Rosch

The reason we’re running out of farmers

Four years ago, Andrés MacGillivray took an unusual decision. He had a high-flying job as a project manager at a pharmaceuticals company in Canada and looked set for a cushy corporate career.

Instead, he chose to pack it in and return to his native Argentina to work on his family’s farm.

Although he grew up surrounded by agriculture, MacGillivray, 37, never thought he would become a farmer himself. He studied environmental engineering and dreamed of working in water management or renewable energy. But today, he grows carrots in Santa Fe province, in northeastern Argentina, and green leafy vegetables at a vast hydroponic farm just outside Buenos Aires.

In turning to farming, MacGillivray is bucking a global trend. Worldwide, the percentage of people who work in agriculture has dropped from 44% in 1991 to 26% in 2020, according to data from the International Labor Organization. That’s partly down to the growing use of agricultural technology, but it also points to a bigger problem: many people don’t want to work on farms anymore.

The average age of farmers across Africa is about 60, despite the average of the general population on the continent being below 24, according to a 2014 report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). In many developed countries, including the US, the average age is also 60. And globally, the average age of farmers is rising, as rural youth branch out from their country roots to seek a life in the city.

To guarantee our food security a generation from now, we need to make sure that people follow MacGillivray’s lead and keep farming. But that’s easier said than done. Farming has an image problem, with many young people regarding it as badly paid work for unskilled people. Furthermore, farming’s green credentials have been questioned, with agriculture contributing to significant greenhouse gas emissions and a large chunk of the food the world already produces going to waste. For younger workers engaged with environmental causes, farming still has to clean up its act.

For those who want to farm, spiralling prices often present insurmountable barriers to accessing land. And laws and customs often mean that the women and immigrants who do much of the world’s farming are denied agency over their work. MacGillivray’s experience shows that young farmers can thrive if they have the resources they need. But how can we ensure access to those resources?
 
With its rolling expanses of fertile cropland and warm, sunny climate, California is an agricultural powerhouse whose farmers and ranchers earned over $50bn (£37bn) in 2019 – more than the GDP of Tunisia. But while hundreds of thousands of labourers work the state’s fields, only a tiny fraction of them will go on to run their own farms and have ownership over their land.

The Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association (Alba) is a nonprofit that helps farm labourers become farm owners. After passing an accredited organic farming course, graduates can join an incubator programme where they apply their newly-learned organic farming techniques on subsidised land, receiving support with marketing, regulations and other key skills. They start on half an acre, working up to five acres over the four-year programme.

Some 80% of Alba’s incubator students are immigrants from Latin America, which is reflective of the large proportion of Latin American farm workers in California in general. But it’s not easy starting your own farm as an immigrant. “There are a lot of laws that make it harder for immigrants to come here, but most of the labour is done by immigrants,” says Nancy Porto, community relations and environmental education officer at Alba. Many also have to grapple with a language barrier. Data from the US Department of Agriculture show that only around 4% of US farms are owned by producers of Latino, Hispanic or Spanish origin. In 1935, there were 6.8 million farms in the US. That figure dropped to around 2 million by the mid-70s and has remained stable since. At the same time, the average farm size has grown, Alba development director Chris Brown explains.

Those numbers hide an even steeper decline, he adds, because many of the remaining small farms in the US are run by people whose day job is something else. “It’s either big ag or gig ag,” he says. “It’s either industrial or they do it as a side job.”

Once Alba’s farmers graduate, finding land to rent or buy proves challenging. They often club together with other new farmers to get a plot they can share.

Despite these difficulties, plenty of Alba’s graduates have come out ahead. Of the 410 farmers to graduate, 204 have gone on to launch their own farm on Alba land and around 100 have farmed independently on land elsewhere. “They have more power to define the future of their children by being the owner of their own business,” Porto says. Getting on the incubator programme can set them up for life. The average age of a farmer on the programme is 37, and 70% are under 40.

Now, the children of some Alba farmers are deciding to follow in their parents’ footsteps, according to Porto. “Many of these farmers, their children have gone to university and studied something related to agriculture, or they help their parents,” she says. “They don’t want to find another job.”

Four years ago, Andrés MacGillivray took an unusual decision. He had a high-flying job as a project manager at a pharmaceuticals company in Canada and looked set for a cushy corporate career. Instead, he chose to pack it in and return to his native Argentina to work on his family’s farm.

