The world’s farmers are getting older, with their average age reaching record highs around the world. In the United States, the average farmer is 58.3 years old; in Japan that figure is 67; it’s 60 or higher even in Africa, where the demographic profile skews towards the young.
As farmer age demographics push higher and higher, agricultural stakeholders have begun to worry that there won’t be enough people working in the farm sector in the near future, that the current generation of farmers will retire, and not enough young people will step in to take their place. The most bizarre predictions state that there won’t be enough farmers to feed the world by a single generation. More moderate predictions expect that the farm sector will merely fall short of its economic potential.
In recognition of the demographic problem, governments, businesses, and NGOs have made a wide effort in the past decade to encourage young people to take up farming. Organizations have cropped up across different countries, in both the developed and the developing worlds, which help steer young people into careers in agriculture. These movements have generated enthusiasm, but it’s unclear whether they’ll do enough to reverse the prevailing trend.
Much the conversation surrounding engaging youth in agriculture involves the idea that agriculture needs to become “cool” to attract young people. That’s likely part of the answer, but probably a stronger argument is that agriculture needs to be lucrative to young people. Start-up costs are insurmountable for many beginning farmers, and young people that might consider careers in farming often lack education or experience. To top it off, farming is still often a very risky enterprise—vulnerable to poor weather, pests, and unpredictable price fluctuations from downstream markets. In this environment, it’s hardly surprising that young people entering the workforce have opted for the city, and the careers that come with it, over the farm.
If skewed farm age demographics are to change, young people will need stronger incentives to choose a career in agriculture. Beginning farmers need considerable support when seeking financing, insurance, and other services. Before even embarking on a business endeavor, they’ll need education and training. As agriculture becomes more globally competitive as well as more technical and sophisticated, novice farmers will need to be able to hit the ground running. Currently, this kind of support is provided largely from organizations like those mentioned above, while minimal support is provided by governments. With the proper guidance and support mechanisms to get youth into farming, the sector could become a major opportunity for a higher-earning career. Then, maybe, agriculture will become cool.
(Photo credits: FGH personnel)