Drawing the young to farming
WE MAY have a relatively young work force, but the average age of farmers in the Philippines is 57. All over the world, farmers are similarly aging. In Japan, the average farmer is much older at 67, while for Kenya it is 60, the United States 58, and China 55.
In Barangay Carangcang in the town of Magarao, Camarines Sur, a farmer recently lamented how his children no longer help in the farm: “Tinatamad na dahil nakapag-aral” and “Pag inutusan mo, hawak cell phone” (“He has become lazy because he got educated,” and “If you ask him to do anything, he can’t put down his cell phone”). Japan now resorts to robotic farming even as it tries to educate its youth on agriculture. Other countries import labor. That the youth are increasingly drawn away from farming is something we should all worry about.
Director-General Jose Graziano da Silva of the Food and Agriculture Organization, in his address to its general assembly last May, asserted: “Farmers are responsible for providing the food we all eat… [and] as custodians of the environment, they help preserve and sustain our natural resource.” Farmers are valuable, as they play multiple vital roles in society. But those in the next generation are increasingly unwilling to assume these roles, given how farming has become generally unattractive as an occupation. Societies all over the world have traditionally considered farming a lowly job that involves hard labor, and associated mainly with the poor. In the Philippines, it has become a thankless job that commonly pushes workers to even worse states of poverty.
With generally rising incomes and modernizing lifestyles, young people shun their fathers’ farm plots in favor of work cubicles in the cities where they see pay to be not only better but also more certain. Over the past decades, enrollment in our agriculture colleges and schools has dwindled nationwide. In Los Baños, where the University of the Philippines’ second largest campus used to have agriculture as its primary course offering, a point came when many in the College of Agriculture faculty had no courses to teach and had to focus entirely on research.
The reluctance of young Filipinos to take up farming is easy enough to understand. Aside from the difficulty of the work, there is also the uncertainty in returns, especially due to weather. Farmers have always been the first and worst affected by the adverse effects of climate change. Whether rising temperatures, shifting seasons, El Niño droughts or La Niña floods, there is sure to be some negative impact on the farmers’ output, hence their earnings. Particularly vulnerable are rice farmers who are already at a disadvantage because of our country’s geography and position on the typhoon belt. The recent El Niño delayed the planting season by more than an entire cropping season. Used to the seasonality of their livelihood, the farmers of Carangcang said they got by with odd jobs like construction, beadwork, and cooking.
Experience in Africa offers hope and perhaps a few lessons. There, young professionals are reported to have left their city jobs and are making a difference in farms. Reasons vary. South African Dimakatsu Nono, 34, wanted to make meaningful change. Emmanuel Koranteng could not resist the draw of his father’s farm. Others are taking advantage of new technologies and the increasing unmet demand for food in the continent. Young people make their entry in the sector all over the agricultural value chain, but even those who have taken to tilling the land do it quite differently from their parents. Nono, for example, has introduced stricter bookkeeping, beginning by literally counting cows as her parents never really knew how many animals they had. AgriHub Nigeria CEO Aderonke Aderinoye gathered data on her farms and used that data not only to optimize her own yield, but also to give advice to other farmers on how to improve theirs. Harvard-trained Calestous Juma suggests a rebranding of farming as “agribusiness” or “agri-entrepreneurship” to focus not on the labor but on the technology, innovation, and business principles that are involved. Indeed, it was the agribusiness course that UP Los Baños pioneered, which drew many students even from affluent families during my own college years there.
There is appeal for the young in being able to apply modern tools and techniques, especially information technology, to an occupation that has traditionally bred poverty, and transform it into a lucrative one. The other new twist comes from the wealth-creating opportunities that have opened as farmers find their place in domestic and cross-border value chains. Closer regional integration via the Asean Economic Community has made it much easier for processed Philippine fruits to find their way into the erstwhile uncharted markets of Myanmar (Burma) and Cambodia, for example. In Muslim Mindanao, production of halal products presents much promise in view of Asean being a dominantly Islamic market, and rapidly growing Islamic markets worldwide. Organic farming is a lucrative niche market that the Carangcang farmers are beginning to cash in on. But they continue to be hampered by the same inadequacies in infrastructure and other support that farmers elsewhere in the country face as well.
Our agriculture challenge now is not simply about assisting farmers raise productivity. It’s more about providing the proper environment to attract new and young people to transform an erstwhile unattractive occupation into the exciting new field of agri-entrepreneurship, whose domain extends well beyond the farm itself.
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