Who wants to farm? In an era of land grabs and environmental uncertainty, improving smallholder productivity has become a higher priority on the poverty and food security agenda in development, focusing attention on the next generation of farmers.
Yet emerging evidence about the material realities and social norms and desires of young people in developing countries indicates a reasonably widespread withdrawal from work on the land as an emerging norm. While de-agrarianisation is not new, policymakers are correct to be concerned about a withdrawal from the sector: smallholder productivity growth, and agricultural transformation more broadly, depend in part on the extent to which capable, skilled young people can be retained or attracted to farming, and on policies that support that retention.
So who wants to farm, and under what conditions? Where are economic, environmental and social conditions favourable to active recruitment by educated young people into farming? What policy and programmatic conditions are creating attractive opportunities in farming or agro-food industry livelihoods?
This paper explores these conditions in a context of food price volatility, and in particular rising food prices since 2007. To do so, it analyses primary qualitative research on the attitudes of young people and their families to farming in 2012, a time when food prices had been high and volatile for half a decade. In theory, assuming higher prices benefit small farmers, food farming should be more attractive since food prices started to rise in 2007.
But this simple causal assumption overlooks both that in many developing countries, it takes considerable economic power – ownership or access to cultivable land and affordable credit for inputs – to turn a profit in farming. It also fails to take into account more sociological explanations governing work and occupational choice – status aspiration and merit on the one hand, and perceived risk on the other.
These two explanations help to explain why young people from relatively low income families, particularly those most likely to innovate and raise productivity levels, do not perceive farming as a realistically desirable occupational choice.
Based on analysis of interviews, focus group discussion and household case studies with almost 1500 people in 23 rural, urban and peri-urban communities in low and middle income Asian, African and Latin American countries in 2012, this research digs deeper into some of the established explanations as to why youth in developing countries appear reluctant to enter farming, and identifies conditions under which capable and enterprising youth are being attracted to farming, and entry-points for youth participation in policymaking around agriculture and food security.