Subsistence and semi-subsistence farming in Europe: a challenge to EU and national policies
Date of writing: April 24, 2009
Author(s) of the proposal: Professor Michael Dower
About 10 million of the 14 million farms in the EU are under 5 hectares in size. Of this total, two-thirds are operating at subsistence level, the other third mainly on a semi-subsistence basis. They are the homes of 10 million households; they offer a sole or primary source of livelihood to these families ; they manage significant areas of land; they contribute to food supplies and to local and national economies. Coherent polices are needed to ensure their well-being.
A subsistence farm is one that produces food mainly to feed the farm family, with very limited surplus (if any) for sale or for barter. A semi-subsistence farm is one which produces enough surplus, beyond the family’s own needs, to sell for regular income. In crude terms, governments tend to regard farms of less than 1 hectare as subsistence, 1 to 5 hectares as semi-subsistence.
According to Eurostat figures for 2005, subsistence holdings are found in all EU countries except Denmark and the Netherlands. In the EU-15 countries, they totalled 940 000, less than 17% of all farms : in EU-12 they totalled 5.7 million, over 65% of all farms. Most of them are found in eastern Member States, notably Romania, Poland, Hungary and Bulgaria. But their numbers are also high in southern Member States such as Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal. Romania had the most subsistence farms, with 3 million. Poland had 1.4 million, Hungary 557 000, Bulgaria 416 000 and Italy 348 000.
As for semi-subsistence farms, the EU statistics do not use this term. But the figures for farms under 5 hectares in size suggest that in 2005 the most significant numbers of such size were in Italy 923 000, Romania 850 000, Greece 480 000, Spain 457 000, Poland 357 000, France 108 000 and Bulgaria 95 000. Every EU country had some farms of this size, with Luxembourg having the smallest total of 510.
These small farms are significant for a number of reasons. Their number is gradually falling. But they are the homes of over 9 million households, who form a large part of the rural communities in many of the host regions. They offer a sole or primary source of livelihood to these families. Small farmers manage significant areas of land, for example 63% of useable farm land in Romania. They contribute to food supplies and to local and national economies. Some of this contribution falls within the informal economy, but informal food supplies can sustain not only the farm families but also their neighbours and their extended families, including those who have moved to the cities. Traditional farming helps to sustain landscapes and biodiversity habitats with high nature values.
So, those who live on these farms should be seen not only as farmers (or at least as food producers), and as actual or potential entrepreneurs, but also as important managers of EU land and as rural citizens whose quality of life is a motive for rural development.
This poses a significant policy challenge. Younger members of many farm families are looking outwards to the cities, or even to other countries, for their education, jobs and future prospects.
But out-migration weakens the rural communities and can cause a vicious cycle whereby reduced population leads to loss of services which further weakens the economy and the community. The loss of economic and social vitality may cause farming activity to cease, threatening maintenance of high environmental quality.
Reversing this cycle of decline will depend upon action to improve the economy of farms; to add value to farm products; to pay farmers to protect the ecosystems and landscapes that depend upon traditional farming practices; to promote diversified sources of income, such as tourism or other service provisions; and to sustain and strengthen the social infrastructure.
The need is for an integrated approach within rural development programmes, achieving a ‘win-win-win’ of social stability, economic viability and environmental quality.
Small farms are social, environmental and economic assets – significant as homes and sources of livelihood for millions of people, as maintainers of valuable landscape and ecosystems, and as contributors to food supplies and to local and national economies. The flexible use of measures under all Axes of the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development can help the survival of traditional farming communities, in which some farms are supported to become competitive, others are enabled to develop alternative sources of income, and the communities generally are helped to improve their quality of life and to maintain the high-quality environments that traditional farming has produced.
Contribution of Michael Dower to “Which Europe do we want?” initiative -2009
Professor Michael Dower, University of Gloucestershire, England, member of Forum Synergies and PREPARE networks.
Scale of intervention : European