Who Wants to Farm? Hardly any young people, it seems. Should/Could that change?

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

The exception?
The exception?

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:

the future?
the future?

‘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.’


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19 Responses to “Who Wants to Farm? Hardly any young people, it seems. Should/Could that change?”
  1. Makarand

    The research seems to be, as you mentioned yourself, reaffirming what we find when we move around and listen to people in agriculture – the youth want out. I agree with most of what you and the IDS research seems to be saying except “…I do think there’s a need to encourage more young people into agriculture….”

    I have a diametrically opposite view. I think the only people who romanticize small holder production are those who do not have to engage in it. The way forward imo is more efficient production and that cannot necessarily come from small holders. Policies need to be angling for moving subsequent generations away from agriculture rather than condemn them to a life over which they have close to zero control.

    You talk of role models. Agree but they cannot come from a few rural areas. Things may change if and when substantial educated people from urban areas move to agriculture of the small holder variety. Do you see that happening? I don’t and for a reason – small holder production, when we look at the numbers of those engaged in it, is fundamentally unviable. Safety nets, small experiments of linking to markets etc will only make it possible to keep unviable livelihoods going. The earlier development professionals and policy makers (none of whom are actually engaged in small holder production) accept that this is unviable and romantic, the faster they will seek alternatives.

  2. Hannah

    Thanks for this piece. What troubles me is that policy measures in the EU or US to encourage young people to move towards agriculture – even though that sector is arguably highly productive in comparison to poorer countries – are not usually set against policies to move/invest into other industries/sectors. It’s not expressed as a trade-off, whereas the jist of your piece and the research seem to imply it is. In fact, is it possible that it might make more long-term sense for policies in poorer countries to be oriented in the opposite direction to what you suggest – I.e. for policy (and therefore scarce aid) to be focused now on improving prospects for jobs in other high-return industries/sectors that young people actually want to enter – rather than go against the grain of what they really want to do? Otherwise, might governments simply be setting up for failure? Couldn’t new/young entrants policies be introduced at a later stage once other industries/sectors are up and running and providing domestic resources that can subsidise agriculture?

  3. Steve Wiggins

    I’m never quite sure who the peasant idealists alluded to in these debates are. Straw men, no doubt.

    Look, who is claiming that small-scale farming is the long-term future for many? No-one I work with.

    The observation that youth don’t want to farm is old: when I arrived in Embu, Kenya in 1980, the local countryside hummed with secondary schools full of pupils whose parents used their earnings from coffee and tea to send them to school at great sacrifice. The parents weren’t sending them to school to prepare them for farming.

    In the medium term people will leave farming in droves for, we hope, better options: if only the urban economy can be made more productive and successful. In the short term, many of today’s rural youth will have to farm because unfortunately there will be few better options. So we want to develop agriculture in part to make sure they have a better life farming than their parents. And to contribute to economic growth that will stimulate others parts of the economy and create better jobs.

    Until I see evidence to the contrary. there’s little or no trade-off in low income countries between developing agriculture and mfg industry. Asian experience suggests as much.

    Prospects for youth are never as good as we’d like them to be. What’s the difference between youth in rural Kenya and in urban Sunderland where the short-term prospects for the average youth are not that great: a zero hours contract in Britain’s service economy, anybody?

    The gap between aspirations and reality is pretty wide across the world. Only good thing is that humdrum reality is, across much of the world, considerably improved on what it was half a century ago. [And that probably even applies in Sunderland … there’s a lot of rose-tinted thinking about how wonderful it was to be a Northern youth contemplating life in the mill or down the pit half a century back.]

