Post-industrial Western countries are facing a stiff challenge regarding agriculture: the recipes that have been used for the past fifty years are revealing their limitations (with respect to the environment, farmers’ health and quality of life, etc.), while the need for solid local agriculture seems to be growing. In fact, now that the downsides of globalisation have become evident, some things have become less acceptable, like buying vegetables from abroad while the very same ones we produce in our own countries are exported. It also seems more urgent each day to secure the living of the farmers, i.e. to ensure that they can set fair selling prices, that they live and work in healthy conditions, etc.
For a growing number of people, the answer to these challenges lies in the return of local food farming, and the promotion of new methods that take environmental issues into account (i.e. sustainable or integrated farming). Among these people, there is a proportion that have even chosen to take on the task themselves, and to become farmers. In France, some of them are called “agriculteurs hors cadre familial”, which means that they settle outside of a farming family structure to start their very own activity – i.e., some of these new farmers come from farming backgrounds but are not carrying on their parents’ business, while others have no connections with the agricultural world and are starting from scratch. Some of them are even former city-dwellers who have chosen quite a radical change of life; you often read about them in magazines.
Who composes this population of new farmers? How many are there? What are their real aspirations and wishes? Will they change agriculture in the Western world?
A growing population
Take the French case. Farming is facing a harsh situation: every year, only 16,000 farmers start working, while 25,000 stop or retire… This lack of renewal has its consequences: the rural population keeps decreasing, and there are not enough people to carry on the farms and ensure the satisfactory perpetuation of food farming – although this is exactly what many are calling for in these times of crisis. The Ministry of Agriculture has taken on this challenge, and wishes to fill the gap in terms of not only quantity but also “quality”. France and other post-industrial countries more than ever need farmers who are aware of the environmental stakes and who can master new farming methods, now far more technical than they used to be. Together with the European Union, the French public authorities are thus encouraging and supporting new farmers who wish to start their own businesses, through tax deductions, advantageous borrowing rates and personalised assistance at the start of a project. And among others, these subsidies help the farmers who work outside a family farming structure. Around 75% of them actually benefit from European and French aid, and in 2003 they accounted for around 30% of subsidised establishments (15% in the early 1990s). According to the experts, by 2020, these new farmers could represent 30% of all farmers (not just the ones who are starting up). As the Ministry of Agriculture writes in a study, there is no doubt that
the people now starting to work outside a family farming structure contribute to the renewal of this range of activity.
The study of the Ministry of Agriculture (2011), along with another one, overseen in 2012 by Jeunes Agriculteurs – JA (Young Farmers) and the Mouvement Rural de la Jeunesse Chrétienne – MRJC (Rural Movement of Christian Youth), provide interesting answers. Firstly, these new farmers are more qualified than the older generations: only 15% did not obtain the baccalaureate, and around 75% received higher or secondary education. In 2000, farmers who had little or no training represented half of the workforce; in 2007, they only represented a third, and their share keeps decreasing as they reach retirement age. Although the majority of farmers who work outside a family farming structure (66%) have degrees that are not related to agriculture, the higher level of education tends to show that they are in fact a new kind of population, and that maybe they are attracted to farming for different reasons than older generations.
The JA and MRJC warn about the clichés: these new farmers are often taken for “bobos” (urban sophisticates) who wish to indulge in a casual farming activity, just to let off some of the steam in their lives. But in fact, “they have much more ambitious goals. And the obstacles they meet are more difficult than the ones facing people who take over their parents’ land.” They are determined, too, as nine out of ten are still active ten years after they started. But the study nevertheless establishes that the “dream activity” for these particular farmers can sound quite “bobo”: “products coming from sustainable farming, sold through short distribution channels, ideally on the farm itself.” One-third of them, when defining their project, say they want to install a processing unit to transform their products and/or a shop; 63% wish to produce according to sustainability standards, and 58% want to sell their products through short distribution channels. These aspirations certainly show that a growing proportion of farmers wish to renew agriculture, and to do everything at the same time: secure their livelihood (with new sources of revenue), improve their environmental impact and create social bonds in a rural world where these are sometimes woefully lacking. As the Ministry of Agriculture says,
because of their past and their aspirations, which are not exclusively farm-related, these people do more than just perpetuate innovative visions of the agricultural world: they transform it from the inside.
Infiltrating the farming world
Of course, these new and young farmers will not reinvent our agriculture all by themselves. But the fact that their preoccupations and competencies are infiltrating the farming world will definitely have an effect. In fact, many farmers who have been established for a long time or who are starting in a family farming structure are also endorsing these environmental and social challenges. A growing number of them decide, every year, to change over to sustainable or integrated farming (thanks to public aid, and sometimes the support of their own customers). In a way, the new farmers of the 2010s are maybe the most visible part of a movement that is spreading to the whole agricultural world, now aware that it needs to reinvent itself if it is to keep offering self-fulfilling opportunities to farmers, foster consumers’ attachment to their local and national agriculture, and preserve the environment (which is absolutely crucial to this line of work) in the long run. For it is true that a successful set-up requires the perfect combination of a life project, a work project and a project for the territory.
Young farmers may not be able to change agriculture on their own, but all farmers, together with their customers, consumers and the public authorities, most definitely can.
Photo © Shutterstock / TraXXXe