This article is part of our special report Next generation livestock farming: technology and tomorrow’s farmers.
Generation Z – those born between 1997 and 2015 – is faced with the future farming paradox: it is an exciting time to be a farmer with many opportunities opened up by innovation, but a farmer’s life has never been so complicated.
Portraying the next generation farmer is an exercise that has been keeping agrifood experts quite busy.
Last December, the Commission’s science service Joint Research Centre (JRC) published the ‘Farmers of the Future’ foresight study, which aims at identifying and exploring possible future professional roles of farmers towards 2040.
Two camps emerged in the analysis: on the one hand, the “technophile farmers” who, in the words of the report, are “soil-less and high-tech”, as well as “biotech entrepreneurs”; on the other we see the rise of nature-based farmers like the so-called ‘regenerative’ ones returning to their roots.
Speaking at a recent event, the president of the executive board at Wageningen University and renowned food expert Louise Fresco had no doubt that future farmers will fall into the high-tech savvy category.
But according to her, the real aspect that will have an impact in forging the Gen Z farmer is the renewed central importance that the agriculture sector will take up in the economic fabric in the next years.
“Without exaggeration, we can say that agriculture is one of the most exciting sectors of the future because of petrochemicals used from fossil fuel industry and produced by agriculture, because of food, because of its landscape management, and also because of its role in a circular economy,” she said.
At the same time, a wide range of demands placed on farmers by the EU’s ambitious Green Deal are increasing the complexity of the job and the uncertainty for agriculture workers.
“Sometimes I think the agricultural sector is being asked to solve everything,” said Fresco adding that, however, these demands for food sustainability and safety and environmental protection are now perceived as obvious.
For her, young farmers must be helped to overcome that.
“It is terrible to be in a sector where people feel that inherently you can’t do the right thing. So restoring pride in farming, especially in livestock farming is going to be really a challenge,” she said.
Innovation that Gen Z needs
Previously viewed with scepticism, precision farming is gaining more and more relevance among farmers and now includes a range of different tools, from the Internet of things (IoT) and artificial intelligence to new branches such as fine-tuning or precision genetics.
“It really depends on which kind of farm you have,” said Alexander Bernhuber, an Austrian Christian Democrat MEP and a young beef cattle farmer, adding that he frequently uses his phone in his job and especially animal health apps.
“I’m really impressed from what has been done in the last few years, in particular in the dairy sector, how many new apps and how many new startups have emerged,” he said.
The animal health industry has evolved quite fast moving from a prevention approach through vaccines and antibiotics into listening to and understanding more the needs of farmers and of vets.
“We understand that the livestock sector is moving towards an era that I would call digitally enhanced farming,” explained Roxane Feller, secretary-general of the EU’s association representing manufacturers of animal medicines AnimalhealthEurope.
According to her, Generation Z will follow this connected health approach where animal health will not be a standalone issue and this will require integrated solutions, for instance, to use data effectively.
‘Farmers are creative people’
Among EU member states, little Estonia is very much seen as a big digital leader, earning it the nickname of e-Stonia. Kerli Ats, a young farmer at the helm of the Estonian Farmers’ federation, explained that the agriculture sector is no exception.
“One of my goals in animal husbandry day is to use a variety of digital tools that allow me to monitor herd in real-time,” she said, adding that she can analyse the movements and behaviour of her animals, assessing their health and activity.
Among the new innovative solutions that entered the market to help monitor animal welfare regularly, there are drones and 3d cameras while other technologies help farmers making better management decisions.
“We get a lot of data and this can help us a lot if we talk about these targets coming from the Green Deal,” MEP Bernhuber pointed out.
However, the use of data is a very sensitive topic. “Who gets access to data is, for me, something very important and has to be always taken into account,” he said, adding that the owner of the data must ultimately be the farmers themselves.
Innovation could improve farm management, animal welfare, productivity, ensuring better traceability, but it can also support farmers in their everyday lives.
“All these tools will also help farmers to go on holiday from time to time and be from all the burdens they had in the past. It’s an enormous challenge to be a young farmer,” said Louise Fresco.
However, she said that policymakers are too hesitant to take risks on certain innovations, while they need to be more audacious in trying something out.
“Farmers are creative people, and they need room to experiment, they need to find out the best possible ways of doing things and there is no other area so regulated as farming,” she concluded.
[Edited by Benjamin Fox]