While global production of food, feed and fiber rises each year, the number of new farmers declines. Driven in part by urbanization and economic realities, the number of farmers has reached a point so low that policymakers are concerned about the future of rural communities.
In many parts of the world, rapid urbanization is attracting the children of farmers to service jobs in cities. (In the U.S., half of farmers are age 55 or older. In sub-Saharan Africa, the average age is around 60, according to a recent U.N. report.)
Development in suburban and even exurban (beyond suburban) areas has boosted land prices high enough to put farming off-limits to newcomers without significant means. One result has been an increase in corporate-owned farms, which represent daunting competition to potential independent, smaller-scale operations.
Wanted: Fresh young farmers
Beginners are needed to replace the aging farmers who produce the food consumed today. That’s why policymakers, who also want to improve the viability of rural communities, are joining forces to encourage young farmers. U.S. officials, U.N. agencies and the World Food Prize Foundation, for example, offer opportunities for youth to work the land using innovative techniques that will feed a growing population while protecting the environment.
The U.S. approach
In 2014, the U. S. Congress increased funding to help new farmers purchase land, obtain crop insurance and learn modern farming methods. The money helps retiring farmers transfer their land to beginning farmers and helps military veterans transition into farming.
“We have to do a better job of continuing to attract and retain young people into this extraordinary calling,” said U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. A Department of Agriculture website teaches people how to acquire land and finance their operations, as well as manage risk, get technical assistance and protect the environment while farming. The site may target young people, but it also appeals to others.
A U.N. approach
The United Nations shows how educational programs such as farmer field schools in Africa allow new farmers to learn agricultural practices. It explains how through farmer organizations and improved means of communications, young people can connect to markets to sell higher-value food.
Try an internship
Every year, the World Food Prize Foundation, an Iowa-based group, invites secondary-school students from around the world to its Global Youth Institute, where they present research papers on how to sustainably produce enough food to feed their countries’ populations. They also tour cutting-edge industrial and research facilities related to food and agriculture and have opportunities to meet international experts in agriculture.
Some of those students are selected to study for two months at international research organizations, where they delve into issues related to agriculture and nutrition.
Whether you are interested in farming yourself or not, these efforts offer a lot of food for thought about who will produce the food your community needs in coming years.