While European agriculture continues to invest in large, capital intensive, fully specialised industrial farms, many young farmers cannot and do not want to build their future on this model. Currently more than 55% of European farmers are over the age of 55 and want to retire within the next ten years. Yet, only 7% of the conventional and 10% of the organic farmers in Europe are under the age of 35.

There is a growing crisis in farming, as a generation of farmers grows older, with no one to take over from them when they retire. Many farming families find that their children don’t want to follow in their footsteps, so when ageing farmers stop farming, farms often cease to be used for agriculture. But as farms and farmers disappear, our food security is increasingly threatened. Fewer people have the critical skills to produce food, farmland goes out of production and countries become over-dependent on imports. The statistics above illustrate a pressing need, both to draw young people back into farming and to provide them with access to land they can farm.

Despite the dominance of industrial farming, there is an increase in young people wanting to get involved in sustainable farming activities – many of them new to farming and not from farming families. But it remains very difficult to start-up or take-over a farm. The increase in land prices in most European countries and the large size of many farms make it difficult for young agricultural starters to acquire the land that they need. Further, banks are reluctant to supply loans to young farmers if they cannot bring their own capital to the table.

To secure sustainable food production in Europe, create jobs for young people and build a lively and resilient countryside, it is important that young people who want to be involved in agriculture are able to enter the sector and can continue farming. Young, future farmers have to be supported in their development. In order to effectively support these future farmers and better anticipate their needs, it is important to know who they are.

Neus Monllor, of the University of Girona, Spain, has investigated young farmers between the ages of 18 and 40 in Spain and Canada. She distinguished two main categories of young farmers: ‘Newcomers’ and ‘Continuers.’ ‘Newcomers’ are coming into farming without a family background in agriculture, where ‘Continuers’ are taking over a family farm.

Monllor’s research provides some interesting demographic detail on the ‘Continuers’ and ‘Newcomers’ into farming. ‘Continuers’ are generally male (85%) and have (63%) mostly studied agriculture at college. On average they take over the family farm at the age of 22. Only a small minority of these ‘Continuers’ have a farm website (9%) or have written a business plan for their farm (15%).

There are other significant differences between ‘Continuers’ and ‘Newcomers’ that might arguably make a case for a new kind of farmer entering agriculture. ‘Continuers’, in taking over already established farms, are more likely to be entrenched in a more traditional ‘productivist’ farm model where ‘…The major tendency is to get bigger, to invest in machinery and to sell to an intermediary or corporation. The farms of ‘Newcomers’ are generally smaller, with products sold directly to the consumer. Most start with vegetables or sheep and their farms are largely organically managed (a startling 81%).

Neus Mollner’s research further outlines the emergence of what she terms, a new ‘agrosocial paradigm’ in the ‘Newcomers’ to farming – one which is focused on locality, direct engagement with the consumer, innovation and greater care of the environment. While a desire to do things differently is also present in ‘Continuers’, the impetus towards change may be inhibited by traditional family practices – these farms tend to do things the way they have always done them.

The film project Future Farmers in the Spotlight, which documents young sustainable farmers and their activities in Europe, provides many examples of this new agrosocial paradigm. A good illustration of the ‘Newcomers’ can be found in the Netherlands: De groentemeiden. Three Dutch women – well educated and without a farming background – found their passion producing vegetables and selling them though a box scheme. Their film can be seen here.

The Netherlands is one of those countries where ‘Newcomers’ face the most difficulties, largely because land prices have risen to 70,000 Euros per hectare. Here the ratio of young farmers is among the lowest in Europe, only 2 percent. Many of the ‘Newcomers’ (and also ‘Continuers’) are looking to build their business across the country borders, and move to countries where land is still available. The ones that stay in the Netherlands must explore new and innovative ways to get access to land and financing. Continuer Krispijn van den Dries, who will slowly takeover the family company from his father, seeks to strengthen his relationship with consumers and use crowdfunding to finance the takeover.

What young farmers are showing us – especially in countries where the challenges are biggest – is that they are actively exploring alternative models to sustain and build their businesses. Many of the young farmers are building a new relationship with consumers that is not only based on direct marketing, but also on involving the consumer in a more integral way in the life and activity of the farm, drawing on the consumer as a source of labour and financial capital when investments are needed (as in a Community Supported Agriculture model), and growing a more personal relationship between the farm and those that eat its food.

There is much evidence of the success of these innovative farming models, as captured in the Future Farmer’s films. Innovation is critical in moving the new agrosocial paradigm forward into a sustainable future. Farming is changing and demanding new approaches and thinking to revitalise it as a profession. Young farmers need land and capital to follow their dreams of feeding the future and they are inventing new economic relationships, and reworking old ones, in order to access it.

The author of this blog is Co-Initiator of Future Farmers in the Spotlight, a project about young sustainable farmers in Europe. Future Farmers in the Spotlight documents young people in Europe that have despite the many difficulties, managed to build an ecologically and economically sustainable farm. Do you want to know more about young farmers in Europe and learn about the sustainable businesses they developed? Have a look at www.future-farmers.net.

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