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Where Are the Youth in Agriculture?

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"A sensible approach to address young people leaving the industry is hence to support and retain family farms."

– Manda Foo

Is Agriculture a Sunset Industry?
It is plain to see — on sojourns around rural areas — that farms are fast losing young people to cities. Demoralised by falling commodity prices and squeezed by diminishing margins, the“professional” farmer has little to depend on but his love of the land on bad years. Farmers themselves encourage their children to leave their farms as soon as a national road reaches their village, choosing the gamble between urban opportunity and poverty over a life of labour and toil.

 

With the average age of farmers worldwide fast approaching 60, one of the key challenges in keeping agriculture sustainable is getting young people to remain on their family farms, and attracting new talent into the industry. A 2013 census conducted by the New Zealand government found that the average age of farmers was 47.7, compared to 43 for journalists, 41 for vets and plumbers; 33 for web developers and 22 for bar attendants (Deavoll, 2015). In the developing world, the trend is even more acute. In China, for example, the average age of farmers is believed to have risen as much as 20 years in the last half century from 35 to 55, with 55% of China’s farmers being above 40. China’s rural population nearly halved since 1960, falling from 84% to 44% in 2015, according to World Bank data, with the majority of rural inhabitants flocking to its fast-developing cities as low-skilled migrant labour. Young people in rural areas shun a farming future as salaries and living conditions lag behind those in urban areas by leaps and bounds. Like in many other developing countries, farming is seen as an inferior job with little prospects.

 

Although people now live and work longer on average, demographic evidence indicates that agriculture is viewed as a sunset industry. It is not only ageing but also losing understanding and respect. To achieve more robust agricultural production for the future, reviving an interest in primary production among next-generation leaders is paramount: agriculture must rise in status with new technology, marketing and business opportunities.

 

Moving Up the Value Chain and Developing a Countryside—Retaining Farming Families

The dominant model for farms all over the world is still the family-run farm, which can range from a tiny plot of land to thousands of acres. Real farm income in rural areas have been rising very slowly or stagnant in the past few decades — in some cases even falling — due to a lack of public and private investment in the rural economy. If farms do not thrive as a business, families will not continue to farm.

 

A sensible approach to address young people leaving the industry is hence to support and retain family farms. Farm subsidies, while popular in the developed world, are a short-term measure that distorts prices rather than help farming families in the long term. Instead, governments should explore macro-level development policies such as infrastructure investment and measures to support farm value-add and business diversification. Building shared processing, storage and packing facilities for rural farmers are examples on how to improve rural infrastructure.

 

Especially in peri-urban areas, improved transport and business linkages, and developing a cluster of agri-tourism farms can inject new capital into the industry. Napa Valley in California and Margaret River in Perth are good examples of an alternative model of development for fast-expanding Asian cities, rather than going the route of completely removing farms for urban development. While primary production remains the bedrock and lifeblood of these peri-urban farms, a more diverse range of jobs available on farms can attract young people to remain on the land or enter the industry. These farms also play an important role in education and conservation by allowing urban children to stay connected to their food sources and to drive demand for local produce and products.

 

Attracting New Entrants — Challenges and Opportunities
Perhaps more than any other profession, farming is perceived to be one that a person in born into. Perceptually, this is because of its association with inherited land. Being a farmer is also not a common aspiration of young people, though that is changing gradually.

 

One of the practical reasons is the high barrier to entry: agricultural land and assets cost a fortune and the investment is not easily returned within a decade or even two. Credit facilities are not favourable to farmers nor banks, both of whom have to accept a higher-than-normal risk of defaulting due to the nature of the business. The practical know-how and more importantly, the round- the-clock commitment of running a farm is not something that formal schooling can equip a potential entrant with. The common structure of farms — family-owned small businesses — makes it difficult for a new entrant to gain ownership of an established farm. When all the practical barriers and the fact that rural wages lag behind urban ones are taken into consideration, most potential entrants already stop themselves from trying.

 

Mental and cultural barriers also exist. Young people who grow up in the countryside mostly aspire to a city life with better standards of living, while urbanites are largely unaware of the breadth of employment opportunities available on a farm beyond their limited knowledge of farm operations. It does not help that farmers are famously insular; existing industry players do little to promote their own industry as an attractive one.

 

Despite the challenges, the industry must come together to attract new entrants with urgency. The Future of Farming Review Report co-created in 2013 by the British government, industry players and civil society found that new entrants tend to have higher tolerance to training, risk, new technology and innovation (Department for Environment, Food & Rural, Affairs, 2013) — some would say critical elements of a successful farmer. The review identified alternative routes into farming that did not require such inhibitive upfront investments. These routes include share farming, contract farming, partnerships and a digital “matching” platform to offer under-utilised and unused land to aspiring new entrants. Many of these solutions are gradually being introduced not just to attract new entrants but to raise the productivity and profitability of existing farmers, especially smallholders in developing regions around the world.

 

Millennials: Agriculture’s Silver Lining Although the challenges of retaining farming families and attracting new entrants may seem insurmountable, the new breed of entrepreneurs and workers — the millennials — is exactly what agriculture needs for its revival. The industry’s vital importance and the grave challenges it faces are what entices millennials looking to make an impact.

 

All over the world, there is evidence that young people are already powering the revolution that agriculture needs; they are dragging it into the brave new world, bringing in not just the robots and the internet, but the better branding, marketing and the connection to a more balanced lifestyle. To catalyse this revolution, next-generation farmers and those in related fields must blow the be wasteful and uninformed consumers. Similarly, leaders in government and business must make it a point to educate the larger society on the importance of the agricultural trade and to rally support behind the essential industry.

 

It has been half a century since the Green Revolution and a quarter since the Gene Revolution. While science will continue to break barriers in agriculture, it is time for its people to step up to ensure human resource succession and continued opportunities for future farmers. Attracting youth into agriculture should not be an afterthought but a central mission.

REFERENCES

  1. Deavoll, P. (2015, August 31). Farmers are an ageing demographic. Stuff.co.nz. Retrieved from http://www. stuff.co.nz/business/farming/agribusiness/71539606/ Farmers-are-an-ageing-demographic
  2. Department for Environment, Food & Rural, Affairs. (2013, July). The future of farming review. Retrieved from https://www.gov. uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/ file/211175/pb13982-future-farming-review-20130709.pdf
  3. World Bank. (N.d.) Rural population (% of population). Retrieved from http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.RUR.T

MANDA FOO

Manda Foo is the owner and Chief Adventurer at Bollywood Adventures, a start-up that makes agriculture and farms accessible.

OCTOBER 2018 | ISSUE 4

Bridging the Gaps

About

Leaders and changemakers of today face unique and complex challenges. The HEAD Foundation Digest features insights and opinions from those in the know addressing a wide range of pertinent issues that factor in a society’s development. 

Informed opinions can inspire healthy discussions and open up our imagination to new possibilities. Interested in contributing? Write to us at info@headfoundation

Stay updated on our latest announcements on events and publications

About

Leaders and changemakers of today face unique and complex challenges. The HEAD Foundation Digest features insights and opinions from those in the know addressing a wide range of pertinent issues that factor in a society’s development. 

Informed opinions can inspire healthy discussions and open up our imagination to new possibilities. Interested in contributing? Write to us at info@headfoundation

Stay updated on our latest announcements on events and publications

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Stay updated on all the latest news and events

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