Everybody needs food – and that means that everybody needs farmers. Farming was one of humanity's first professions, an organised way to meet the fundamental needs of each and every person on the planet. It's this fundamental need that means that farming is just as important today as it was a the dawn of civilisation – indeed, with the exponential increase in the world's population meaning ever more mouths to feed, it's easy to argue that it's never been more important.
But why would anyone become a farmer, really? It's a life of hard toil, long hours and little reward, isn't it? Even today this is the stereotypical image of farmers, but while there is (as with any stereotype) a grain of truth in this caricature, farming is still an appealing profession for many young people. But is it appealing enough to ensure that there will be enough farmers in the future to provide the food of future generations?
The data certainly makes for stark reading – though perhaps not quite enough to make you head to the supermarket to stock up on tins of food for when the fresh stuff runs out. Just a little over 5% of Europe's 11 million farms are operated by farmers under the age of 35; in contrast, farmers already past the retirement age of 65 account for 31% of all EU farmers – or around 3.2 million farmers. The figures differ wildly according to EU country, with Romania facing potentially the biggest issue as it alone contributes 45% of the over-65s figure. Portugal is another country with a potentially significant generational gap to bridge, as half of its farmers are over 65. In Germany, Austria and Poland, in contrast, fewer than 10% of farmers continue beyond 65.
Access to land a key problem
So what would happen if all these over-65s suddenly decided tomorrow to hang up their tractor keys for good and do something different instead? Would Europe suddenly face a food shortage, with no-one ready to fill the muddy boots of all those newly retired farmers?
Looking at the data alone you might think that this would be the case: there are quite simply more older farmers than younger ones. But this only gives us part of the picture. Other figures reveal that the majority of the older farmers have only relatively small holdings – 6.3 hectares on average, compared to the EU average of 16.2ha. And while young farmers collectively have a far smaller overall share of the land available (because there are relatively fewer of them), the actual size of the farms they run is close to the overall average (16.1ha). In other words, many of the over-65s are subsistence farmers growing for themselves, and the majority of the land and farms are operated by the
In fact progressive retirement of the over 65s will free up around 20m ha of agricultural land, enough for 1.2m average farms – an attractive prospect for younger farmers who find that access to agricultural land is one of the biggest barriers to entering the profession. Farmer, a profession that has been there for centuries and that will exist as long as humans need to eat and drink. In its communication on the "future of food and farming", the European Commission outlines policy options on how to support farmers, especially younger ones. A priority is the access to finance, along with investment in research and innovation.
Younger farmers investing more
Yet despite their low numbers, young farmers in Europe are among the most innovative and forward-looking in the way they work. In large part this stems from the higher level of professional education among younger farmers: nearly 20% of all young farmers have followed some form of agricultural course – compared to just over 4% for the over-55s. Young farmers are also more likely to invest in their business than their older counterparts, in particular in technologies, techniques and equipment to improve productivity, competitiveness and sustainability. However, the relative lack of available land and the relatively low level of farm capital suggest that many young farmers may face difficulties in the future in accessing credit for further investments.
EU supporting young farmers
Conscious of the potential crisis in 30 years' time if more young farmers are not encouraged to take up the profession, the EU is doing more and more to try to do just that.
Although young farmers are more likely to follow agricultural studies than their older counterparts, the relative numbers of people doing so are far lower than those in other professions more likely to appeal to young people. But anecdotal evidence suggests that the numbers of agricultural students are indeed rising, perhaps encouraged by the support that the EU can give them as they start out in the profession. For example, under the direct payment scheme of the common agricultural policy, financial assistance can be granted for up to five years for farmers starting up businesses who are 40 or under at the time of applying. This can be topped up at national level too: authorities in each EU member state have to set aside up to 2% of their total allocation of direct payment funding in order to offer young farmers a bonus of up to 25% on their direct payments in their first five years of working in the sector.
The CAP is not simply designed to provide income support to farmers, however. A significant proportion of CAP spending comes in the form of rural development at national level, with a multitude of programmes tailored to the situation in each EU country designed to target funding where it is needed most to encourage sustainable growth and competitiveness in rural areas. Encouraging younger people to become farmers also implies the need to ensure the environment in which they live and work – which is of course almost always rural – benefits from all the same diversity as today's urban communities do, from modern and accessible facilities to broadband and wifi access. Many rural development programmes are designed to encourage the roll-out or expansion of just these kinds of services in rural areas, while others also include specific actions aimed at young farmers in particular, such as offering advice to farmers setting up for the first time.
And with young farmers the most likely to invest in their farms, the EU is encouraging more of them to do so through research and innovation in agricultural practices. A number of programmes run by the European Innovation Partnership (EIP-AGRI) are designed to help encourage the take-up of innovative techniques for increasing output and reducing costs, for example.
13 October 2017