This article is part of our special report What’s on the ‘horizon’ for agriculture?.
The lack of young farmers remains a major challenge for the agrifood world. EURACTIV takes a look at a new project exploring how newcomers can be supported in establishing resilient and sustainable farm businesses across Europe.
Climate change, healthy and sustainable food, environment-friendly farming practices, animal welfare, and, last but not least, food security – the challenges the European agrifood sector is facing are numerous, and they all depend on a vital factor: farmers.
But the farming world is rapidly ageing.
As the European Commission pointed out in an evaluation published last April, in 2016, for every farm manager under the age of 40, there were three farm managers over the age of 65.
In France, the EU’s biggest agricultural nation, one farmer out of two will have retired by the end of this decade.
And overall, only 11% of European farmers are today less than 40 years old, as the European farmers’ association COPA-COGECA warned.
The matter is critical. As the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) points out, “generational renewal is one of the preconditions for improved competitiveness of the agricultural sector over the longer term and for sustainable food production in Europe”.
But while the problem is clear, the question of how to tackle this remains.
NEWBIE: tackling barriers to agricultural succession
One way to go about this was presented during the 2021 Ruralisation Conference on 8 November, during a flash presentation of rural research projects.
Since 2018, the International Land Use Study Centre (ILUSC) of the British James Hutton Institute has been working on the issue of generational renewal, and more generally, farm succession, in the framework of the so-called NEWBIE project.
It stands for “New Entrant netWork: Business models for innovation, entrepreneurship and resilience in European agriculture”.
The project, running until December 2021 and co-financed by funds from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 programme, aims at helping “new entrants” to “successfully establish sustainable farm businesses in Europe”.
The beneficiaries don’t necessarily have to be young: New entrants are largely defined as “anyone who starts a new farm business or becomes involved in an existing farm business”, independently of age, agricultural experience and resources, according to the institute.
But as the NEWBIE project revealed, “agricultural succession is hardly a topic in education” leading up to the launch of a farm business, Lee-Ann Sutherland, senior researcher and director of the ILUSC, explained during the conference.
“That is a real problem because new entrants are particularly vulnerable during the first two years,” she pointed out.
Newcomers face a multitude of barriers: access to land, labour, capital, housing, markets, knowledge and networks.
These barriers restrain personal success but also the overall systematic change that the European farming world is called to undergo in the coming years.
“Family successors typically either carry on the status quo or try something new that is a variation of the current farm activity,” Sutherland explained.
On the other hand, “we see much more creativity in newcomers”, she said.
The latter often promote models that are “locally bound and highly socially integrated”, according to the researcher, with a greater focus on differentiation, alternative food networks and on-farm diversification.
The NEWBIE project thus aims at creating an inventory of such innovative and currently successful business models, but also at establishing support networks for new entrants.
In dedicated discussion circles, newcomers, experienced farmers, stakeholders, policymakers, and advisers discuss promising approaches and the questions of access to land and labour, farm succession, cooperation in agriculture and the future of agriculture in a changing environment, Sutherland explained.
The researcher also put forward a list of policy recommendations based on the findings of the project.
These include financial aid, such as low-interest loans, tax relief and business incubation, a better knowledge transfer through skills training and advisory services, and political measures to favour the access to land and the farm transfer, such as creating national farmland reserves or addressing land abandonment.
Sutherland also underlined the necessity to support renewal by, for example, giving a more flexible definition of “new entrants” in policymaking or by including part-time farmers in the target group.
Last but not least, long-term policy measures to support new entrants were critical to “give them a sense of security”, she said.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]