Challenges faced by smallholder farmers trying to adopt regenerative practices

The Challenges Facing Smallholder Farmers and Nature-Based Solutions

Regarding regenerative practices, it's all about improving agro-ecology conditions enabling productive soils to be more resilient to climate shocks, particularly droughts and floods.Challenges faced by smallholder farmers trying to adopt regenerative practices.

One of the biggest challenges for smallholder farmers, in general – and also regarding adopting regenerative practices – is the cost of farm inputs and the labor required to apply them. As a result, many smallholders tend to under-apply inputs and rely on family versus hired labor. They also tend not to value family labor, or the opportunity cost of their time, leading to inaccurate assessments of the financial viability of their operations. Smallholders also typically do not conduct soil analysis but rather use traditional practices or, conversely, rely on advice provided by representatives of agrochemical input companies. In the case of traditional practices, the application of organic inputs is often too little or too uneven to make any significant impact on crop yields. For example, coffee farmers, who often farm on steep slopes, tend to apply less, relatively heavy and bulky, organic inputs to coffee plants located at greater distances from their farmhouses, particularly uphill ones.

For regenerative practices, smallholder producers typically need to invest more labor as they convert from conventional or traditional farming practices, and they sometimes experience reduced productivity while waiting for the benefits of more resilient practices to develop. Surviving that transitional period is often a significant challenge.

Regarding regenerative practices, it’s all about improving agro-ecology conditions enabling productive soils to be more resilient to climate shocks, particularly droughts and floods.

There is a strong connection between upper watershed management and protection of forest and other habitat to ensure the provision of adequate water for agricultural and household consumption. Planting crops on contours and using vegetative and other barriers also helps to reduce soil erosion and improve aquifer recharge. Similarly, shade management, and ideally the use of cover crops, is critical to help regulate ambient and soil temperature and to balance competition for light, water and nutrients between crops and shade species. The use of cover crops and shade trees can also help to control plant diseases and to improve nutrient cycling, soil organic matter and soil moisture. Such regenerative practices can be used with both natural and synthetic fertilizers, though when these are combined the use of synthetic fertilizers typically declines over time as soil organic matter and biota – and the synergistic relationships between those – increase.


Nature for Justice supporting smallholder farmers to promote regenerative practices:

We’re working with a range of producers under varying conditions and circumstances, including in North Carolina in the US through our Farmer Inclusion Program which focuses on Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) farmers. I’m focusing my attention on smallholder producers in the tropics, with an emphasis on Latin America, given that I’m based in the region. We see a particular opportunity to work with coffee and cocoa producers to generate nature-based solutions (NbS) to climate change, with an initial focus on coffee in East Africa, though we anticipate also working with coffee and cocoa farmers in other regions in the near future. We also see good potential to increase the use of shade trees in existing and new coffee and cocoa farms, to promote more effective pruning and fertilizer management practices, and to build soil carbon in ways that can both improve farmer livelihoods and generate carbon credits. In some regions, notably in Latin America, there is also good potential to promote these agroforestry systems as alternatives to marginal cattle ranching in areas that were deforested for that purpose, and to develop associated NbS projects.

Our Role:

Our role is quite simple, but not easy: to build the capacity of our partner organizations to work more effectively with the smallholder producers, and in some cases also larger farmers, that they support. In most cases, in addition to promoting regenerative practices, we also seek to help our partners to develop NbS projects, assisting them to interact effectively with relevant financial and technical actors and ensuring that the terms of such projects are transparent and equitable. In addition, depending on the circumstances and our partners’ interests, we’re also interested in supporting our partners to participate in alternatives to carbon offset projects, such as insetting, zero-deforestation or other credible claims being made by agricultural companies about their supply chains and related sourcing footprints/impacts. We’re seeking to improve the economic wellbeing of local communities by promoting more resilient farming and natural resource management, where NbS and payment for ecosystem services can help to support the transition to regenerative practices for smallholders.


  • Frank Hicks

    Frank has over 30 years of broad expertise in international development as a senior manager, board member, and consultant with leading NGOs, foundations, and impact investing funds. He is based in Costa Rica, formerly in West Africa, Asia, and the US.

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