“He leaves his city job to become a market gardener”, “In Italy young people are returning to agriculture”, “Goat rearing, a popular activity for young people undergoing vocational retraining”… You’re bound to come across these kinds of titles in the media as they’re becoming more and more common.
What motivates Europe’s youth, both rural and urban, to turn to agriculture? And above all, why is it actually good news?
Agriculture in need of youth
When studying the agricultural situation in each of the EU countries, two observations stand out: the agricultural population is ageing (in 2016, 60% of farmers were aged 55 or over) and the number of farms is declining prodigiously (a reduction of a quarter of farms between 2005 and 2016). In France, the Ministry of Agriculture has even announced that by 2026, 45% of French farmers will have retired.
Under these conditions, aid for the installation of young farmers has become a priority for the European Commission in the negotiations for the CAP, which will come into force in 2022. The future CAP includes provisions such as raising the ceiling for installation aid from EUR 70,000 to EUR 100,000. Income support, but also measures facilitating access to land and land transfers are among the main instruments to help young farmers.
Agricultural settlement as vocational retraining for young people
Yet, despite this rather dark picture we are painting, and despite the urbanization that frames the landscapes, we observe a growing return of young people to the land. Many are returning to rural areas, and many are also leaving their jobs to work in agriculture.
It is easy to draw up a typical profile of these young people: often around 30 years old, over-qualified, they have been working for a few years in an office job in which they do not flourish. Many of them are aware of the uselessness of the tasks entrusted to them in the context of their work (often in fields such as marketing or finance, among others). This is a phenomenon that anthropologist David Graeber describes perfectly in his essay Bullshit jobs: a theory, published in 2018.
Why should we encourage them?
This kind of conversion to farming, by young people with little or no experience in farming, sometimes annoys farmers. It is an understandable reaction: working the land, in all its science and complexity and especially its hard work, cannot be a playful activity to which one turns when tired of “city” jobs, thinking that it will only be a matter of breathing more fresh air and swapping one’s office for open spaces.
However, we would be wise not to make fun of these young people in retraining too quickly. While it is easy to point the finger at the ‘trendy’ aspect of this kind of retraining, it is way less easy to make the decision to abandon a comfortable lifestyle with a guaranteed salary and turn to farming, which, let’s be honest, is no longer an attractive job today.
It would be rather caricatural to paint a portrait of these young people as city dwellers in search of “connection with nature”, unaware of the difficulty of the work that awaits them. They are actually often fully aware of this, but they are driven by something much stronger: the desire to participate in this gigantic effort to feed the population. Above all, they belong to this new generation which carries ideals: a sustainable agriculture that would be more respectful of the environment and the health of farm workers and consumers, a willingness to innovate, to produce locally etc.
So as rural inhabitants, and even as farmers, let us encourage, support and guide them. We should help them in their learning and when they face the first difficulties, because these young people represent an unexpected succession at a time when agriculture is so much in need of support.