  4. John Magrath

    That is a very thought-provoking study, especially in the light of major social changes. Apropos,I was at the Ashden conference yesterday on sustainable energy http://www.ashden.org/conference/2014 (theme being sustainable energy for women and girls – ‘volts for women’, very clever). The point was made strongly that smallholders can’t increase income or diversify out of just doing farming without energy. One winner, Jim Taylor of Proximity Designs, Myanmar (www.proximitydesigns.org),pointed out that one impact of more and more rural people migrating – in this case to Thailand – is that farm labour costs have gone up to $4 or $5 a day. This means that farmers must increase/switch to mechanisation to replace hands. But few can afford to, especially as diesel costs go up. So this is something of a crunch time, probably in other countries as well; less labour increases the burden on those still in agriculture; but it also represents an opportunity to make smallholder farming not only more viable but also less back-breaking, exhausting and unpleasant – especially for women.Proximity e.g. have sold 90,000 treadle pumps to farmers for irrigation, along with drip irrigation. Jim Taylor said one pump replaces up to 140 trips from pond to field each day, the fetcher (often a woman) each time carrying 50lbs of water on a yoke across the shoulders. Whether providing energy/power on a greater scale will incentivise people to stay on the farms, even if it does increase income, is of course a moot point. For example, with more (solar) light kids study more – and are more likely to widen their horizons and want to leave. But what is pretty certain is that for those who stay, farming could a better life in all respects.

  5. Sam Gardner

    I agree we should support farming better, but more importantly, not come in between the poor and a decent life where they want it. This will be probably not in agriculture.

  6. Sarah Best

    Thanks John for bringing in the energy link, and the fascinating work of Proximity Designs we learnt about yesterday at Ashden. One ‘killer fact’ on the physical stress of depending on human and animal power in farming that impressed on me is mentioned by Lawrence Clarke of the FAO: “To cover 1 hectare using the traditional digging hoe requires about ½ million strokes and takes one grown person about two months to complete. … To cover one hectare with a single furrow ox plough a person (and animal) has to walk about 50km (as well as struggling to control the plough and animal)” (https://www.raeng.org.uk/events/pdf/Engineering_and_global_food_security_Transcript.pdf)

    At IIED we’ve been exploring the ‘why, what and how’ of expanding access to modern energy services in smallholder-based agriculture value chains – a very neglected topic in the energy access field – and just published a paper examining the (mainly grey and spartan) literature on this topic. (http://pubs.iied.org/16562IIED.html) A couple of starter suggestions on what’s required to address the energy gap.
    One, rural electrification schemes (grid, mini grid) need to prioritise serving ‘productive uses’ of energy in low-income communities, which energy experts generally agree they’ve failed at. The paper has lots of suggestions (plug plug) on ingredients needed make this work – from looking at larger energy users like farms and processors who can make schemes economically viable to capacity building for energy users (business administration, managing equipment, agricultural practices) so people can actually make use of their new energy/equipment to earn more.

    Two, there’s also the off-grid technology. And here we’re really still at a pilot stage: outside treadle pumps or two-wheel tractors, there seem to be rather few examples of modern energy technologies which supply smallholder farming needs achieving any take-up at scale – meaning there’s lots of work to be done in designing delivery and (social?) enterprise models in the coming years. Jim at Proximity Designs said yesterday they have a solar pump in development which will cost around $200, which combined with good use of farm financing, sounds really promising. Sunculture in Kenya is another example I heard of recently combining solar-pumping combined with drip irrigation. They are serving a better off farmers than Proximity I expect (urbanites with farms run by family members back home), but interestingly they provide a full package of support – not just throwing bits of kit at farmers, but providing advice on agronomy, finance and marketing too.

    So yes, without making any grand claims, I agree with you Jon that expanding access to modern energy & equipment on farms and in the rural economy more widely could be one part of the puzzle for make life less physically tough while helping with the rural labour shortage. We could also do with more civil society organisations getting involved with positive lobbying muscle on energy access since a key reason why rural energy needs are usually ignored (or forgotten straight after elections) link back to problems of governance, corruption, oversight and those communities’ lack political power & voice.

  7. Rogue_Aider (@rogue_aider)

    Seeing this phenomenon first hand in South Sudan, where agriculture really must be the backbone of the country if the country is to exist at all (no seaport, can’t depend on oil, can’t depend on food imports).
    No need to make the issue more complex than it already is. Some people will *want* or *have* to be farmers – the goal is to make it possible for them to avoid being *destitute* farmers. That’s one track.
    Another track is to avoid thinking of “farming” as meaning subsistence farming, since there is money in agribusiness, specialty products (natural foods, organic cotton), etc.
    You need agriculture as an economic base (at least at the “not so many poor underfed farmers level”). Better fed people can think and do more, plus a few prominent farming projects raise confidence overall.
    Ideally you will see a less impoverished small scale farming sector linked to other *real* economic opportunities (i.e. not having to trade “being a poor farmer” for “being a poor slum dweller”).

