The world's farmers are aging rapidly. Here's why and what can be done.
By Adam Johnson January 14, 2015
Today's farmers share a few things in common: an abundance of hard work, endless patience and plenty of gray hair. The average age of farmers worldwide is rising at an alarming rate, in both developed and developing countries. Experts say that more young people will have to enter the industry – and soon – to replace the aging workforce.
How can agriculture continue to thrive when it’s not seen as an attractive career by many young people, and more youths than ever haven't even been to a farm?
"Young people want to go to big cities," said Georges Souho Bitty, 58, a farmer who leads Cocoa Cooperative Camene in the Cote d’Ivoire village of Morokro. "I think that this issue is present in most countries, not just ours."
To Bitty, the problem of attracting youth to agriculture in Côte d’Ivoire – where the median age of the population is 19 and the average age of a cocoa farmer is 50 – is more than simply overcoming a poor image. He believes more public and private investment is needed to ensure farming operations are successful. It is greater success, he said, that can demonstrate the promise of a career in agriculture.
"The important thing to do in Côte d’Ivoire is to facilitate access to inputs and training that will enable farmers to increase productivity," Bitty said. "We need help from government and industry to transform cocoa farming into a business opportunity, rather than be seen as an occupation performed by people who have failed in life."
More than 3,000 miles to the north of Bitty's 25-hectare cocoa farm, Ben Drummond works as director of a family farm in a UK industry that looks very different yet faces a similar challenge.
At 34, Ben Drummond is a full 25 years younger than the average age UK farmer – currently 59 and rising. A third-generation farmer, Drummond lives near Hereford and manages 3,000 hectares of land across a number of sites, producing everything from broiler chickens to berries. But his career arc is increasingly the exception, not the rule. As in Côte d’Ivoire, farming is losing out to the lure of the city and careers in fields seen as more glamorous.
Why did Drummond remain involved in farming when many of his peers left to pursue different careers? He credits growing up on a successful farm, where he was able to see the fruits of his family's efforts from a young age.
"I've always been interested in agriculture and farming since I was very, very small."
But as Drummond points out, UK farming has modernized in recent decades and change can be hard. Many people growing up on farms today haven't had the same positive experience, whether that farm is in Europe or in Africa.
"Everyone has aspirations to better themselves," he said. "And if life growing up is very hard, then why stay there? And if you are starting from nothing or from very little, it's very hard."
Another challenge for farmers globally is that fewer young people today have ever seen a farm in person. Drummond says the challenge and the opportunity is to show young people the joys of the industry up close. Too many think of agriculture as back-breaking labor, he said, when modern farming requires more knowledge of business and technology.
In the end, both Drummond and Bitty are optimistic that young farmers can be drawn to a career in farming, but only if others share those farm success stories happening every day, around the world.
"As a young farmer within an aging farm population, there's actually a massive opportunity," Drummond said. "With fewer people doing it, we can each do more and be more successful if we get it right."
On Jan. 21, Drummond and Bitty will compare their experiences and discuss the challenges of attracting youth to farming at a breakfast hosted by Cargill during the World Economic Forum's annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland.