Since I started globetrotting many decades years ago, I’ve always asked peasants and farm labourers a simple question – ‘would you like your kids to become farmers?’ Across continents, the answer has hardly ever been ‘yes’. That creates a bit of a problem for the ‘peasant romantic’ wing of the aid business, who are then forced to argue that either a) ‘they don’t know what they really want/they’ve been brainwashed by the media’ – always a dangerous position for those who claim to listen to poor people, or b) ‘ah yes, but that’s because poor farmers have a crap life, and they would change their minds if they got land, access to markets etc etc’, which kind of makes sense, but could do with a bit of evidence to back it up.
Step forward Jennifer Leavy and Naomi Hossain, in ‘Who Wants to Farm?’ a recent IDS paper that explores exactly this topic. The paper combines a
literature review with an analysis of focus group discussions and household case studies with almost 1500 people in 23 rural, urban and peri-urban communities in Asia, Africa and Latin America. In addition to the ‘who wants to farm?’ question, the researchers wanted to find out if the food price spike had increased the incentives to farm, as economists have predicted (answer- it hasn’t), and the ‘conditions under which capable and enterprising youth are being attracted to farming.’
The literature review shows an intriguing and unintended consequence of the spread of education – a ‘generational break’ in family and community traditions of smallholder and small-scale farming. This has been compounded by the spread of communications and media, which means that young rural people are more aware of the alternatives: ‘young people speak movingly about the sorrow they feel witnessing their small farmer parents’ often desperately hard struggles to earn a living’. Put bluntly, parents and kids alike think school is a way out of farming, not a way into it. This is particularly true where economies are creating lots of new jobs in factories and towns.
Young women seem particularly keen to escape. Here’s Miss S, a 19 year old migrant job-seeker in Indonesia:
‘I never want to be a farmer, ever … I don’t to work under the sun; my skin will be darker. My mother said that I shouldn’t be a farmer; the [earnings] are not enough to provide for life; it doesn’t have a future; it’d be better to look for a job in the city… It is better becoming a factory worker; I don’t have to work under the heat, it is not dirty. The wage can be used to buy a cell phone, clothes, cosmetics, bags or other things needed by a teenager. It can be saved for parents, too.’
While not sharing the peasant romantic view of the world (heck, I live in Brixton), I do think there’s a need to encourage more young people into agriculture, both because in most places the non-farm economy is not providing enough decent jobs, and because labour intensive agriculture remains a crucial initial path to equitable growth in many countries. What to do? One significant finding in the paper is that the standard policy recipes are not enough to do the trick; government and others somehow have to make it cool to farm:
‘It was clear that people considered material assistance in accessing land and inputs, while necessary, would not be enough to make farming attractive to young people, citing a need for successful role models in agriculture. Not only that, there was a strong sense that government had a key role to play in creating the right signals that agriculture is a valued sector and farming a worthwhile profession.’
The paper concludes:
‘Agriculture’s lack of appeal to young people reflects i) lack of effective public investment in small holder farming and the public infrastructure needed to link to markets; ii) constrained access to land and uncertain access to inputs among young people, including land fragmentation in many countries in past few decades; and iii) social change resulting from rapid increases in mass education provision but which have often resulted in a perceived decline in the status of agriculture.
But in digging deeper, the research also finds that agriculture could be made more appealing to young people, with the right kinds of measures and support. First, public policies need to improve the fit between the aspirations of young people and opportunities in agriculture and agri-food more broadly. This could include providing the right kinds of training at appropriate levels to reflect the demands of the job market and broader public investment. Second, an important factor in enabling young people to see the potential of different employment choices, in agriculture and other sectors, is the presence of positive, successful role models.
Finally, a strong message emerging from across all the countries in this research is that farmers, across all generations, need support for accessing markets and to improve productivity, such as access to inputs and in the uptake of modern technologies. It is clear that in a time when food prices are volatile, such policies would help to reduce or mitigate other areas of uncertainty in farming and would go some way towards creating the kind of dynamic agricultural sector that will drive poverty-reducing growth as well as attracting the ‘talent’ of future generations.’