Why are farmers leaving farming?

Why are farmers leaving farming?

A study by the CSDS (Centre for the Study of Developing Societies) which covered 18 states with a sample size of 5350 houses in India from December 2013-Jan 2014 reports that

36% of farmers reported that they live in huts or kutcha’ houses, while 44% live in mixed houses.  Only 18% of the farmers reported living in independent houses.

These statistics already portend downward trending statistics for farmers. The lack of independent houses is an economic reality – farming is not sufficient for these farmers to have a proper roof over their head.

28% of the farmers were found to be illiterate, with just about 6% having attended college. 83% of the farmers considered agriculture to be their main profession.

Approximately, every one in 10 households reported having to subsist without food on many occasions. Most households also had only two meals a day, with only 34 percent having all three meals.

10% of farmers were part of a collective farmers organization, with about 60% being smallholders owning 1-3 acres of land. 75% of farmers reported having been engaged in farming for more than 10 years. 79% of the farmers reported as farming being the main source of income.

40% of the farmers reported that given a choice, they would choose other professions over that of farming. There was a positive correlation between size of land and interest in farming, with farmers having lesser land expressing more disinterest in farming. A significant portion of these farmers reported that they found agriculture to be risky and stressful

Among the farmers who liked farming, about 60% reported that they like it because of their ancestry. Only 10% of farmers reported that they liked their profession because of good income. 

An interesting observation is that 67% of women in the farming households reported that income from farming wasn’t sufficient, while just about 24% of youth of the household are interested in further pursuing farming.

Just about 15% of farmers viewed that farming was in a good condition.

In east and central India, irrigation was found to be the biggest problem faced by farmers, while in the South and the West, it was low productivity rates. A majority of farmers also believed that the state and federal governments were responsible for their plight.

70% of farmers also reported having lost their crops in a period of 3 years. 15% of the farmers reported having known someone in their area to have committed suicide.
[1] https://www.lokniti.org/media/upload_files/Report%20Farmer%20Survey.pdf

51% of farmers said that government schemes help ‘big and rich farmers only’. 39% preferred city-life to their rural lives.

To address these issues, two solutions have been proposed. One involves providing non-farming opportunities for farmers in urban centers, but this has been challenged by others who propose that the key to poverty alleviation rests in empowering smallholders, as urban centers will not be able to keep pace with the migration rates which can potentially exacerbate poverty. Conversely, the second argument foregrounds the importance of agricultural development and uplifting this sector instead of orchestrating migrations to urban centers. 

Research pertaining to farmers who want to quit farming is, however, scarce. Research in developing countries about the same is still lesser.

A study conducted by Bina Agarwal et al. points out that farmers who have larger landholdings, even if not linearly, express more satisfaction with farming. However, diminishing returns are seen in satisfaction after certain hectares. Access to irrigation and groundwater is also a potential factor for farmers to be satisfied.

Farmers who disliked farming also tended to be unaware or had lesser access to government schemes such as Minimum Support Prices, crop insurance and access to biofertilizers. Involvement in farmer collectives, across all farmers, was very low, clocking in at 2.4%, and just about 4% had crop insurance.

Farmers who disliked farming also had a surplus of labor, i.e persons of working age. 

Dissatisfied farmers also tended to be young, female and belonging to the Scheduled Castes, but the opposite being the case with Scheduled Tribes. There was also a positive correlation with education and dissatisfaction; the more educated farmers tended to dislike farming.

A significant proportion of farmers who disliked farming also were concentrated in less urbanized centers where agriculture was the primary means for subsistence.

Two thirds of participants in the landmark NSSO survey reported that they viewed farming as viable due to low profitability, and one fifth reported risks. Low profitability was of concern mainly to farmers holding less than 1 hectares of land. Lesser constraints of resources and higher profitability, then, can contribute to farmers’ opinions of farming. Farmers with more adults per hectare also express more disinterest in farming. 

Older farmers are also more satisfied with farming compared to younger ones. An important correlation is that of education: younger farmers are usually more educated than older ones and being educated above secondary schooling inclines towards disinterest in farming.
[2] https://hummedia.manchester.ac.uk/institutes/gdi/publications/workingpapers/GDI/GDI_WorkingPaper_1_Agarwal_Agrawal_Updated_v4.pdf

Female farmers are also more likely to dislike farming than male farmers. While men who are house leaders tend to view farming more favorably, it is the opposite with women. Men might have a sense of control and authority when they head the house, while women tend to have handicaps associated when they are heads of the house, such as widowhood or separation. The likelihood of these women being heads are also higher than that of women who share labor equally with their husbands.

More men leave farming than women, but considering the issues that female farmers face, feminisation of agriculture needs targeted help.

SCs and STs also report more satisfaction compared to other groups with farming, a cause of which may be that of adaptive preferences where marginalized groups suit themselves to whatever is feasible. Due to this, there might not be overt expression of dissatisfaction while they might be covertly dissatisfied.

Farmers in states with higher rainfall also tend to like farming.

Farmers seemed most likely to farm when there’s a mix between subsistence and commercial farming.

Incomes from non-farming sources were found to be ambiguous in their contribution to interest in farming.

There is a growing desire to leave farming, but this does not translate into the ability to move out of farming as occupational mobility, or the ability to leave one job for another, is low in agriculture.

The argument that farmers who want to quit farming should do so and move to urban centers to pursue non-farm jobs suffers from the fact that employment in non-farm sectors is highly volatile – employment prospects differ from city to city and they are not surefire as they include both, high-skilled, white collar jobs to manual, insecure jobs which might not provide the gains associated with non-farm employment.

There is no certainty that smallholder farmers with less education will benefit from this. 

Moving to highly developed cities has been proven to not reduce poverty, generating non-farm jobs in rural sectors is more important. The move towards highly developed cities also might end up increasing poverty. Agricultural development followed by job creation in rural non-agricultural sectors is more effective in alleviating poverty than migration to cities. 

Non-farm jobs, however, have a bias towards the educated, and even among the educated, only a small portion of them get the jobs they desire.

Therefore, desire to quit farming is in most cases unviable, as the youth who want to quit farming need to find formal employment in non-farm sectors or self-employment and not casual wage jobs. Reducing poverty is intractably linked to incentivising smallholder farmers.

Policies geared towards smallholder farmers could support a gradual transition from agriculture, with many farmers choosing to stay in farming not out of compulsion, but out of choice. 

Land cannot be offset onto corporations or larger farmers in hopes of generating non-farm employment. Throughout almost all of history, alleviation of poverty begins with agriculture. The increased fragmentation of lands in India cannot make the job of consolidating lands easier. The infinitesimal divisions of land etched out in papers drowned in the tehsildar’s archives will be a procedural nightmare for the governments, notwithstanding the macro effects which will follow, such as surplus labor in urban centers marking increases in unemployment. Agriculture, when made lucrative can help in plummeting unemployment rates and alleviating poverty.




Shreyas S
Student of Philosophy
Azim Premji University, Bangalore