Exploring windows of opportunities of smallholder farmers in the Indo-Gangetic Plains of India

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


Smallholder farms represent a large proportion of farms around the world and produce a substantial share of commodities and human nutrients. The livelihoods of these farmers and their households strongly depend on farm activities for food security and income. Climate variability is identified as primary stressor but also unfavorable biophysical circumstances and disturbances in the socio-economic domain (labor dynamics, price volatility) affect farm management and production and make smallholders increasingly vulnerable. Northern India is challenged by rapid population growth putting pressure on the land that is suitable for production, while the impacts of climate change are experienced strongly and continuous cereal production under the prevalent resource management strategies leads to degradation of natural resources. To ensure sustainable livelihoods for smallholders in the long run, adaptations are recognized as essential.

This thesis aimed to understand and capture the characteristics of smallholder farming systems in northern India and their diversity, and to assess the drivers and challenges determining the windows of opportunities for improving whole-system performance.

We found that the most acute problems faced in the region were related to low labor availability, fluctuating market prices, low soil fertility and high seed prices. The farms showed to be vulnerable and locked-in with limited adaptive capacity to improve the challenges at hand. Although a need for change was acknowledged, farmers were coping rather than adapting their systems. Especially higher resource endowed farmers pointed at the government as responsible party to foster change.

A model-based analysis showed that the anticipated, associated changes of lower product prices and productivity and higher prices of hired labor narrow the window of opportunities and aggravate the trade-offs of farm profitability with water use and soil quality. Sustainable intensification with mung bean in the usually fallow summer season could expand the window of opportunities, depending on the portfolio of crops already present in the farm. An assessment of positive deviants and their practices revealed that high livestock density in combination with specific cropping patterns (maize-yam-yam; tobacco-sorghum-maize; wheat-mung bean-maize) was key to improve farm productive, economic and environmental performance.

The surveys, in-depth interviews, whole-farm modelling and focus group discussions in this thesis showed that windows of opportunities can be expanded and that challenges can be overcome. Positive deviants showed strong autonomy, connectedness throughout the food chain and were rich in optionality and stocks. I conclude that better whole-system farm performance goes beyond the development of purely agronomical competences. Autonomy and community engagement need attention in the pathways towards less fragile, and more ‘antifragile’, farming systems.


Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • Groot, Jeroen, Promotor
  • López-Ridaura, S., Co-promotor, External person
Award date12 Oct 2021
Place of PublicationWageningen
Print ISBNs9789463959506
Publication statusPublished - 12 Oct 2021


Dive into the research topics of 'Exploring windows of opportunities of smallholder farmers in the Indo-Gangetic Plains of India'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this