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Small farms can be beautiful – how farmers’ markets changed attitudes and policies in Colombia

October 20, 2011
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As a curtain raiser for this week’s GROW Week at Oxfam (see bottom of this post), this piece appeared on the Guardian Poverty Matters site last Friday, as my contribution to Sunday’s Blog Action Day, which this year PLAZA BOLIVAR 4628 BAJA REScoincided with World Food Day. I’ll also be doing on online Q&A (on Facebook) on the issues behind the campaign from 1-2pm tomorrow (Friday 21st October).

Small farmers get a bad press: developing country governments often see them as a developmental throwback and hanker after the glitter of modernity offered by large-scale investment in biofuels or export crops. Aid agencies and donor governments with more money than staff prefer the scale the big farms can offer. But there are at least two good reasons for sticking with a small-is-beautiful approach.

First, investing in small farmers brings a developmental double whammy: it helps put food into circulation and at the same time boosts the income of some of the poorest people on the planet – small farmers. It is an enduring and horrible irony that the people who grow the food are often also the ones who go hungry, because their crops are too paltry, or prices too low, for their harvest to see them through the year.  Jobless agribusiness growth in the farm sector won’t help those people; boosting small farm output will.

Secondly, helping small farmers get access to the kinds of things big farmers take for granted – bank loans, technical support, land rights, can have a catalytic effect on their productivity. That particularly goes for women farmers, who in many countries grow most of the food, but have least access to such support. Forget all those myths about stick-in-the-mud peasants – most small farmers are businesspeople, keen to experiment, manage risk, break into new markets and better themselves.

One example from dozens in Oxfam’s work around the world. Small-farmers supply 67 per cent of the food consumed in Colombia’s capital Bogotá (7 million population), but they weren’t earning a decent price for their produce. Much of the produce sold in urban markets is handled by commercial intermediaries, who buy from individual producers at low prices and then sell high.

So Oxfam teamed up with local NGOs and peasant organizations and tried to find out what the problem was by asking the key decision makers – for example, government officials who thought that the peasant economy was no longer viable and that “The peasants are lazy, they support the armed groups, they take advantage of the drug mafias, and take their cut growing coca.” What emerged was the need to change attitudes towards peasant farmers, both among officials, and the urban public.

The timing was propitious: in 2004, the Office of the Mayor of Bogotá had begun to speak openly for the first time about poverty and food security. It had drawn up a draft ‘Food Supply Master Plan’, but this failed to recognize the potential of small producers. The plan was based on obtaining food supplies for the minimum possible price, but did not consider the needs of producers or the potential for reducing rural poverty. Instead of a minimum price, campaigners demanded a ‘fair price’ principle.

The Mayor’s Office remained sceptical of the peasants’ ability to supply food efficiently, so the project organized farmers’ markets in strategic locations around the city, including the main square. Officials and shoppers were duly impressed by the level of organization and capacity on display, but also by the prices. Monitoring showed that the average net increase in prices for farmers was 64 per cent in wholesale markets and 52% in retail while urban consumers also benefited, paying average prices lower by some 15 per cent (a bit different from farmers’ markets in the UK…..).

MDG--Food-in-Colombia--A--007The markets, backed by some savvy media work, got the message home. The Mayor agreed to revise the city’s plan to one based on fair prices, and backed it up with some investment to help small producers supply the city and representation for small farmers on the relevant committees.

Since then, more than 30 municipalities in the area around Bogotá have decided to organize their own local markets; Bogotá’s Mayor has signed contracts with five other regional governments pledging to increase rural investment for food production and we’re now trying to replicate the initiative in Medellín and Cali, the two other mayoral cities in Colombia.

There are hundreds of millions of small farmers who could benefit from schemes like these. When it comes to ending hunger, how food is grown and marketed (and who by) matters at least as much as growing more of it.


  1. Thanks Duncan, nice round up and example. There is a third (and often neglected) aspect to investment in small scale farming, where these farmers are (or want to be) supplying regional and global supply chains. As you say, small scale farmers are genrally far more ambitious than often assumed.
    Increasing trade in products produced on smallholder farms can help make trade work in terms of job creation and distributional benefits (as more benefit captured locally) in ways that it is too often failing to do currently according to the recent report by ILO and the EU:

    Well worth a read.

  2. Dear Duncan.
    I am an avid reader of your blog, congratulations on keeping us informed about the latest issues on development. The experience you talk about this time regarding small farmers getting access to local market, it’s something in my country (Nicaragua) has worked too, but in just very small scale, I think that is the case here, because there are no major players behind it, like there is in the Colombian case (Oxfam, the mayor, other local NGO´s), I am pretty sure if such support could be a reality here, the benefits would be likely the same.
    I would like to know more about the specific aspects of this experience. If you have some link or document where I could find this information I would appreciate it. I would like promote a similar model (even in smaller scale) here.
    Thanks a lot and keep the good work!
    Julio Espinoza.

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