Most farm managers in Europe are nearing retirement. There is a need to revitalise rural areas in Europe and crate opportunities for younger people. Social scientists are scrutinising the problem of rural decline, highlighting success stories and policy actions and tracking paths back to a more prosperous countryside.
Farming is an ancient profession. But a problem in Europe is that the farmers themselves are getting old. From the more than ten million farm managers, one-third were over the age of 65 in 2016. Another one-quarter were 55 and over, while only 11% were under 40 years of age.
It is clear that rural areas need to halt population declines and attract new generations. To turn back the tide and regenerate rural areas, social scientists are unearthing how and why some rural areas are growing and performing better than others.
This will reveal how farming can seed a new crop of young farmers, as well as encourage green shoots in rural communities, and transform them into more attractive places to live and work.
‘Farmers are getting old and mostly male. About 13% of farmland is managed by female farmers,’ said Willem Korthals Altes, land development professor at TU Delft in the Netherlands. ‘There is also an issue of declining rural regions, and this all needs new policies.’
Specifically, Professor Korthals Altes has examined the aspirations of young people in rural and urban areas in 12 different countries and looked at what actions could be taken to attract newcomers to the countryside as part of the four-year EU-wide RURALIZATION research project. Prof. Korthals Altes and his team have interviewed about 2,000 young people in 20 regions of the EU about their hopes for the future. One surprise was that many people, in cities and the countryside, would like to live in rural areas, often for quality-of-life reasons.
The project aims to identify paths to overcome population and economic decline in rural Europe and seed new opportunities. Right now, the picture painted by statistics is bleak. The EU lost 11% of its farmland between 1993 and 2013, while farms themselves are getting bigger and fewer, which contributes to job losses. ‘If we look at just the overall statistics, what we found is sad,’ said Prof. Korthals Altes. ‘So we looked for positive examples that we could learn from and also highlight positive practices.’
Specific case studies have been published, such as an agro-tourism farm in rural Poland set up by newcomers from Warsaw to grow organic crops and run ecological workshops, a community-owned farms group in the Netherlands and a silkworm farm with mulberry trees in Italy.
Growing trends and recommendations
Rural trends identified in the project included a rise in alternative food systems such as organic farming due to greater environmental awareness. There were also evolving gender roles in private and working life and diversification of farm business and diversification of rural economies. Two other trends were digitisation of economic activity and the rise of online markets, which can open the gate to new business opportunities in rural regions.
Newcomers into rural areas may be especially important for economic revival, because of their higher education, wider network of contacts and tendency to innovate, the study found. It also revealed that organic production has increased significantly in most countries, and that this is one of the most important alternative forms of renewal.
The “young farmer problem” is more marked in some countries than others. Just 3.3% of farm managers in Cyprus and 4.2% in Portugal are under 40, while the figure is closer to 20% in Poland and Slovakia. The problems in one country do not match exactly those in another.
But one common barrier for new entrants to agriculture is access to land, and there is a lack of policies to support people who want to begin farming. ‘We find policies related to the modernisation agenda of farming, but not much about new entrants to farming,’ said Prof Korthals Altes. The project reported on some 64 access to land practices, from partners to the project, that can contribute to rural generation.
No EU Member States have elaborate policies and legal arrangements for providing access to land, says Korthals Altes. ‘The per hectare direct payments that a farmer gets for holding the land in good agricultural condition are in most EU regions higher than the rent, which works out negatively for new entrants,’ notes Korthals Altes. ‘It is a better retirement plan to keep your land with the direct payments, than to rent it out to new farmers.’ Nonetheless, under changes to the new Common Agricultural Policy announced last December, there will be additional support for young farmers’ income, such as national authorities having to direct 2% of local income support to them and young farmers being prioritised to receive basic payments.
Korthals Altes now plans discussions with stakeholders and for the project to draw up recommendations for rural renewal that local governments and agencies can tap into.
The most obvious recommendation is to make a future in agriculture attractive to young farmers and new entrants. However, a lack of interest among young people to work in the farming sector is a common phenomenon for developed economies, and many don’t look on farming as a prestigious career option, according to Dr İlkay Unay-Gailhard at the Leibniz Institute of Agricultural Development in Germany. ‘When we ask the young people about their image of farming, they state its low income, hard physical work and low prestige,’ she explained.
No lack of interest
But this should not be misunderstood as a lack of interest in agriculture, as seen in the frequent protests by young people against industrial farming practices. ‘We know digital communications influence the social behaviour of young people and they show more support for ecological farming,’ said Dr Unay-Gailhard. ‘But we don’t know how they influence their choice of farming as a career option.’
Awarded an EU Marie Sklodowska-Curie Global Fellowship for her a research project Young Farmers, she will interview dozens of young farmers in the US and in Germany about their personal history and about how digital communication messages influenced their career option. She believes that there is a lack of positive role model images of farmers, and absence of “farmer and mother” as a role model in family farms.
Dr Unay-Gailhard will also talk to government agencies and non-profit organisations about the use of new media tools – such as interactive online portals, blogs, online agricultural communication and public engagement campaigns and social media services – to assist those at the start of their career and those who might transition towards farming. Career paths are no longer as planned and predictable, and career trajectories can change course. ‘Young people these days can follow rising opportunities,’ said Dr Unay-Gailhard.
Also, how farms are run is shifting. Advanced digital technologies and robotics are making inroads on some farms, and young farmers may be motivated by the more high-tech, innovative approaches to farming.
Dr Unay-Gailhard will recommend to government agencies and farm organisations ways to communicate digitally with young people. The hope is that young people will have better access to information on agricultural careers, and reconsider the benefits on offer from a rural career and lifestyle.
The research in this article was funded by the EU. This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.