Although he grew up surrounded by agriculture, MacGillivray, 37, never thought he would become a farmer himself. He studied environmental engineering and dreamed of working in water management or renewable energy. But today, he grows carrots in Santa Fe province, in northeastern Argentina, and green leafy vegetables at a vast hydroponic farm just outside Buenos Aires.

In turning to farming, MacGillivray is bucking a global trend. Worldwide, the percentage of people who work in agriculture has dropped from 44% in 1991 to 26% in 2020, according to data from the International Labor Organization. That’s partly down to the growing use of agricultural technology, but it also points to a bigger problem: many people don’t want to work on farms anymore.

The average age of farmers across Africa is about 60, despite the average of the general population on the continent being below 24, according to a 2014 report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). In many developed countries, including the US, the average age is also 60. And globally, the average age of farmers is rising, as rural youth branch out from their country roots to seek a life in the city.

To guarantee our food security a generation from now, we need to make sure that people follow MacGillivray’s lead and keep farming. But that’s easier said than done. Farming has an image problem, with many young people regarding it as badly paid work for unskilled people. Furthermore, farming’s green credentials have been questioned, with agriculture contributing to significant greenhouse gas emissions and a large chunk of the food the world already produces going to waste. For younger workers engaged with environmental causes, farming still has to clean up its act.

For those who want to farm, spiralling prices often present insurmountable barriers to accessing land. And laws and customs often mean that the women and immigrants who do much of the world’s farming are denied agency over their work. MacGillivray’s experience shows that young farmers can thrive if they have the resources they need. But how can we ensure access to those resources?
 
With its rolling expanses of fertile cropland and warm, sunny climate, California is an agricultural powerhouse whose farmers and ranchers earned over $50bn (£37bn) in 2019 – more than the GDP of Tunisia. But while hundreds of thousands of labourers work the state’s fields, only a tiny fraction of them will go on to run their own farms and have ownership over their land.

The Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association (Alba) is a nonprofit that helps farm labourers become farm owners. After passing an accredited organic farming course, graduates can join an incubator programme where they apply their newly-learned organic farming techniques on subsidised land, receiving support with marketing, regulations and other key skills. They start on half an acre, working up to five acres over the four-year programme.

Some 80% of Alba’s incubator students are immigrants from Latin America, which is reflective of the large proportion of Latin American farm workers in California in general. But it’s not easy starting your own farm as an immigrant. “There are a lot of laws that make it harder for immigrants to come here, but most of the labour is done by immigrants,” says Nancy Porto, community relations and environmental education officer at Alba. Many also have to grapple with a language barrier. Data from the US Department of Agriculture show that only around 4% of US farms are owned by producers of Latino, Hispanic or Spanish origin. In 1935, there were 6.8 million farms in the US. That figure dropped to around 2 million by the mid-70s and has remained stable since. At the same time, the average farm size has grown, Alba development director Chris Brown explains.

Those numbers hide an even steeper decline, he adds, because many of the remaining small farms in the US are run by people whose day job is something else. “It’s either big ag or gig ag,” he says. “It’s either industrial or they do it as a side job.”

Once Alba’s farmers graduate, finding land to rent or buy proves challenging. They often club together with other new farmers to get a plot they can share.

Despite these difficulties, plenty of Alba’s graduates have come out ahead. Of the 410 farmers to graduate, 204 have gone on to launch their own farm on Alba land and around 100 have farmed independently on land elsewhere. “They have more power to define the future of their children by being the owner of their own business,” Porto says. Getting on the incubator programme can set them up for life. The average age of a farmer on the programme is 37, and 70% are under 40.

Now, the children of some Alba farmers are deciding to follow in their parents’ footsteps, according to Porto. “Many of these farmers, their children have gone to university and studied something related to agriculture, or they help their parents,” she says. “They don’t want to find another job.”
 
Barriers to running your own farm can be cultural as well as financial. There’s a huge gender gap in access to land around the world. As many as 150 million people could be lifted out of hunger and poverty if women farmers had the same access to agricultural resources as men, according to the World Food Programme. However, less than 15% of the world’s landowners are women, which means they are removed from making decisions about which crops to grow and whether to buy or sell land.

In Kenya, Fairtrade Africa is working to change that. “For the smallholder farmer, agriculture is not very lucrative. You’ll find that whatever you’re farming, you’re not able to get enough income to sustain your family,” says Joy Muruku, regional communications officer at Fairtrade Africa’s Eastern and Central Africa Network. But Muruku believes that rising unemployment and the growing role of modern technology in farming could prompt some young people to turn back to the land, which means there will be more opportunities to address inequality.

