02/28/2014 12:12 pm ET Updated Apr 30, 2014

Family Farmers + You

By Danielle Nierenberg and Sarah Small, Food Tank

Family farmers are more than food producers. They are stewards of biodiversity, climate change fighters, and entrepreneurs, boosting local economies. To help them do their multiple jobs better, we need to invest more in family farmers, small and large, in the United States -- and around the world. Watch our new video about the importance of family farmers here.

There are more than 500 million family farmers across the globe. Women and men who are producing food for their families and their communities, as well as producing crops for export. Their importance in food and nutrition security and income generation requires that they be at the center of local, regional, and national agricultural, environmental, and social policies.

These millions of farmers create more than food, jobs, and economic growth. According to two new reports released by Food Tank and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), family farmers who plant a variety of crops contribute to biodiversity and also increase nutrient density in diets.

FAO reports that approximately 75 percent of plant biodiversity has disappeared and an additional third of plant genetic resources that currently exists could disappear by 2050. But according to the forthcoming reports, family farmers are using practices, which both preserve biodiversity and diversify crops. For example in Kenya, farmers are working with the World Agroforestry Center to intercrop trees with maize and millet. And Heritage Farm in Iowa, is the headquarters for Seed Savers Exchange which allows farmers to maintain thousands of varieties of plants in one of the largest seeds banks of its kind in North America. These practices can attract pollinators and beneficial insects as well as provide natural sources of fertilizer and pest control, eliminating the need for costly inputs.

And family farmers are helping to not only combat climate change, but they're also taking powerful measures to prepare for it. The Land Institute in Kansas is promoting the use of perennial crops, including sunflowers and sorghum, to conserve water, stabilize soils, and create more resilience on farms. Big Pine Paiute Tribe in Owen Valley, California has installed a permaculture garden utilizing sustainable, diversified farming techniques and recently installed a water harvesting swell, developed by their ancestors, that will allow the soil to slowly and evenly absorb the water provided for vegetation. And in sub-Saharan Africa sustainable grazing practices, like those developed by The Savory Institute in Zimbabwe, are helping sequester carbon in soils and make ranching an environmentally sustainable option for the next generation of ranchers.

In addition, family farmers generate income, both on and off the farm. In Asia, for example, every $1 in income the farming sector generates also creates an additional $0.80 in non-farming sectors. And family farmers tend to spend a high share of their income in other sectors, including construction and manufacturing, creating demand for goods in other sectors. The organization Landesa has found that micro-garden plots in India increase the average monthly income of households by one third -- and they provide some women farmers with greater financial security and improved control over household assets. And in New York, family farmers are increasing incomes by selling directly to urban consumers. GrowNYC, a non-profit, manages 54 markets in the city, providing a sales channel to more than 200 local farms and fisherfolk.

These examples are an important reminder that farmers are not just farmers. They're teachers, stewards, and business women and men who deserve to be recognized -- and celebrated during the International Year of Family Farming and for years to come -- for their contributions to the planet and to us all.

You can take action and sign the International Year of Family Farming pledge here.

Danielle Nierenberg is the President of Food Tank: The Food Think Tank ( and Sarah Small is a Food Tank research associate.