Posted in Publication

Who will be the next generation of farmers?

PS: my laptop crashed. I don’t know what went wrong. I am transferring my files to a safer place, and I found an old publication. To break the silence of this blog, and to celebrate weekend (ha! gotta be kidding), I upload this piece here. It’s chapter 6 of this book:

Nelles, Wayne, Annop Kunavongkrit, and Surichai Wun’gaeo Eds. (2014) ASEAN Food Security and Sustainable Agriculture in a Green Economy: Cross-Sectoral and Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Bangkok: Chulalongkorn University Press

I got this publishing opportunity after attending a workshop at Chulalongkorn University. Good ol’ days :D. It’s quite long so I use the “continue reading” button to avoid the aesthetic displeasure for your eyes. Go for it:


In the middle of the world’s multiple crisis, the agricultural sector has important roles to play.  It can provide some partial solutions to the crisis, or it can make it worse. The agricultural sector has long been dominated by chemical-intensive, pesticide-dependent, large-scale industrial-based approach.  While this approach was intended to fulfill the increasing necessity of a growing population, it is proven to create multiple damage, not only to the soil, the nature, but also to the consumers and moreover the livelihood of small-scale farmers.

Chemical-based fertilizers deplete the soil in the long term by reducing the natural fertility of soil and also emit greenhouse gases that accelerate climate change.  The provision of seed is monopolized by seed industry that patented life forms.  Regular spray of chemical pesticides are making pest increasingly immune to it, and in the meantime it also pollute the water source.  The use of chemical elements in agriculture has widened our risk as food consumers to unsafe food.  Sometimes this creates an indirect attack to human’s health, for example carcinogenic food that leads to cancer.  Last but not least, this approach is capital-intensive, hungry for vast areas of land, prefer mono cropping that threaten biodiversity and waste a lot of water, needs relatively sophisticated machineries, thus dominated by big industrial agribusinesses.  Small-scale farmers are losing their livelihood as food producers and turned into precarious farm labour.  They are marginalized either directly or indirectly.  Direct marginalization happened when their plots are bought or taken away by big industrial agribusiness, expelling them from farmland and motivates them to migrate elsewhere in order to find better livelihood options.  Indirect marginalization happened through their dependency on industrial seeds, chemical fertilizers, non-organic pesticides, and the market demands of cash crops that makes farmer’s produce prone to price volatility, thus made them trapped in debt and sometimes they go as far as committing suicide.

Small scale agroecology provides an alternative face of the agricultural sector.  This approach relies heavily on organic fertilizers and organic way of taking care of the pests, thus having no greenhouse gases emission, preserves the natural fertility of the soil and does not pollute water.  It also promotes seed-saving and seed-sharing between farmers, making the farmers independent and free from the chain of expensive genetically modified seeds that oblige them to continuously buy from the big seeds company.  The farmers seed also makes it worry-free for the consumers who are convinced that natural non chemically intervened food are healthier and fresher.  Small scale agroecology also rejects mono cropping and apply multi crop cultivation in a plot of farmland.  It helps preserve the natural biodiversity and pose no threat to waste a lot of water such as in mono crop cultivation.  Last but not least, small scale agroecology reduces the possibility of big agribusinesses monopoly, because it embraces involvement and participation from a lot of small scale farmers.  Small scale agroecology is very labour intensive, and keeping the agricultural sector in the hands of many small scale farmers provides an antithesis to the inhumane treatment of farm labour such as in big industrial agribusiness.  As a result, being someone who farms on their own, small scale farmers would work with dignity, having pride in knowing that they play an essential role in cooling the earth, preserve the nature, feed the world, as well as provide sustainable source of livelihood. 

If small scale agroecology is expected to be the way forward in the future of farming and agriculture, noting its labour intensive characteristic, it is important to study the youth perspective to agriculture, their involvement in small scale agroecology or their avoidance altogether to the sector, because youth holds the key to the future of farming.  We need to comprehend what motivates them to be attracted to the agricultural sector, in what ways do they participate, and what are blocking them from entering small scale agroecology.  The nexus between youth and agriculture is still heavily understudied; especially there is very limited room for studies conducted by the peers of youth farmers or studies done by young researchers themselves with the eyes and experiences as the youth of contemporary times.  Space for expression of youth voices and narratives needs to be widened, in order to contribute to the discussion of available options in the agricultural sector.  By doing so, the youth would be treated as a subject that are capable of taking decisions and be responsible to their choices, not solely as an object with a lot of hopes put upon their shoulder or a target of intervention that could only to listen the one-way formatted education.

