Rethinking Agriculture: What young people seek in farming

“Youths in agriculture” has been a hot topic in Indonesia since the government declared that 2019 is the  year of Indonesian farmers’ revival. The Ministry of Agriculture Strategic Plan 2020-2025 put youths under the spotlight along with a series of initiated programs, including Millennial Farmers (Duta Petani Milenial) and Mainstay Farmers Ambassador (Duta Petani Andalan) to name a few. 

As a consistent major contributor to both Indonesia’s Gross Domestic Product (GPD) and East Java’s Gross Regional Product (GRP) (Ministry of Agriculture, 2020 and Kominfo Jatim, 2021), agriculture should by now be the most vibrant, most appealing, top-of-the-list field for job-seeking youths. But why is it not the case? What prevents youths from going into farming? What causes the hesitation?

First of all, let’s talk about profit. Discussion of jobs is inseparable from discussing the economic incentive, and agriculture is no different. To step into farming, youths need to be confident that agriculture is a promising, profitable, and stable field of work. It requires a lot of work and strategy to improve profitability, and it’s indeed not easy. They need to increase production, lower operational costs, and at the same time generate higher sales.

Let’s face it, starting a farm is not cheap. Land, equipment, machinery, agricultural input, and labor are high-priced. In mid-2021, we interviewed 365 youths aged 18-30 in East Java and asked them how important it is to own land to enter and stay in farming. Seven out of ten participants emphasized that owning farmland was essential for their decision to become a farmer. Yet only 3 out of 10 owned their farmland, with over half of farmland inherited from families. (Tulodo & Prisma, 2021). Land prices are too high for young and aspiring farmers to buy or rent. Besides, the trend of land conversion also makes it harder to own farmland as land for agriculture is decreasing (Kementan, 2020).

Lack of market accessibility in acquiring farm input (including seeds, fertilizers, chemicals, feeds, machinery, and equipment), farm services, and distribution has made farming less alluring for youths. The main distribution channels of production input are through local markets or agriculture kiosks. Though youths are familiar with technology and e-commerce, most young farmers have not utilized the online platform to get input productions, particularly those living in remote areas due to delivery limitations. On the other hand, input productions subsidy from the government are predominantly enjoyed by older farmers as they are the majority of farmers’ group members.

Another crucial problem is limited access to capital. It is affecting young farmers’ productivity and their willingness to join the agriculture sector. Obtaining finance and capital is essential for them to start and expand their farms. Financial access boosts their bargaining power and therefore enables them to benefit from a wider economic scale throughout the overall agricultural value chain. The main source of capital for farmers, including youths, is product sales. Financial support from family is common for young people in farming to make headway. It is also acceptable or even expected of them to have jobs outside of farming.  However, constantly requiring financial support and side jobs could potentially be discouraging in the long run. Access to loans is limited for youths who are unable to produce required loan collateral and fear the inability to meet repayment terms. 

On top of costs, one of the biggest challenges for young farmers is a lack of corresponding knowledge and of the agriculture value chain. Lack of information on current agricultural technologies and trends also limit the diversity of youths’ participation in agriculture. With youths gravitating towards agriculture off-farm work and becoming agripreneurs, most government programs are focusing on agriculture off-farm work despite the main agenda being farmers’ regeneration. Of course, getting young people to participate in farming should explore all possible efforts to attract young people, but  prioritizing only off-farm work does not address the elephant in the room: the aging on-farm farmers. When youths are only directed to either one of on-farm or off-farm work and careers alone without tapping into other aspects in the value chain, a great potential is lost.

We asked young farmers what their dream jobs are, and  5 out of 10 youths want to be agripreneur, while 3 out of 10 want to be farmers. There was a potential bias from the study considering the respondents were youths who had entered farming and would not necessarily be the case for those who had not entered farming. Although families were the entry point for youths from a farming family, only 1 in 10 youths we interviewed was motivated to enter farming to help their parents. Economic incentives or financial profits were the main motivation for youths to stay on the farm. Financial incentives were also the main driver for parents to encourage and support youths to dive into farming. With the coronavirus resulting in higher unemployment and underemployment for youths compared to adults (ILO, 2020), more and more rural youths from non-agriculture families are deciding to try farming in hopes of finding better luck with their land.

Photo by Quang Nguyen Vinh from Pexels

When youths are motivated and hopeful, it’s only right for the government and all stakeholders across the full breadth of the agricultural value chain to follow through so as not to lose them. Without help and intervention from policymakers and business actors, youths cannot build resilience nor compete in agriculture, which means they will not be able to turn agriculture work into profitable jobs. This would eventually leave even the most motivated youths with no choice but to look for other non-agriculture profitable jobs or businesses. Placing youth farmers in the intervention map is crucial, and the first step should be to decide and position youths as a separate segment where policies, strategies and interventions are uniquely tailored to answer their problems and challenges.

Investment in youths is best made by leveraging their strengths and the existing support systems around them. To ensure sustainable agriculture business means to focus on the next generation of farmers. This includes involving their family and community, developing their technical and business skills, helping them access finance, leveraging technologies, and creating mentorship and buddy systems. These are a few early steps needed to answer what youths are seeking in agriculture.

Editor: Hasief Ardiansyah, Yulida Pangastuti

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