  8. Naomi Hossain

    Steve is right – nothing much to romanticise about smallholder farming in most countries. But manufacturing as the solution? I spent Monday evening with garments workers in Chittagong, Bangladesh. Apart from the fear that their factory might down with them in it or collapse on them, their wages don’t keep pace with inflation, they live 6 to a tiny stinking room beside a 3 metre wide open sewer (particularly fragrant in the rainy season) and eat badly after their 10 hour shift. Lets not romanticise manufacturing either. And lets also not forget that Big Food is the obvious answer when smallholder farming is not viable. We did this study partly because we thought higher food prices might draw people into the sector. But its the money men, not small farmers, who are doing well out of food price rises.

  9. Chris Alford

    Interesting post Duncan.

    “I have a diametrically opposite view. I think the only people who romanticize small holder production are those who do not have to engage in it. The way forward imo is more efficient production and that cannot necessarily come from small holders. Policies need to be angling for moving subsequent generations away from agriculture rather than condemn them to a life over which they have close to zero control.”

    I think that taking the diametrically opposite view can be just as pernicious and paternalistic as over-romanticising smallholder production. Ultimately it all boils down to what people really want: if they want to leave agriculture because it doesn´t interest them, then we should respect that decision. If they want to stay in agriculture because they enjoy it or because they feel a much stronger bond with working on their land than in a city, then we should respect that decision as well, rather than saying that they should leave agriculture because that is what *we* believe is better for *them*.

    Working in Guatemala over the past couple of years, I´ve met people that correspond to both sides of this equation. For sure, there are definitely young people who have no interest whatsoever in working in agriculture and can´t wait to get out of it and do something different. But on the other hand, I´ve also met plenty of young, “next generation” campesinos who happily sit astride the modern world (technologically, culturally, etc) but still maintain their traditional practices and values centred around their relationship with the land and the environment. When I first met one of my now good friends out here, I asked him if he enjoyed working in agriculture and he replied “por supuesto, es mi vida” (of course, it´s my life). A couple travelling through Guatemala who stopped in Xela for a while did an interview with him if anyone is interested in checking it out, it provides a good insight into the next generation of people working in agriculture over here (only in Spanish I´m afraid): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rpjUftZQfhs&feature=youtu.be

    One has to remember, that in regions such as Central America (as well as others), indigenous culture and values still hold a very strong influence amongst the population, which emphasise man´s relationship with the earth and place a very important value on agriculture (and, increasingly, on food sovereignty). Saying that this is backward or anti-“development” can border on outright colonialism, so we have to be very careful with absolute statements like “the way forward for development is to move smallholders out of agriculture”.

    The Mesoamerican Institute for Permaculture in Guatemala (http://imapermacultura.wordpress.com/) is particularly popular with young people here – I´ve met several people here who either work there or who have gone to take their courses. I think movements like this have a particularly high potential to generate the kind of interest in “fashionable” agriculture amongst the younger generations that you talk about Duncan.

  10. Chris Alford

    Also – urban (and peri-urban) agriculture. Definitely holds a lot of potential for spurring interest amongst young people in agriculture – it can offer the best of both worlds for people want to get out of the countryside but don´t have the skills (or desire) to move into decent-paid jobs in other sectors.

  11. Tessa Vorbohle

    This study is an interesting contribution to the discussion on young people and farming and the ageing of farm populations respectively. The suggestion that the presence of role models could be as important as support for accessing markets and improving productivity raises the question of who these role models could be.

    At HelpAge we are witnessing in a number of countries that the more innovative agricultural support programmes (i.e. those supporting innovative technologies and/or linking farmers to markets) tend to target younger people only. ‘Older farmers’ (sometimes as young as 50-55) are often not eligible to participate.

    This is based on a perception of older farmers being unable or unwilling to adopt new technologies or linking with markets. There is however no evidence to support this and given the disproportionate reliance of older people on agriculture and the absence of alternative employment opportunities, older farmers could benefit greatly from adopting new technologies and linking with markets.

    This exclusion of older farmers is problematic from a rights-based perspective but also from the perspective of needing to improve the profitability and image of agriculture. Older farmers, when provided with adequate support may well have the potential to be the much needed role models who could help attract more young people into agriculture.