The Growing Women in Coffee project aims to empower women by giving them control over their coffee bushes. The women in the project receive at least 50 coffee bushes from their male relatives, which they tend to and harvest themselves. The money earned from selling the coffee goes straight into the women’s accounts, giving them a newfound financial independence.

The project is also getting results. They started working with 110 women, but it proved so popular that it has more than tripled in size. The team is considering launching a similar project in Uganda.

READ MORE - Future farmers will insist on data-sharing among service providers.
 
The absence of a high standard of living also pushes potential new farmers away from rural areas, according to Andrea Sosa, who researches agriculture at the National University of San Martín in Argentina. “You need access to clean water, internet, education, health”, which are often missing, she says.

In Argentina, rural communities in major grain production regions have long protested that health problems afflicting them are the result of irresponsible use of toxic agricultural chemicals, and poor farming management has been blamed for the sudden appearance of new rivers, cleaving their way through the weakened earth like a knife.

Faced with the effects farming can have on the environment, it’s little wonder that young people in the country have been upping sticks and moving to the city.

But where there are issues with food production’s green credentials, there are also opportunities to engage with young farmers. Kimbal Musk is one of those people hoping that a mixture of technology and environmental values will draw young people back to the industry. His company, Square Roots, uses artificial intelligence and innovative farming techniques to grow health food crops in urban farms. Musk says younger farmers are more attracted to health food crops than commodity crops, like corn, which are used as fuels and animal feeds.

Musk and his team hope that by using highly-controlled environments in shipping containers they can narrow the fine margins needed to turn a profit from salads and herbs without turning to scale.

But to level up the farms of the future, some forward-thinking institutions are turning to cameras, sensors, drones and robots which is creating new opportunities for engineering-minded researchers.

Engineer Manuela Zude-Sasse at the Leibniz Institute for Agricultural Engineering and Bioeconomy in Potsdam, Germany, for example, has developed a sensor that predicts the right time to pick apples based on the levels of chlorophyll in the skin of the fruit. Meanwhile Will Flittner, an agricultural engineering student at Harper Adams University is one of a group of researchers using similar technology to equip robot picking arms with the vision required to differentiate ripe fruit from unripe fruit. While Flittner’s technology is still in the prototype phase, “precision agriculture” is a burgeoning field, and some farms are already using robot technology.


Young farmers are not just turning their attention to improving agriculture’s environmental credentials in the field. Wastage is a large part of the environmental problems caused by how we produce food. It’s estimated that around 30% of food produced globally never makes it into anyone’s mouth. At the same time, the World Food Programme estimates that 690 million people go to bed hungry every night and a third of the world’s population suffers from some form of malnutrition.

Nilus is a startup that aims to tackle this problem by “rescuing” unsold food from farms and catering services and transporting it to social organisations such as soup kitchens and children’s foundations. They have teams in Argentina, Mexico and Puerto Rico.

“There’s more food out there than what’s needed to eradicate hunger. That’s for sure,” says Ady Beitler, chief executive officer at Nilus. “What doesn’t exist is a distribution system that can get that food to those who most need it.”

Since June, MacGillivray has been selling 15 tonnes of carrots per week to Nilus. “It was all stuff that, beforehand, would have been thrown out or given to a neighbour who had livestock,” he says. They are perfectly edible but minor visual defects mean nobody wants to buy them.

Nilus purchases these carrots for eight Argentine pesos (£0.07) per kg, well below the retail price of 60-70 pesos per kg in central Buenos Aires. MacGillivray says the extra income from Nilus helps pay for costs around the farm. These rock-bottom prices get around a major hurdle in tackling food waste: farmers don’t give surplus crops away because harvesting and transport costs would mean that donating leftovers actually cost the growers money.

In the Buenos Aires suburb of San Martin, 40km from MacGillivray’s hydroponic farm, the mouthwatering scent of fried onions and oregano slowly mingles with the warm midday air on the patio of Pequeños Pasos, a children’s foundation that buys its food from Nilus. Every week, some of the carrots MacGillivray sells are delivered here, where they feed about 250 people a day. Pequeños Pasos has five centres across Argentina which also distribute food to dozens of community soup kitchens in their neighbourhoods.

This approach has allowed Nilus to distribute over 1,200 tonnes of food to more than 130,000 people, according to Beitler.
 
Preventing food waste isn’t just about feeding the hungry. It also helps farmers earn more money. But it comes with complex infrastructural challenges.

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Rosch