consumers and local farmers, such supply chains promote local family enterprises and boost regional identity. The organization of food chains is a priority in the 2014- 2020 rural development policy. The EAFRD-funded measures aim to help family farmers to sell their products directly to consumers or at least to become involved in short supply chains and to better integrate family farms into distribution channels by providing support for quality schemes, adding value to agricultural products, promotion in local markets and short supply chains, producer groups, and inter-branch organizations. In addition, the LEADER approach will continue to provide Local Action Groups with the grounds they need to support innovative and experimental approaches to stimulate direct sales and the development of local food markets, where foreseen as part of the Local Development Strategy.
Family farming has survived in Europe over centuries, re-emerging from crises, wars, and natural disasters, adjusting to changing economic fortunes, and, in some countries, to dramatic changes in a political context. This has never been a smooth and painless process, as many small farmers have disappeared over decades to give way to more efficient and competitive farms, able to adopt new inputs and technologies. It is beyond doubt that family farming will survive and will continue to be dominant in EU agriculture as far as the number of farms is concerned and that traditional smaller-scale family farming will continue to be the core of agriculture in many regions. With the majority of the EU’s farms being family farms, discussion about innovative approaches to the promotion and sustainability of the family farming model is certain to continue. The CAP’s role in addressing the challenges set out above and the new ones which will arise, not least as a result of climate change, will be key to assuring the future of the family farming sector, and with it the preservation of the EU’s rural communities and their local economies, traditions and agricultural practices.