The development of rural areas, including services such as an internet connection, is necessary to stop the decline of small-holder family farming, which experts see as vital for youth employment and food security.

The 500 million or so small-holder farms worldwide are estimated to supply some two billion people with regular food. In Europe, some 95% of farms are at least partly family owned.

The United Nations has declared 2014 the International Year of Family Farming (IYFF) to highlight their importance in the food security debate. But many such farms face the risk of disappearing unless young people can be persuaded to carry on the profession rather than seek “greener pastures” in cities, one expert quipped ironically at a family farming event hosted by the farming cooperative association Copa-Cogeca on Wednesday (19 January). One third of farmers are over 65 years of age and only 6% under 35.

“Intergenerational farming is essential. It is a very obvious model that has to be part of the solution to the challenge we face, with farmers leaving the business,” said Gwilym Jones, a member of cabinet for the agriculture and rural development commissioner, Dacian Cioloş. “If they [farmers] do not earn enough they will join those cities that are creaking under the weight of their [population]”.

The agriculture groups present at the conference - including the World Farmers’ Organisation (WFO), the Italian confederation of agriculture, Confagricoltura, and the development agency Agricord, as well as the UN ambassador to the EU for IYFF - called for governments to take measures to make the profession attractive to young people.

Copa-Cogeca and the WFO called for access to internet and other social infrastructures "in line with the rest of society".

Roberto Poggioni of Confagricoltura, the Italian agricultural confederation, said: “We need better policies to get young people to stay in rural areas, better infrastructure [and] internet in rural areas,” he said.

Rural areas require services

The European Commission estimates that in 2008 41.7% of people living in areas of the EU with low population density had never used the internet. Only Cyprus, the Netherlands and the UK have 100% access to DSL internet in rural areas. The lowest areas of coverage are in Latvia (9%), Slovenia (11%) and in Lithuania (15%), according to the European Commission.

The theory goes that better access to the internet can provide farmers with access to innovation, training and market data. The lack of connectivity means that farmers may be unable to market their products sufficiently or access market data or agricultural research. Jones cites examples of coffee makers in Ethiopia who were able to market their products directly using technology, without relying on intermediaries, who “take away from the margins” of an already unsteady profession.

“It’s about making farmers businessmen”, a spokesperson for Copa-Cogeca said.

Commission proposals from 2009 said better ICT technology and access could play “a significant role in promoting entrepreneurship and economic progress in rural areas, this contributing to improve the competitiveness of agriculture and forestry, the quality of life and diversification of the rural economy”. The proposals have not yet been passed by the European Council of Ministers and published in the Commission’s official journal.

But the issue goes beyond internet access. Young farmers in many rural areas may feel that they do not have good enough access to services like healthcare, schools for their children and community centres.

“Farming policies should be part of a wider agenda for rural development to create an enabling social environment with services to make sure our rural areas are good to live in,” said Piet Vanthemsche, the president of the Belgian Farmers’ Union.

Social media may also be bringing more life to the farming profession, which is often viewed as dreary and lonely in the eyes of young Europeans.

The Twitter hashtag #AgriChatUK had reached the top 10 trends in the United Kingdom by October last year, with many farmers professing that social media was a “lifeline” when out on remote farms in the countryside.

"Farming can in many ways be very, very lonely. This is a great way to bring people together and enable them to communicate with each other in an easy manner," one Twitter user was quoted as saying by the Guardian.