Ana Sibayan uses a pen and some sheets of paper to prepare for her presentation. She is about to face more than 300 scientists, extension workers, policy makers, academicians, among other participants in a prestigious international conference on agriculture and rural development. Her topic – attracting the youth to engage in agriculture.
At 25, Ana is one of the youngest farmer-leaders in the country. In her hometown Victoria in Mindoro Oriental, she juggles her time between farming and school as she devotes most of it to encouraging young individuals to cultivate lands.
Deciding to farm, Sibayan’s choices in life are rather rare compared to most of the youth her age.
“I see how we survive in our town and farming is definitely something we can’t live without. I want the younger generation to realize their worth in feeding us. We, the youth, have a crucial role to play,” Sibayan said.
Looking at global figures on youth engagement in agriculture, Ana is indeed one in a million. Although a lot of young people aged 15-40 have shown interest in farming, they are just a small portion of the population.
The International Labor Organization (ILO) reported in 2014 that agriculture accounts for more than 32% of the world’s employment, and 39% in Asia and the Pacific’s developing countries. Yet, agriculture remains at the bottom of the youth’s most preferred job list. They look at agriculture as the “past and antithesis of progress,” the ILO contends.
African countries carry a major burden in handling more than 60% of their unemployed people – the youth. A burgeoning 72% of their youth live on barely US$2 or P90 a day even as their agriculture sector offers vast job opportunities for them.
The Food and Agriculture Organization saw the need for investment planning to “adequately reflect youth employment issues and consider explicit youth employment promotion programs” including adoption of postharvest value addition and innovation on labor-saving technologies.
Official Philippine statistics reported in 2012 more than 34% of the population aged 15 and above were thriving on agriculture. The youth comprises 45% of the country’s workforce in 2013. Of the nearly 20 million youth, 16% are still unemployed.
The irony of youth unemployment is magnified by the fact that most of them live in agricultural countries. However, farming is always associated with poverty and ancientness. Instead of staying in rural agricultural communities, the young people tend to migrate to cities.
The education sector is not spared. In UP Los Baños alone, enrolment in agriculture-related courses has sharply declined to 4.7% compared with 51% in the 1980s. Most schools that offer agriculture courses suffer from the same malady.
With the farmers who produce food all over the world aging every second, this situation seriously rings an alarm.
Push and pull
The Asian Farmers’ Association (AFA) believes that the youth in the region find farming as the sure way to get their hands rough and dirty.
“For the youth, there is no pride and dignity in farming. It is an unstable work, with low income and high risk. For the young people, rural life is also boring,” the AFA report said.
AFA also named access to land, capital, credit, and support services as the key element that convinces the youth to farm. Children are affected by the hardships their farmer-parents go through to sustain a living.
While youth migration to the cities increasingly threatens food production, some scholars are exploring ways to encourage and maintain youth involvement in agriculture.
In a study on youth outmigration, Jaime Manalo of PhilRice and Elske van de Fliert of the University of Queensland in Australia identified the factors that trigger and sustain youth exodus from rural to urban areas. Their paper detailed how involvement in actual crop production, personal perception on farming, parents’ dream job for their children, and education can help shape the youth’s decision to move to the cities. Curiously, many of the youth are inclined to go back to the farm when they retire.
“While intentions to migrate were high, young individuals had a strong desire to remain connected to their family’s farms. Hence, policy makers would do well to assist those who leave the rural areas and return after some time,” Manalo said.
Policies are set to attract the youth to agriculture. Aside from RA 8044 known as the Youth in Nation-Building Act that serves as pillar of support for the youth, the Philippine government has been devising incentives for smallholder farmers, including the women and the youth.
The Agricultural Training Institute resorts to the 4-H Club as an informal teaching modality for the youth in agriculture. PhilRice wages the Infomediary campaign that mobilizes high school students as information catalysts. The Departments of Agriculture, Agrarian Reform, and Trade and Industry also rear incentive schemes to further draw the youth to farm.
Various organizations recognize the role of the youth in development advocacies.
Youngsters are prime information movers in the community and are the future hands of food production.
“Equal attention should also be given to urban migrants who may not return to rural areas but are willing to invest in farming to employ their poor relatives. Migrants can often raise the resources needed to finance the input-intensive rice farming operations.” Manalo and de Fliert said.
Careers in agriculture abound from the farm itself to research and development, education and extension, and agricultural entrepreneurship. Agriculture professionals can attest to the many options the field can offer.
To encourage strong youth participation in agriculture, AFA-Philippines pushes for the Magna Carta of Young Farmers. The advocacy promotes and protects the rights of young farmers, establishes sound programs for them, institutionalizes their representation in agricultural policy-making bodies, and defines discrimination against them.
Despite the complications in the higher level of decision-making on interventions, Ana Sibayan would still want the youth to return to farming.
“My hands-on experience in the farm and exposure to youth activities open my eyes on the real issues concerning the youth. We need training, and be provided with basic resources to farm. There’s nothing wrong in getting dirty hands when you feed the world using the same hands,” Sibayan said.
The current status of the youth in agriculture challenges us to build a new wave of farmers who are empowered, productive, resilient, and prosperous. How then can it be addressed?
Income, meaning, sense of pride – that’s how Ana Sibayan reflects on the matter.