This paper would like to argue that the emerging advocacy to support youth involvement in small-scale agroecology mostly touch upon moral encouragement and an idealistic underlying assumptions of a selfless and noble youth, while on the ground the majority of youth are facing massive burden to enter or get a decent livelihood in agriculture due to the characteristic of current agricultural sector.  The moral ground and idealistic narrative do matter as a basis for the youth to make their choices, but it is not adequate to be the decisive factor. 

Why is Agriculture not Attractive to Youth?

“Agriculture is one of the few sectors certain to grow in the longer term.  It is the developing world’s single biggest employer, and if given appropriate support it has the potential to provide livelihoods for many more. But it appears to be so unattractive to young people that in some rural areas we see agricultural labour shortage coexisting with high levels of youth unemployment. Although this is a largely unresearched topic, anecdotal evidence from all over the world, and some research suggests strongly that young people are increasingly uninterested in agricultural or rural futures.” (White, 2011: 6).

There is mounting evidence that young generations nowadays tend to opt out of agriculture.  The rate of youth unemployment is nearly twice the rate of adults unemployment.  Something close to half of the world’s unemployed are youth.  Most of the rural youth unemployment rates are higher than the urban unemployment rate.  A study in South East Asia informed that not only the youth themselves, even their parents also do not aspire their children to be farmers (Hall et. al., 2011).  Being small a scale farmer is identical with having to bear life hardships day in and day out, having no certainty of incomes and facing financial burden constantly.

White (2011) argued that there are three factors that keep agriculture unattractive to youth.  The first factor is lack of infrastructure in rural areas.  The infrastructure lacking are not only infrastructure for agriculture, but also infrastructure for communication and other youth lifestyle.  The limited infrastructure makes youth could not keep up with their preferential habits, lifestyle and way of interaction, for instance, in a digital sphere.  This will make them feel out of place and disconnected from their peers. 

The second factor is lack of education in agriculture.  Youth are not prepared with the skills and knowledge to practice farming, let alone small scale agroecology.  The basic and advanced education that is delivered to youth nowadays put them in significant distance with agriculture, thus contribute to the deskilling of youth in agriculture and agroecology.  White argued further that there is a tendency of anti-rural bias of education that can be seen as an “assault on rural culture.” 

The third factor is the general difficulties for youth to get land holdings and acquire farm.  This factor is partly due to the reluctance of older generation of farmers to transfer their limited farmland to the youth.  According to local customs, in order for youth to form their own family to get land holding and start their own small scale farming, they have to be married first, or they have to wait until their parents passed away to get land inheritance.  As White eloquently articulated 

“One reason why young people express a reluctance to farm may reflect not an aversion to farming as such, but to the long period of waiting that they would have to face before they have a chance to engage in independent farming.” (White, 2011, p.17). 

While in common practice, youth were used to be placed as labour in the small scale family farms, in their minds this is not sufficient to imagine and aspire for a future in agriculture.  Some youth think of the farming activity in their parents land as a “waithood period” (Herrera, 2008; Asaad and Ramadhan, 2008) or a “time pass activity” (Quan, 2007; Jeffrey, 2010) not a permanent job and they are in a waiting phase to get a real occupation for their livelihood.  Some even think of getting a sense of independence by attempting to get a job outside the farm, thus searching for different type of occupation from the occupations that the older generation do. 

Another factor that needs to be addressed here is the fact that rural social relations are characterized by the highly exploitative structure of  power, where as noted by Peters (2011, p. 203), “the dislike of rural youth [for agriculture] is not focused on agriculture as such, but on their vulnerability, in village conditions, to exploitation by local elites and gerontocrats.” 

Beside the immediate factors mentioned above that keeps agriculture unattractive for youth, there are also several structural factors that make living from agriculture is really difficult to do.  No matter how noble it is to be a small scale farmers who practice agroecology, with all its wonderful attributes such as cooling the earth, preserve the nature, feed the world, and provide just, sustainable and non-exploitative source of livelihood, the majority of youth still sees agriculture not as a preferable option, because doing agriculture is really difficult, and, considering the current state of agricultural sector, it is even more challenging to rely your entire livelihood on doing small scale agroecology. 

Doing small scale agroecology is intimately linked with increasingly unpredictable climate and season.  It is tough and intrinsically labour intensive and constituted of hard physical work.  It is also lacking appropriate and affordable technology to ease the daily tedious work.  It needs high tenacity and spirit, and a careful attention to details plus a lot of patience to take care of the farm.  Doing agriculture needs a long term commitment, while youth are not yet ready to really set their mind on settling down in the countryside.  After having the strong commitment, it is necessary to do the job constantly without pause to prevent the plants from dying.  And yet, if the youth managed to succeed in doing all the hard work and have a good harvest from their plots, it is sometimes frustrating to market their produce in the context of market monopoly, declining terms of trade, and volatile agricultural prices due to the seasonality aspect of the produce as well as speculations in the sector.  This difficulties in marketing will make youth, who already invested so much time and energy on the farm, question when will it all gets paid off and will it be worth it when the results are negative. 

Reversed Migration to Agriculture

It is often taken for granted to perceive agriculture through a broader narrative of agrarian transition.  The agrarian transition narrative “… assume a linear pathway, and a predictable set of connections.  According to these narratives there will be – sooner or later – a transition from agriculture to industry, country to city, and peasant to entrepreneurial farmer or wage worker” (Li, 2009: 69). 

Despite concerns over the ongoing trends of youth leaving agriculture, there are also some examples on the ground showing the opposite.  As a matter of fact, in Indonesia I would like to give two illustrations of youth doing reversed migration, or in other words returning to rural agriculture doing small scale agroecology.  The first illustration is in sandy coastal areas in Kulon Progo, Yogyakarta.  The second illustration is in Lembah Masurai, a remote area at the hill of Jambi province, Sumatra Island.  Both of these illustrations contribute to a better comprehension of understudied potential factors motivating youth engagement in agriculture. 

The first case study is from Kulon Progo, Yogyakarta.  Nobody would have ever imagined that a sandy coastal area could be turned into an arable land, let alone a very productive land for planting chili.  One farmer name Tukijan, once turning back to his hometown out of frustration due to not getting a job in the city as well as abroad, saw two chili plants grew in the sand.  It was not common at that time in Kulon Progo, to see sand being a place to grow plants.  He wondered what was the secret and started his own initiative to solve the puzzle.  Later on he invented a simple irrigation technology for sand farming.  With this simple technology, his farm turned out to be very productive and the chili grown there is having a distinct quality.  Because the chili is grown in sand, it is not as moist as other chili grown in regular soil, thus the chili produce is crispier, tastier, and last longer, not easily rotten.  Seeing this successful endeavor, the youth returned to their homeland in Kulon Progo to help growing chili.  They learn the techniques and simple technology of irrigation.  Because the sand area is still vast and not yet used before, the youth are getting their own plots of land to manage and cultivate.  The chili they produced are overwhelmingly many, and this brings back more youth who experience the same kind of frustration due to difficulties in getting job abroad or in the cities, to return to their hometown and be the next generation of farmers.

Beside the appropriate and affordable simple agricultural technology, other initiatives that need to be applauded are their way of marketing.  It is necessary for them to overcome the “tengkulak” or middle man who used to pay very low price for their produce.  The way to overcome this injustice is through organizing themselves.  With their own local grassroots organization, they manage the timing and period of planting in order to gain sustainable harvest throughout the year.  In this way, the tendency to overproduce during high season that makes the price very low out of high competition could be avoided.

The other innovation that they do to keep the price high is through farmers auction. They no longer do the selling by conventional ways, but through their organization they create auction event, where the buyers must put their bid inside and envelope and those who offer the highest price could buy the produce.  Through organization, chili farmers in Kulon Progo are not doing competition to each other but they lift each other up by having the best price guaranteed for their produce.  Even though the buyers of their produce do not get the lowest price for the chili, but buyers are still absorbing all the chili produce.  Not only because the chili is of distinct quality, but also because chili is a commodity very much in demand for daily culinary taste in Indonesia.  Hence this is very much related with the understanding of local culture and needs, also local ecology and type of crops to be planted. 