  12. Allan

    What is not dealt with in these conversations is aspiration. Poor and working class families are more often than not, driven by the need to create a better life for their children. In most instances, a better life meaning that next generations don’t have to engage in back breaking manual labour. Because after all, isn’t all development (and quite confrontingly corporate) work the pursuit of leisure. In the case of business for the purposes of efficiency/profit by reducing labour input costs, and for development agencies in the pursuit of free time for people to devote to ‘higher order’ activities towards self actualisation. If this is the case then why are we not pursuing highly mechanised, low labour production methods in agriculture?

    From my perspective this issue presents a deeper question to the development sector than just work ad employment for young people – it asks us to resolve some of the inherent contradictions in our practice.

  13. Mark Wentling

    When I graduated from high school 51 years ago in Kansas, I left the hard life of the farm. All over America, small family farms have disappeared and fewer bigger farms with high levels of productivity feed the country and a good part of the world. Is not a transition from small to larger more productive farms a key development step? Like demographic transition. If that step of the development process does not happen, can a country move to a higher development stage? After 44 years of working first hand the agricultural challenges of Africa, I am becoming increasing convinced that a country cannot move ahead as long as the hoe is the major instrument of agricultural cultivation. And, all the while,a fast growing population reduces the farm size worked by an aging agricultural workforce, and, for the most part, average crop yields remain in Africa well below the international average. Moreover, how can you build a rising standard of living on declining levels of soil fertility.

    Mark Wentling, Author of the African Trilogy, three books that communicate ‘development’ via fiction

  14. Chris Smaje

    Maybe time in this debate for a ‘peasant romantic’ to make a contribution – not a term I’d choose for myself, but one I’d opt for over some of the proletarianisation romantics who’ve responded above.

    If small farm life is so crap – and I’m very open to the idea that often it is – I’d like to ask the development experts here what, precisely, is the nature of its crapness. Is there something intrinsically crap about producing food and fibre on a small scale rather than a big scale? Is it that it’s impossible to produce a sufficient surplus in a small-farm dominated society to fund the wider necessities of a decent life (and how much surplus is enough, how decent must life be)? Or that small farmers are at the mercy of local, national and international powerholders whose actions, wilfully or not, reproduce small farm poverty? I’d find it hard to determine appropriate policy options without some specific answers to those questions.

    And things may be changing. Allan rightly says above that poor people (actually, I’d argue most people) are driven by wanting a better life for their children. What if it became clear that this wasn’t going to happen? In the wealthy north it already seems pretty clear that today’s young people will be worse off through their lives than their parents and grandparents. It’s also pretty clear that large-scale, machine-intensive commercial agriculture is encountering some tricky and perhaps insurmountable problems. Imagine a future scenario of generalised environmental and economic stagnation/crisis, and then pose the same questions about the crapness of small farm life.

    Take Duncan’s comment that the ‘false consciousness’ argument is a dangerous tactic by those who claim to listen to poor people, set it alongside the quotation from the young Indonesian woman, but then imagine the scenario if quitting the farm doesn’t enable her to buy the cell phone and the “other things needed by a teenager”. You can’t expect poor farmers to make decisions based on long-term global economic and environmental scenarios, but you ought to expect it of development policy experts. So I’m disappointed at the very conventional and unilineal narratives of ‘progress, ‘moving ahead’, ‘efficiency’, industrialisation etc deployed by some of the experts here. What if the world is changing, what if small farmers have some of the answers to how to live well in this new world if only we were to listen to THAT part of their voice and attend to their capacities as skilful agents rather than to the familiar ‘small farming is crap’ (a view in any case particularly attractive to the young in all agrarian societies). What policies might then emerge to redress its present crapness so that some of its skills and larger wisdom might come to fruition?

  15. The challenge with farming is that most people view it with the traditional view and forget the other opportunities that lie within the farming portfolio commonly referred to as the FOOD VALUE CHAIN. This narrow perspective even limits organisations/companies and individuals with the large capital requirements. Its no wonder one of Uganda’s greatest investor has now ventured into farming ie wheat (Supreme) .
    Young people need to view farming with that perspective hence start innovating better ideas that can increase efficiency along the food value chain. Lastly as long as Africa and countries like Uganda still have great weather conditions, cheap labor, agriculture will still remain its comparative advantage sector. For Ugandans to reap more, they have to demand for policies that will help the access right inputs, markets, packaging materials.