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  • Writer's pictureElyssa Kaur Ludher

Cultivating the Future: Empowering Young Farmers in Southeast Asia

Farmers in Southeast Asia are aging. Governments and not-for-profits need to think of ways to attract younger farmers into agriculture.

Agriculture is the backbone of Southeast Asia’s economies and rural livelihoods. The average age of farmers in Southeast Asian nations ranges from 45 to 60. Indonesia’s National Development Planning Agency has projected that there will be no professional farmers in the country by 2063. This is a cause of concern (see Figure 1).

A study in Malaysia, for example, found that agriculture and fisheries were “the least preferred sectors” among youth. Only 1.9 per cent and 0.4 per cent considered the two sectors respectively. In Indonesia, only 3.55 per cent of farmers are under 30 years old. Fewer young farmers are replacing retiring farmers. A study in the Philippines found that 65 per cent of farmers did not want their children to be farmers; this sentiment is not uncommon among their counterparts in Southeast Asia.

Youth are essential in shaping the future of agriculture. However, young people are reluctant to enter farming due to perceptions of agriculture as being lowly remunerated, hazardous, labour intensive, lacking in income protection, unrewarding and disconnected from modernity.

Table 1: Agriculture’s contribution to Southeast Asian economies, 2019-2020. ©ASEAN Secretariat.

Other contributing factors for fewer young farmers include challenges in access to land, capital, and technology. Land is often concentrated in the hands of the older generation. Unclear land rights and land redistribution policies exacerbate this. Land inheritance customs and laws often also may require land to be split between children, or passed on to only male children, cutting off women —who are often undercounted as being employed in the sector — from continuing to farm. Young farmers often lack the financial support or credit facilities for land, inputs, and machinery. Those wishing to farm using novel technologies also struggle to identify which are appropriate.

Studies undertaken have identified numerous steps to increase the number of young farmers. A key one is the need to promote agriculture as a viable career option and to de-stigmatise farming. Malaysia has started a campaign with the slogan “Agriculture is Business” (“Pertanian adalah Perniagaan”) to elevate the image of agriculture by providing income and insurance protection to reduce income volatility that farmers experience. Young people should also be made aware of the opportunities in agribusinesses — such as agri-tourism, value addition and brand making — that can be pursued alongside production.

Addressing land access and tenure security is also key to empowering young farmers. Transparent and accessible land redistribution policies that prioritise young farmers can help. Tenure security would ensure farmers have the confidence to invest and make long-term commitments. This should not only be in rural areas, but should also apply to urban farmers. One innovative way is through philanthropy. In Indonesia, the concept of waqf land donated for agriculture conserves land for farming purposes.

Training and education are other pathways to agriculture, but they need to be fit for purpose. A study in Malaysia found that less than a quarter of those who study agriculture in a tertiary education institute end up in the sector, citing that the programme was not tailored to facilitate people’s entry into the sector. Agriculture programmes could be more akin to apprenticeships, and offer training on sustainable and climate-resilient farming practices. Education should also include business and management skills- how to manage finances, monitor commodity markets, build stakeholders’ relationships and marketing.

Experimental and climate-resilient farming, such as in Thailand’s Santi Wana Eco Community, must take center stage to get young people interested in agriculture.

Agro-preneurial programmes are key to motivating new farmers. Studies have found that one motivation to enter farming is to own the business one operates. In Malaysia for example, 40 per cent of youth who want to work in agriculture aspire to own the business they run. This supports the smallholder farming culture, which has been found to be far more productive than corporate farming. Some nations have launched young agro-preneur programmes. For example, the Philippines established the Young Farmers and Fisherfolk Challenge programme in 2022. Malaysia set up a National Young Agropreneur Council in 2021 to support young agro-preneurs.  These programmes should particularly encourage family succession of farming, to ensure that the skills and experiences of children of farmers can be passed on.

Improving infrastructure and amenities in rural areas — including telecommunications, transportation, electricity, education, and healthcare — can counter the urbanisation trend. Having facilities in rural areas could also improve market access and farmer incomes. It would also make it more attractive for young families. Farmers should take more ownership and pride in their produce, and be encouraged to adopt more sustainable farming practices to differentiate their wares from others. This is aligned with the values of the younger generation, who are concerned about environmental issues.

To avoid a sense of isolation felt by new farmers, governments and not-for-profits could set up networking and collaboration opportunities to improve knowledge exchange and mutual support, not only in-person but through web-based platforms as well. These platforms could also be used to include young farmers in policy development and implementation, to create an enabling environment for them to thrive.

Political and societal support is needed to make sustainable agricultural investments, such as in Surin's Satom Farm.

The dual challenge of ageing farmers and climate change is multifaceted and requires governments to adopt comprehensive approaches. Attracting young people to agriculture and equipping them with the necessary tools and resources to not only produce food but also tackle climate change is essential for Southeast Asia’s food security, stability and sustainable development. This requires reshaping the narrative around farming, prioritising programmes to support young farmers, providing climate resilient and entrepreneurial upskilling, improving rural infrastructure and providing collaboration opportunities. Perhaps then a new generation of young farmers would be empowered to be promoters of food security as well as climate warriors.

*This article was first published under ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute's


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