Debating the future of the family farm has been a popular pastime in policy circles in the past 50 years.
Opinions ranged from those who viewed family operations as quaint but economically inefficient and something to be gently guided into obsolescence, to those who argued they play a multi-functional role that needs to be preserved at all costs.
If the United Nations has anything to say about it, that debate is over, and it has designated 2014 as the International Year of Family Farming. It wants to focus attention on the role family farming and smallholder farming can play in eradicating hunger and poverty, providing food security and nutrition, improving livelihoods, managing natural resources, protecting the environment and achieving sustainable development, in particular in rural areas.
The declaration solidifies a significant shift in how farmers are perceived in the escalating drive for global food security.
"Not too long ago, family farmers were often seen as the subject of social policies and not as productive actors. They were considered part of the hunger problem. This is the mindset we need to change with the International Year of Family Farming," Food and Agriculture Organization director general José Graziano da Silva told a recent European conference leading up to the declaration.
He noted family farms are the predominant business model for agriculture in developing and developed countries.
It's notable that even though farms have declined in number but grown in size in wealthier countries such as Canada, the sector remains solidly in the domain of sole proprietors and their families.
A 2013 report on Canadian farm enterprises by the Conference Board of Canada cited some of the reasons.
"There are many traditional strengths to the family model of farming that help explain why it is still the predominant model of farming operation today," it said.
"These strengths revolve around the huma-capital advantages that all family-run businesses possess and that non-family businesses often try to replicate -- e.g., a high degree of commitment to the business and willingness to engage in a certain amount of unpaid labour," it said.
Given the seasonal nature of peak farm work, finding qualified hired help can also be a problem.
In other words, family farmers are emotionally invested not only in the business, but in the land on which they operate. That bodes well for stewardship. Even though other models have emerged in which conglomerates own the land and farmers lease the right to farm it, land ownership is still the first choice of most farmers.
The family-business model is complicated and loaded with emotionally charged dilemmas, such as succession and estate planning when there are farming and non-farming children. But it is still the most economically efficient model.
It is a sad reality the majority of the nearly one billion hungry people in the world live on farms, often small holdings of less than two hectares.
The challenge for governments, non-government development organizations and the private sector is how to get the right tools, technology and incentives in place to help those farmers grow their own way out of poverty.
With nearly half the world's population now living in cities (80 per cent in Canada), it's becoming clear the rate of urbanization needs to be curbed. Underdeveloped economies simply don't have the resources to provide infrastructure, services and jobs to people exiting the countryside in search of a better life.
Far better to give them opportunities to build productive lives for themselves on the land, where they remain self-employed and can achieve some measure of self-sufficiency. As well, as productivity improves to the point farmers have commercial-scale surplus product, they become economic engines of growth in their communities, creating jobs instead of taking them.
But regardless of how big or how small, where they are or how they operate, family farms all share the same challenge -- how to inspire the next generation.
The key will be recognizing these types of farms are part of the solution, not the problem.
Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 204-792-4382 or by email: email@example.com.