The second case study is from Jambi, Sumatra Island.  At a hilly remote area called Lembah Masurai, small scale farmers who are practicing agroecology are successful in their coffee cultivation.  Not only do they produce more than sufficient for their livelihood, they also build free public facilities in their area such as educational services, health services, and praying facilities.  All of these facilities are provided through the grassroots farmer organization that has a mechanism to collect small money from the members to fund the development of free public facilities. 

The long history of their reversed migration is commendable because it shows their spirit to never give up on difficult situation and find ways to keep on moving. Each of them has different stories and reasons to migrate.  As a context, it is necessary to know that in Indonesia almost half of Indonesian population stays in Java Island. Some of the farmers in Lembah Masurai also come from Java Island.  They migrate to Sumatra Island in different periods.  Some of them migrate during the transmigration program. S ome of them migrate through their own lineage network.  And those who are part of the younger generation of farmers mostly migrate through the grassroots farmers organization linked with the broader Indonesian Peasant Union. 

The youth that ended up migrating to this remote areas have tried so heavily to find livelihood in other sectors such as informal sector or construction and manual labour, even marketing, but none are providing sustainable and reliable source of livelihood, thus the migrate back to the rural area in the reversed migration sense.  Their opportunities are incredibly especially due to their limited level of education.  But not all of them are moving from urban areas to rural areas in a reversed migration sense, but there are also some of them who have gone through rural-rural migration.  Their original rural hometown is in Java Island, where due to the difficult structural hindrance in agriculture mentioned above, they lose the ability to gain sufficient livelihood from their farm.  They have to let their land go, after several losses and failure in paying debt, especially during the Green Revolution in Indonesia. 

After they move to different places during different generations, they found Lembah Masurai to be the place for them to farm.  It is some kind of a no man’s island where they are assuming that it is safe for them to work the land.  The land and climate is still fertile and very suitable for coffee planting, thus their hard work paid off and this brings more young generations who are frustrated because not getting job elsewhere also follows their step and be the next generation of farmers with their own plots of land.  Due to the “no man’s island” nature of the location, it is still available for farmers to provide small plots of land for other farmers, especially to attract the younger generation to dwell in coffee planting and gain a lot of income from their coffee produce. 

The only facility that they found difficult to provide is transportation infrastructure such as road.  Transportation facility needs the government support to be provided.  In the meantime, while the government is yet to provide the support, their area still remains very remote and difficult to reach.  It took around seven to eight hours by motorcycle from the nearest main road to reach their location.  Big vehicles such as cars could not enter because the road to their place is not big enough.  It is very admirable to recognize their hard work in marketing their produce outside their area, because it is such a hard work to transport their produce especially when the weather is not good.  Sometimes they even have to transport it by foot and carry the coffee with their head.  Despite all difficulties, they get a lot of help through the grassroots farmer organization that is linked with a broader Indonesian Peasant Union network, thus open pathways for marketing their produce nationwide.

It is found in both cases that the type of area they are entering is marginal area.  Sand is not the most potential land for farming, yet to the contrast of the Dutch Disease phenomena where rich natural resources brings malaise to local people, through this “unpotential” or marginal land the farmers could have a decent and sustainable livelihood.  This situation in fact brings back the youth to their hometown, to the countryside doing small scale agriculture.  The second example above also shows how far it is to reach their farming area, farmers have to migrate to another island in order to find a plot of land in a very remote area that could be cultivated into coffee farming.  The young generation follows their elderly after getting to know that their coffee produce is overwhelming and the farm needs a lot of new participants to be involve in cultivating and managing the coffee plants.  Both examples provide evidence that small scale farmers, partly due to their difficult situation that forces them to fight, struggle and optimize any options available, could revitalize land through their tremendously hard work.  As written by Jan Douwe van der Ploeg: 

“… corporate farming often result in a marginalization, and sometimes even a crude mining, of ecological capital, whereas peasant farming (especially when the space is available) tends to develop it. … Capitalist farming tend to limit themselves to fertile deltas, where the ecological, infrastructural, and social conditions meet the assumptions and requirements of modernized farming. This marginalizes other areas which come to lay barren. Peasant agriculture can revitalize these uncompetitive areas and make them productive once again.” (van der Ploeg, 2010, p.23). 

