The audience was hostile and when I was done speaking they didn't question my numbers, but instead my basic assumptions. This was a couple of years ago and I was addressing Brazilian college students.

I said agriculture was important for income and jobs, and so any tools, such as access to biotech, that the Brazilian government can free up for farmers to help them lower costs is good for Brazilian agriculture. By their questions, the audience seemed to agree that what I meant by agriculture was big farming. But they believed anything that would help big farming would hurt family farmers. I had failed to make the distinction.

Family farming here in Brazil is a term tightly defined by the government, and made up of very small landowners. The definition of just how big you can be and still be a family farmer varies from region to region. There are also restrictions on where you can live, how many employees you can have and how much of your income is derived from the farm itself.

The term includes squatters, sharecroppers and people settled by the government onto vast tracts of idle land divided into small plots averaging almost 40 acres/plot. They are likely to share one tractor among a number of families, and the even less affluent use a hoe.

Here larger operations — whether family-owned and run or not — are considered big farming by many. A good many of the 2 million U.S. family farms and partnerships would fall into this category if their operations were dropped into Brazil.

Part of the reason for the distinction is that there's a political component to the term family farming. The family farming sector enjoys its own ministry separate from the Ministry of Agriculture — the Ministry of Agrarian Development. Within it, National Secretary of Family Farming Valter Bianchini says his group's mission is to “promote local sustainable development through respect for human life and political negotiation with representatives of society…”

Among them, no doubt, is the militant landless rural workers movement. Given Brazil's poor land and wealth distribution, a landless movement has arisen, squatting on private property and pushing — sometimes violently — for more and faster distribution of idle land appropriated by the government.

Many members of that movement have become today's family farmers, though they are by no means all farmers that fit the definition. The government says 2 million people have been settled onto farm plots in the last two years.

But a lot of the wealth generated by Brazil's impressive production figures (No. 1 or No. 2 world producer of soybeans, coffee, orange juice, broilers, sugarcane, bananas, cattle and a lot of other ag products) goes into relatively few hands.

According to Contag, an ag workers' confederation, fewer than 50,000 rural landowners (Brazil's total population is about 176 million and the U.S. population is about 270 million) have holdings of 2,500 or more acres. But Contag says 1% of all rural landowners own nearly half of all the registered farmland in Brazil.

On the other hand, Brazil's 4.6 million producers defined as family farmers average about $1,360/year from their farms, according to the government.

While a lot of family farming is hard-scrabble production for the family's own use or for truck selling, the interests of small and bigger producers may not be as far apart as the politics of land reform would suggest. Family farmers account for about half of Brazil's corn production and nearly one-third of its soybeans. Weather, prices and costs of inputs affect all producers, and maybe those factors hurt small farmers more than the big boys when those factors move in the wrong direction.

Family Farmers In Brazil Account For:
67% Total production of dry beans
97% Total production of tobacco
84% Total production of manioc
31% Total production of rice
52% Total production of milk
40% Total production of poultry and eggs
25% Total production of coffee
77% Of all Brazilians working in agriculture
SOURCE: SECRETARIA NACIONAL DE AGRICULTURA FAMILIAR