Agricultural production is critical for the survival of any economy and the world at large, and the importance of ensuring its sustainable continuance cannot be ignored. It is the primary source of food, making it the key to global food security. When agricultural produce is sold, producers get an income, which translates to foreign currency earnings when the produce is exported. For many households, especially rural households across the globe, agriculture is the main source of livelihood, generating both income and food for producers. It is also an important source of employment for many, especially in developing countries. However, the agricultural production industry faces a critical challenge that could affect its existence and viability in the future – the lack of young farmers.
Why young farmers are important
The lack of youth farmers may have negative global far-reaching consequences. It threatens the viability and sustainability of agricultural production and food security for future generations. As older farmers exit the agricultural production space, there needs to be an equivalent or greater number of newer younger farmers joining the industry to ensure that agricultural production levels remain the same or better still, improve. Having fewer younger farmers joining the agricultural production space, may mean that there will not be enough farmers producing food and fuel, and consequently not enough food and fuel to cater for a growing global population in the future. This makes young farmers a key to ensuring food and fuel security, agricultural employment, income, and foreign currency earnings for future generations.
The lack of young farmers is a global challenge, with Zimbabwe, along with other developing countries, also experiencing this problem. It is often perceived that young people are not interested in farming because they do not find it attractive. This article will try to unpack this narrative, exploring what makes farming unattractive to young people, if indeed this perception is true, and it will also explore what can be done to encourage more young people to join the farming industry.
Young people and farming: Recent trends, drivers, and perceptions
In their 20s, oftentimes young people are still trying to acquire a skill or trade in which to engage in as a form of employment. At this stage, it seems that most young people are generally not attracted to farming as the first choice of a fulltime career. This is not to say that they do not think that farming is profitable. In fact, it highly likely that they are aware that agriculture can generate high returns, but in comparison with other career fields such as accounting, engineering, or health, agriculture tends to fall short for many reasons. Being largely subsistence, weather-dependent, and with limited mechanization, agricultural production in Zimbabwe is often seen as high risk, labor intensive, and high incomes are often not guaranteed. Agriculture is, therefore, not perceived to offer high incomes quicker and at a lower risk compared to other careers. Hence, given a choice, young people will choose careers other than farming and only think about engaging in farming if their first and second career choices fail, or only as a part-time income generating project. For most young people this age, the lack of access to land and capital will also be a huge obstacle to their entry into farming.
Although there is a general lack of young farmers, recent years have seen an increase in young people engaging in farming activities around the country. This trend gives hope that there is a future for the country’s food production in the next fifty years. Several reasons could explain this recent trend.
Firstly, the lack of viable formal employment that has characterized the last few decades in Zimbabwe, may have been one of the biggest drivers of young people engaging in farming. By their 30’s, young people have often completed their studies or training and are either formally employed, looking for employment or any prospects to generate income. In the last decade or two, finding formal employment has become increasingly difficult, leaving graduates or school-leavers with little choice but to either migrate to other countries or become self-employed, often in the informal sector. Increasingly, farming for a living, has become one of the preferred alternative livelihood options for many unemployed youths.
Apart from unemployment, there may be other factors that are drawing young people into farming. There has been an increase in young people already engaged in formal employment or running their own businesses, also farming for commercial purposes, as a secondary or part-time business. This may be an indicator that young people have always been aware of the profitability of, and are interested in farming as a business, as compared to subsistence farming and are now beginning to realize that there is a space for them, as producers, in the domestic and foreign market. Young farmers entering this industry are intent on making farming work as a business, and are finding innovative ways to maximize profits, minimize risk for example by introducing irrigation and good quality breed selection, and maximizing their markets through branding, online advertising, and value addition. The interest in farming as a business, is demonstrated by the young farmers’ resilience, with most having ventured into farming with very limited financial resources, with no access to large loans and often relying on their own alternative incomes.
In 2020, the farming season coincided with both lockdown restrictions and a good rainy season for most of the country, both of which may have had a positive impact on young people’s involvement in farming. For some, lockdown restrictions meant that they had more free time while at home and looking for something to do, they landed on agricultural projects. For others, lockdown restrictions meant that they could no longer make money through their traditional means of income generation. Since farming was considered an essential service, it became an attractive employment option for many. In addition, since traditional agricultural markets, such as fruit and vegetable markets were closed, there was a gap in the market to supply both consumers with agricultural produce. Hence, many young people began to venture into various farming projects and have continued to do since the beginning of Covid19 lockdowns. It remains to be seen, however, if these new farmers will continue in this line of business once the lockdown restrictions are removed completely and the economy functions as before, or if weather conditions are not as favorable as they were.
Challenges and barriers
While recent trends suggest that the number of young people involved and interested in farming may be growing, there are many barriers and challenges that threaten the sustainability of youth involvement in farming in the long-term. The lack of resources needed for farming – land, finance, water, and capital, is a major challenge and barrier to young farmer entry and development. For those with limited financial resources and no access to loans or capital, production is often limited to low capital-intensive enterprises such as poultry and limited in scale, with most using backyards and rural farmland. On other hand, many young farmers have resorted to renting land, which increases their running costs, reduces profits, and limits growth and makes farming out of reach for many. Without access to financial resources, young farmers are often limited in the scale of production, and the use of advanced equipment and technology, which would otherwise help to increase production, cut costs, and improve incomes. Another major challenge is market access, particularly, the international market.
What can be done?
While farmers in general, are already receiving different forms of input and technical support, a lot still needs to be done to provide adequate support that will ensure an increase in the number of young fulltime farmers and their sustainability over the long-term. Addressing young farmers’ challenge is critical to the success of efforts to lure young farmers to full-time, commercial farming, especially since farming – a high risk and slow-return kind of business, competes with other industries for young people’s interest, capital, and labor.
Most importantly, getting the land access question right; by specifically prioritizing young people in land tenure and access issues will be the most beneficial step towards increasing youth involvement in farming. For the young farmers already using rented land, financial support can be given towards purchasing their own land. At the same time, assisting farmers with finances to cover input costs and purchase of equipment, either through loans or input support programs will also be critical to young farmer’s success and sustainability. Thirdly, seeing that climate conditions have a severe impact on farming business success, at the centre of these support systems, there needs to be a focus on promoting and supporting the development of climate-smart agricultural techniques such as irrigation and hydroponics, which may help to mitigate climate change risks. Furthermore, a focus on technological development is crucial to increase yields, reduce farmer losses, increasing profitability and at the same time, make farming less labor intensive; all of which would farming more attractive. Lastly, to make more farming more profitable, increasing access to local and international markets will also be critical to the long-term sustainability of young farmers. All these measures will contribute towards creating an enabling environment for young farmers and make farming more attractive as a long-term career option.
All around the world, a general lack of young farmers threatens the ability of many nations to provide food for future generations. This article explored the main perception that young people in Zimbabwe, also find farming unattractive and therefore shy away from it as a means of employment. It seems, however, that, in recent years, there has been a shift in trends, with many young people being interested in, and already engaged in different forms of farming activity around the country; painting a picture of hope for Zimbabwe’s future in food production. However, the challenges that young farmers face – lack of access to land, finances, and water, threaten young farmer’s long- term sustainability, growth, and success. It is therefore up to policy makers to take advantage of the current momentum of young people’s increased interest in farming – which may have been heightened by rising unemployment and the Covid19 lockdowns, by providing a targeted support system and enabling environment for young farmers and young people who would like to farm. The support system should address the young farmers’ specific needs by increasing access to land, water, finances, while also providing technical support and training where it is required. These measures will not only assist young farmers to be more productive, but will also make farming attractive to other young people.