What about the role of government?  In Cuba, there was a long and careful government program aiming repeazantisation that begin in the 1990s and the main reason was because there was shortage in agricultural labour (Page, 2010).  This program is successful in bringing back new generation of small scale farmers to the countryside.  In Indonesia, agricultural sector only contributes around 15 percent of the GDP, but it provides employment for more than 40 percent of the population.  This creates massive intention from the government (or neglect of agriculture) in order to reduce the size of population depending on agriculture.  The problem is, the promised job opportunity at the industrial sector is not available too, because there is simply not enough industry in Indonesia, let alone manufacture or factories that is labour intensive and provide many job opportunities.  This is the opposite of the mainstream narrative of agrarian transformation forecast a change of agricultural countries into industrial countries.  Policies are biased to support the transformation of an agrarian country into an industrial country.  The plots of agricultural farmland are conversed for industrial purposes, such as building manufacture factories, as well as turning the agricultural sector itself into a big scale agroindustry.  While in fact, there are no other sector that can provide livelihood for as many people such as agriculture. Instead of providing real support for the youth to dwell in agriculture, the central government in general are making the situation harsher thus make the youth run away from farming. 

In both cases, the government support is non-existent.  The most devastating fact is that instead of supporting these small scale farmers to have their rights for decent livelihood, the government are not supporting but doing the opposite.  After all the initiatives and hard work done by small scale farmers, the government encourage import of chili, also the government criminalize some of the farmers who are labeled as a rebel after some private companies sought to gain the land.  In Kulonprogo, PT. Jogja Magasa Iron, an extractive company seeking for iron ore, is gaining government support to dislocate the farmers.  While in Jambi, PT. REKI, a private conservation company are dislocating the farmers, criminalizing some of them, even kidnapping and burning the farmers house down, and the government are in the side of this company. 

Concluding remarks 

It is necessary to get the encouragement type of support for small scale agroecologist that has been greatly emphasized and campaigned by transnational peasant organization such as La Via Campesina, as well as in other international organizations such as the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD)., telling how important and noble the small scale peasant role is to feed the world, preserve the soil and nature, cool the earth, provide just and sustainable livelihood, etc.  But other than that, youth needs concrete support that brings them into the position to have power in their hands to choose and decide what option is best for their livelihood.  Without much evidence that small scale agroecology would be able to provide a dignified and better source of livelihood, it is very unlikely that youth will be deliberately opt to dedicate their life for small scale farming. 

Grassroots democratic organization is a key factor in attracting youth to enter agriculture and choose to be a small scale agroecology.  The role of organization is to make sure that the youth gets entrance to agriculture through networks in finding marginal – or non-marginal – land available for farming.  Next, organization provides assistance during the farming trial period and prepares youth with necessary farming skills and knowledge especially through youth organization that can be a space for knowledge sharing.  It is more effective for the youth to gain hands on skills and knowledge through practices on the field.  Through organization, it is more likely for youth to sustain in agriculture together, defend their rights for a decent livelihood and fight against unfavorable policies that threaten their small scale farm.  Other than that, local grassroots organization knows best the type of ecology that their farm deals with, thus how to best manage the seeds, crops, soil, and the cycle of planting time for each crops.  Transnational grassroots organization provide information on the global scale about unjust trade policies that affect the agricultural sector worldwide, as well as provide a platform for campaigning against the unfair trade system to counter speculative action and volatile prices of agricultural produces that puts the majority of farmers at the peril of dispossession.

Even though in the cases described in this paper, the government mostly did not play a supportive role, their support is still needed, especially the very least they can do is not to create more hindrance and difficulties for the small scale farmers who are also their citizens.  Support for youth involvement in small scale agroecology needs to be more concrete, such as providing plots of farm to youth tillers, invention and provision of affordable and appropriate technology to make the hard work of doing small scale agroecology more bearable, as well as education to equip the youth with skills to practice agroecology and knowledge on all aspects of small scale agroecology.  Settling in at the countryside would be much more attractive if a plot of land is secured for youth tenure and they get support systems including infrastructure and facilities to lessen their difficult living condition in the rural areas.  Last but not least, it is also important to attempt for a more structural solution to the problem of unfair trade and unjust price, especially on the agricultural market that are being dominated by the big agribusinesses players with international financial institutions lobbied to develop market instruments in their favor.



[comment below for list of references]


on-going tensions between ready-made values and uncharted territory

Share your thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s