Posted by: mhirdyounger | August 16, 2012

Youth in Agriculture: A Land of Opportunity

Who will feed future generations? Who are the world’s future agriculturalists? Why do youth choose or not choose agriculture?

My Dad loves to joke with friends back home that working in agriculture was the last thing he expected of me. This comes from years of having to goad me to the field rather than the beach on a nice summer day. Not to say that farm life was not for me, I always loved home and being out in the fields, visiting the animals…but farm work was not for me.

The family farm

I always pictured myself working in social justice and development, locally and internationally, that’s where my passions lie, that’s what makes me tick. And now it seems that my education and passions have taken me 360, back to my farm roots. Although Ghana is a little far from Grey-Bruce, I am working in the agricultural sector, living at an agricultural college and visiting farms often – and loving it!

But my Dad’s joke is pretty indicative of a worry of many people in my community back home and those working in the sector – that youth are moving away from agriculture.

I have heard for years about  youth not wanting to stay in farming, wanting to move into the cities and work in nice air conditioned offices (ironically, the first air conditioning that existed on our farm was a new John Deere tractor!).  It’s a worry in Ghana and a worry back home. Recently, Ghana hosted a conference to explore ways to engage young people in farming and food production. This local editorial from Southern Ontario looks at the gray picture (literally) of rural coffee shops and auctions. Who will be the next generation of farmers? seems to be a big question on the table around the world.

But right now, I can’t help but feel that the question doesn’t quite jive with the people in my own life. I look around me here in Ghana and I hear about what my neighbours back home are up to and I see a different story.

Everyday that I spend at Ghana’s agricultural colleges I am surrounded by hundreds of youth who are passionate about agriculture and who work hard on the college’s farms each morning and afternoon. Some of them want to start their own farms, and others want to work as extension agents. When I go visit the farm institutes, I see youth that are doing shorter practical education programs to improve their skills so that they can go into farming. Next door, I see children that care for chickens, goats, sheep and help with weeding and harvesting their parents’ crops. And this FAO study indicates that around half of young people in developing countries gain employment in the agricultural sector.

Back home, out of all the kids I grew up with on my street, those of us that have left our family-owned, generational farms are in the minority.  My neighbour Wesley has spent every summer working on farms and has just bought his own house, he’ll be starting his own family-farm very soon. And his little sister Jessica’s passion horses has grown each year. Rhea has left the farm for nursing, but her two little sisters, Jillian and Elizabeth, are still helping on their vegetable farm and I’ve lost count of the number of horses they have. And her big brother Scott just moved back into the area and made an investment in a new flock of sheep! Kyle is also continuing his work on his family’s farms and it sounds like he’ll be sticking around. Alanna is going to school for agric and Holly wants to be a vet! My friend Jeff has started his own organic vegetable farm, you should see his face light up as he discusses heirloom vegetables. Even my own little brother Nathan has moved back to help out on our family farm. When it’s time to roll in the bales, my parents don’t have to look far to find a group of young people willing to help out after school. And if you’ve ever been to the Royal in Toronto, you know how many kids and youth get excited by the animals, the shows and the competition (as a kid, one night before going to the Royal I was so excited I was jumping on my bed, fell off and broke my arm..I didn’t get to go to the fair…).

Intergenerational farming – my Dad and my niece going for a spin.

Statistics seem to indicate that youth are leaving farms. But as my friends above can testify, that is not the whole picture. The question is why do youth chose to stay in agriculture? Why do they chose to leave?  What are the consequences? What does it mean for the future of agriculture in Grey-Bruce, in Ghana and globally?

From personal conversations, I think one of the reasons that youth back home and choose a life in the agriculture sector is a passion for farming and agriculture – they wouldn’t want another lifestyle.

There is a pride in working on the farm, especially generationally. A pride in tilling the land that your grandfather also tilled.  I have yet to get a good gauge on whether this is also true in Ghana. Certainly my colleagues at the college are proud of their farms and I have met other farmers who proudly tell me how many cattle they have or how many bags of maize they harvest a year. My host father in Bipoa proudly shows the shrubs that indicate where his land ends and his cousin’s starts, land given by his grandfather.

Another important factor that has come up in conversation is opportunity. Youth will go where they see opportunities to live a successful and happy life.

Right now, youth back home are graduating university and struggling to find jobs in their field. Out of all my friends that have graduated university, there are only a small handful of us that actually have been able to find jobs in our fields. That same FAO study indicates that about 40% of all unemployed worldwide are between the ages of 15 and 24. Some of us have returned home to the family farms, choosing farming over waiting for interviews that don’t seem to come. Our younger siblings are seeing our struggle, the lack of opportunity and choosing a different pathway – choosing to study agric or to stay and work on family farms. Farming is a viable opportunity, and one that looks more enticing when other opportunities are lacking. In Ghana, youth want what youth back home want – to have access to the resources and amenities that will allow them to succeed and be happy. I know this sounds a bit negative, framing agriculture as ‘plan B’. This certainly is not the case for everyone, but for some I think it might be. So how do we learn from the importance of opportunity to show that agriculture is a land of opportunity – how do we make agriculture ‘plan A’?

The problem is that there seems to be a perception that it is not agriculture that will lead to this. Whether true or not, agriculture in Ghana is perceived as ‘poor man’s work’. In primary school, if you do something bad, you are even punished by being sent to weed a plot of land. Changing the perception of agriculture away from just hard labour producing few results to one of entrepreneurship, agricultural businesses, production, innovation and development, will show youth the opportunities that exist in the sector.

Ghanaian youth farming at the Wenchi Farm Institute

On the other side of the coin, youth in agriculture is a huge opportunity in and of itself. The skills, talent, passion and dynamism of youth have the potential to unlock the development of the agricultural sector in Ghana and around the world. Youth have unprecedented skills in ICT (my niece is way better at computers than I am!), they have new ideas, they can innovate, and they can drive change. It would be a virtuous cycle: with youth bringing their talent and ideas to the sector, they will change the perception of the agriculture to one that is dynamic, innovative and growing, and more youth will want to get involved.

So let me go back and ask myself, why have I not gone back to my family farm? Why am I working in the agriculture sector? It’s not as simple as picking rocks is hard work and lambs in Canada and Ghana are adorable, there’s more to it than that…there’s passion, opportunity, livelihood and a little bit of coincidence.

When we get scared of losing our family farms and losing the next generation of agriculturalists, let’s take a closer look and highlight those stories of youth that have returned or never left rural areas. If we are worried about who will feed the future generations, let’s ask those that have returned why they have come back?  Let’s build the pride in agriculture, the value of the contribution of farmers to our communities and the prestige of farming, or owning and running your own business.

Lately, I have been surrounded by a lot more youth in agric than out of it, and I think there are some great insights to garner from asking them their stories. The answer to building the next generation of people responsible for filling all of our bellies lies in the stories of those youth.

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