Ashok Mishra: Helping subsistence farmers break the cycle of poverty

Ashok Mishra is driven to help better the lives of the 5.5 billion or so people who depend on subsistence farming to survive. The story of a farm entrepreneur lifting himself out of poverty to give his children a better future is Mishra’s own family story.

Ashok Mishra is driven to help better the lives of the 5.5 billion or so people who depend on subsistence farming to survive.

“I want to help build a platform for educating poor subsistence farmers so they can better their lives, and provide a better future for their kids,” explains Mishra, who joined the Morrison School of Agribusiness at the W. P. Carey School of Business in July 2015.

In addition to his research and teaching, Mishra also works with several international organizations, including the European Commission, the International Food Policy Research Institute, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics and the International Rice Research Institute.

From farm, to university and back

The story of a farm entrepreneur lifting himself out of poverty to give his children a better future is Mishra’s own family story. “My father grew up in a big family on a farm in India,” Mishra recounts. “After my grandfather died, the farm was split between his 10 children. But rather than go into farming himself, my father went to school and eventually became a university professor.”

Growing up, Mishra watched with great interest as his uncles grew their farming businesses. “I was very interested in how my uncles made decisions — about which crops to grow, about being farmers at all.” So Mishra went off to college to learn about agriculture. “I took a class in economics, and I realized, ‘Wow this is how things work,’” he quips. “So I decided to pursue economics.”

After graduate school, Mishra went to work as an economist at the Economic Research Service of U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C. “But the commute was too much,” he explains, “So I took an opportunity to teach at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.” Mishra taught at LSU for eight years, then early in the spring of 2015, he heard about a position with the W. P. Carey School of Business.

“I saw an opportunity to really turn the tide in developing economies, by going out into these developing economies, especially in South Asia, and spreading the word about what my colleagues and I are learning in our research,” explains Mishra. He’s educating the educators who then go back and teach farmers how to become more productive and food secure — to rise beyond subsistence farming. The idea is to reduce food insecurity that is pervasive in developing countries due to political instability, lack of education, and changing climatic conditions.

Bringing up the farm, the family and the nation

The benefits of producing enough to consume and have some left over to sell accrue to the family and the nation. Mishra explains, “When farmers can produce more than enough to be self-sufficient, then the family (and the nation) can do more productive work that grows the family’s income (and the national economy).”

For example, when a farm entrepreneur embraces technology to produce more crops with less work, then he might have time left over in his day to offer farm machine repair services to other farmers. That extra income might enable the farmer to buy another plot of land, to then produce enough crops to both feed his family and sell to others. That generates additional income, which the farmer might use to send his children to school, where they learn to become engineers and invent new technologies that make farming even more productive.

Multiply one farm entrepreneur’s story across an entire nation, and that is how economies grow out of subsistence agriculture to become more diverse and more productive, he says.

In developed countries, government subsidies accelerated the transition out of subsistence agriculture to industry. With extra income coming from the government, farmers could more quickly buy that second plot of land, or send their kids to school. With subsidies, farmers got a hand up out of subsistence farming and the cycle of poverty.

But developing countries, for the most part, cannot afford those kinds of subsidies, so farmers have to find ways to boost themselves. And that’s where Mishra’s work comes in.

Helping farm entrepreneurs grow the business

To help farm entrepreneurs in developing countries become more productive and thereby raise themselves out of the cycle of poverty, Mishra focuses his efforts in three areas. First is helping farmers figure out how to generate extra income. Second is the adoption of technology. Third is adaptation to a changing climate.

“Our goal is to help farm entrepreneurs do what every entrepreneur wants to do: grow the business,” says Mishra. That means being efficient enough to produce food for the family’s consumption and more to sell.

Mishra encourages farm entrepreneurs to think about allocating the family’s labor in ways that generate extra income. “Typically the land that these farm entrepreneurs hold is very small; less than one hectare (about 2.5 acres). The farmers that do best don’t involve all of the family members all of the time in the production of subsistence crops.”

Instead, they figure out how to better allocate available family labor to boost income. So instead of working the fields too, the farmer’s spouse might earn income working in the town. In a recent research paper, Mishra and his co-authors found that off-farm income boosts the return on the farmer’s household assets and the efficiency of the farm.

The second lesson for farm entrepreneurs in developing countries, says Mishra, is about technology adoption. “Technology can mean seed varieties, farming systems, marketing techniques, fertilizers, irrigation systems — anything that improves per-acre yield or improves product quality — so that farmers can sell more and/or sell at a higher price.”

The third lesson that Mishra wants to take to farm entrepreneurs in developing countries, particularly in South Asia, is about adaptation to climate change. “Climate change is not primarily about drought but rather about variability,” Mishra explains. An unusually dry season might be followed by an unusually wet one, for example.

Climate variability will disproportionately affect subsistence farmers in developing countries, because they are so highly dependent on rainfall. An increase in rain variability can wreak havoc on these farmers’ livelihoods. “As agricultural economists we have to find ways to help these farm entrepreneurs adopt varieties of crops that are resistant to rainfall variability,” says Mishra.

Farm entrepreneurs face tough challenges

None of Mishra’s three lessons are easy for farm entrepreneurs to adopt. “It’s our dream as researchers to give people the knowledge they need to be self-sufficient and grow out of poverty,” he explains. “In the case of subsistence farmers, to boost off-farm income, adopt technology and adapt to climate change. But often the environment makes it very hard for these farm entrepreneurs to do that.”

Mishra explains that in India, for example, a fast-growing population keeps land fragmented. Yet most of the technologies that increase farm efficiency only work on a relatively large scale. So land fragmentation makes it hard for farm entrepreneurs to reach the efficiency necessary to grow beyond subsistence farming. In Africa, civil wars destroy livestock and farmlands, making it difficult for farm entrepreneurs to make real progress.

Yet despite those tough challenges, Ashok Mishra isn’t giving up. “We’re going to keep working.”

His own story gives good reason to be hopeful.