Does farm size influence environmental outcomes?

A widely-accepted justification for subsidising agriculture is that we need to prevent the emergence of the industrialised, mono-cultural agriculture which is the inevitable result of an efficiency-based, cost-oriented farming model by protecting the diversified, environmentally-friendly small farmer in order to maintain the positive environmental benefits of European agriculture. This is part of the philosophy of agrarianism which underpins much discussion of agricultural policy.

Let us leave aside for the moment the fact that the bulk of existing farm subsidies go to larger farmers rather than smaller ones, so that even if the thesis above is valid, current agricultural policy does not support it. My interest is in the evidence for the thesis itself. Is it the case that small farms are better for the environment?

In principle, there are three reasons why this might be the case, even controlling for differences in farming system and underlying natural conditions. The first has to do with the scale differences between small and large farms. Small farms mean more varied field structures, more hedgerows and more patches of uncultivated land. Large farms are more likely to have larger field sizes, and thus fewer hedgerows and fewer niches of unproductive land.

The second argument has to do with production intensity. If larger farms are more intensively managed and use more fertiliser, for example, then they will have less biodiversity and are more likely to cause water pollution.

The third argument has to do with farmers’ attitudes. Small farmers, it is argued, have a more empathetic relationship with their land and nature, whereas larger farmers (who may well be absentee owners) have a more utilitarian, rationalistic attitude. The outcome again will be more environmentally-friendly farming on smaller farms.

There is certainly some empirical evidence in support of this proposition. Belfrage and colleagues at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences compared the diversity and abundance of birds as well as butterflies, bumblebees and herbaceous plants between six small farms and six large farms in southeastern Sweden. Two of the large and four of the small farms were organic. More than twice as many bird species and territories, butterflies, and herbaceous plant species, and five times more bumblebees were found on the small compared to the large farms. Differences were also noted between small and large organic farms: 56% more bird species were found on small organic than on large organic farms, although none of these farms used any pesticides.

Levin in a Danish study noted that there exists a strong positive relationship between large farms and mean field size and a strong negative relationship between large farms and densities of uncultivated grass.

Marini and colleagues
examined plant, orthopteran (crickets and grasshoppers) and butterfly diversity in 132 hay meadows in a region of the Italian Alps, distinguishing between three farm size groups. They found a negative influence of farm size on species richness of the three taxonomic groups. Large farms were strongly associated with higher production of organic fertilizers and higher soil fertility than small traditional farms, controlling for meadow slope, thus reducing the observed biodiversity.

There are many ways to elicit farmer attitudes to environmental conservation, including their willingness to enrol in agri-environment schemes. Vanslembrouck and colleagues from the Department of Agricultural Economics at Ghent University examined farmers’ willingness to participate in an agri-environment measure in Belgium, namely, to adopt buffer strips or unsprayed field margins. In their analysis, larger farms were more willing to adopt the measure, controlling for other variables.

This evidence is thus not unambiguous but does give credence to the belief that small farms may be more environmentally-friendly. In the Italian study, this led to the policy conclusion that “regional stakeholders should consider measures to prevent or at least to reduce the ongoing structural transformation of farms”.

However, there is a further argument that trying to maintain biodiversity and landscape amenities by subsidising larger numbers of relatively unproductive farms to remain in existence is an expensive way for society to buy these environmental benefits. At least in principle, a targeted scheme where we would pay farmers for desired environmental benefits directly could work out cheaper in the long run.

Directly contracting for environmental benefits would also allow some geographic targeting if (as is likely) it is not possible to prioritise the production of environmental goods over food production in all areas (I assume here, of course, that all farmers are required to observe minimum standards of environmental regulation).

On the other hand, the transactions costs of targeted environmental contracting can be very high, which is why environmental organisations continue to support a low flat-rate payment to all farmers in return for compliance with specific environmental conditions.

It would be interesting to hear of other experiences relevant to this debate.

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2 Replies to “Does farm size influence environmental outcomes?”

  1. My impression is that the small versus large debate is rather misleading. It is true that most of Europe High Nature Value (HNV) farming is done by smaller family farms, though not always (e.g. some of the the best wildlife habitat in Europe is huge holdings in the Spanish dehesas). It is also true that consolidation is usually accompanied by modernisation and intensification, which usually are detrimental to biodiversity. On the other hand, widespread experience from many European countries suggests that it is often the larger/ more “commercial” farmers that are more open to new management practices, be it agri-environment schemes, more rational use of pesticides and fertilizers or, in some cases, even organic farming. What is clear is that the relative performances of big/small and “more traditional”/”more market led” farmers changes hugely from one context to the other. This leads me to the conclusion that it is very inefficient to use size as a proxy for policy targeting or to spend money simply on slowing down change, regardless of its nature. The EU should indeed worry about the spread of highly destructive industrial farming but this should be mainly addressed through sound regulation and enforcement. A first step would be to shut down the flood of subsidies that is currently channelled precisely to the kind of big monocultures and factory farms that our politicians profess to abhor. The latest round of export subsidies to low-quality mass-produced cheese, which can only profit unsustainable housed operations and the even less sustainable corn and soya businesses that feed them, is a case in point. On the other hand, we should support our straggling HNV systems, but this is better done upfront and at face value. Let us attach support to the delivery of the environmental practices we need, on the basis of transparent contracts between farmers and society. Such a system would probably help the survival of many small family farms, but it would be based on a clear link between policy objective and delivery tool, rather than on indirect conjectures that are ever open to being highjacked by vested interests.

  2. Alan raises an important issue that indeed needs our attention. I side with Ariel that the issue is much more complicated than the research findings that Alan reports, suggest. Let me illustrate the complexity on some points, in the hope it helps in the end in clarifying the issue and setting up even more proper research.

    First issue is that small farmers sometimes grow other crops than large farmers and small farmers can have reasons to use their land more intensively, which can have envrionmental impacts. This holds especially for small ‘professional’ farms. On the other hand there are many small farms that depend on an income from other sources (diversification, pluri-activity, no need for passing the farm to the next generation) and they are probably less intensive than large farms (as some of the research cited by Alan suggests). I think that studies should at least measure and perhaps control for this. If my observation is correct, one wonders if we have to pay farms that have a non-farm income or in a retirement situation, and we would also not like to pay small farms that pollute more than larger ones.

    Second issue is that larger farms tend to have better management, due to a kind of survival bias: assume that all farm successors have the same chance of being a good or a less good manager, the effect will be that good managers on small farms will grow their farm large (and bad managers on big farms perhaps sell some land to stay in business, so they become smaller). This better management might imply a better environmental performance on larger farms, but that is then not an effect of being large but being a good manager (and policy analists might wonder if an investment in human capital via management courses is not a better investment than targeting subsidies to farm size).

    Third issue is that larger farms are more responsive to external developments and indeed policies, not only as a result of their superiour management but because they are more integrated in markets: lower margins, more paid costs, more leverage (more debts). So they have to be more adaptive to trends in markets and are more in contact with accountants, bank managers etc. They have to obey Charles Darwin’s conclusion that not force nor intelligence but adaptation to the environment is essential for survival. But once again: this is not so much an issue of size, as well as one of management and business model.

    Fourth there is the fact that the size of fields and farm size are different things. With fields I do not mean the area of certain crops but the physical field (with hedgerows or ditches or (public) roads or forests around it. Reallotment schemes and land improvement projects in the 50s and 60s have lead to larger fields, and this has given larger farms a bad name. But once this field structure is protected (or when it is too expensive to clear those hedgerows), you cannot see from the road if the area is owned / used by 1, 5 or 10 farmers. Larger farms do not split up certain fields over 2 or 3 crops but that can hardly be noticed by an outsider and I wonder if this has an effect on biodiversity. To say it in a different way: if the grassland in Ireland would be used by 25% less farmers than we have today, that as such would probably not have an effect on the environmental impact of that farming – as long as the current field structure is respected / protected.

    Fifth point is that the definition of a ‘farm’ has become blurred. Research in Europe and in the US shows that the goverance-structure of farms is becoming increasingly complex, as a result of specialisation, contracts and policies (I know several farmers who have or are engaged in several farm operations or farms, and for business reasons (risk management) as well as fears of modulation, they keep these farms as separate legal entities).

    And to conclude: there is a difference between environmental effects per ha and per kg of product. Which leads to something to think about to conclude with: it is probably not a bad idea to farm intensively and accept some environmental effects per ha on good soils with high yields, as (given a certain demand for food) this frees other areas for nature or very low input farming with a high biodiversity.

    Which probably means that policy analysts should stress that the government should pay for those [public] goods that they want to see extra, and tax (or forbid) the negative externalities. Using small or large farms, or even ha’s as such as an indicator is not very targetted.
    And good research into Alan’s question is needed. Driving back from Berlin to Holland last week, I think I’ve spotted some areas east and west of the old iron curtain where most circumstances are the same, but not farm size (and perhaps management): an area for an in depth empirical investigation?

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