No one is talking about what happens at home as young men increasingly migrate to urban and cross-border jobs – and it’s not just in Mexico. Census studies in many countries indicate that there is an increasing proportion of people over 50 in rural areas. In fact one study suggests that the average age of farmers in Latin American countries will be over 50 and not expected to decline. What does that mean for the future of production, local agriculture and food security.
People are also living longer. That may not sound too bad if, like me, you make your living mostly at a laptop. I can expect to do that for decades longer, and my wife certainly hopes that I keep working. But in societies where the work of farming is considerably more back-breaking and risky, being over 50 is simply not good news. Nor is the increasing feminization of agricultural labor – honey did you hear that? The young are leaving and those left behind may often be women – but that is a topic for another blog.
There are 2 worrisome issues at play here. First, is that the flight of youth from rural areas means that in the long term there will be no experienced farmers to take over. Even when adult children return, many do not have an interest in long hours of physical labor or have the farm skills to make their labor really productive.
Second is the consequent increase in labor costs due to the acute shortages, particularly at harvest times. Agricultural labor is not an easy job in places like the US and Canada; it is even harder south of the border. The ageing farmers in many poorer countries such as Mexico and beyond to Latin America and even parts of Africa and Asia fuel fears that there will be less production and less food. Labor is often the largest portion of the cost of agriculture in many countries. Having higher wage labor can also be a good thing, as it tends to indicate improved economic conditions. But, its significant increase will often mean the concomitant rise of agriculture prices, something that can be positive or can make a farming community economically uncompetitive and then dependent on market foods that, for poorer areas at least, are often cheap processed items and rarely fresh or nutritious.
You just can’t keep them down on the farm. My friend Rogelio Alba knows the problem well. In his late 50s he is left to manage the family’s modest hillside acreage with his wife Gabriella. Each year he is less able to work long days and he plants a bit less. At first neighbors helped each other, but even that support declines as they all face the same issues, and he expects they will all have to plant less.
The labor challenge would seem enough to predict a crumbling trajectory toward subsistence production. Yet, there is more bad news. The Albas face higher energy costs that affect not only the transportation to market but also the cost of fertilizers (making synthetic fertilizer uses considerable amounts of petroleum energy). Composting is a valid solution but more labor intensive. Higher agrochemical costs initially forced then to do weeding by hand but now organic methods such as leguminous ground covers reduce weeding and improve fertility. In the last few years they have faced what may be their biggest challenge: dramatic increases and longer periods of rainfall that increase fungal disease and negatively alter production patterns. These could be part of longer term climate change. The increased risk is certainly not attracting new farmers. So, can Rogelio interest you in a small hillside plot of land?
While some lands revert to forest, most are bought by larger farmers and converted to grazing lands to meet the increasing demand for meat as even relatively poor consumers in developing countries adopt US-style eating habits. What may be most apparent are the significantly altered landscapes especially where tree crops such as coffee, cocoa, or fruits once grew. While demand for foods will certainly grow, it seems certain that in the coming years the supply will be far more chaotic and uncertain. But back to the topic of aging farmers.
The issue of ageing farmers is a global one and not just for developing countries. It may well create a dilemma for poorer governments that cannot provide any safety net for the increasing numbers of older rural people and will be pressured to adopt inward-looking agricultural policies including subsidizing inputs, cost controls, and protection from competition even if these would be inconsistent with the market-oriented policies adopted by many of them today.
This problem does not seem to have a reasonable fix, at least not in any of the dozens of countries where I have worked. Large farmers, with the benefit of equipment and greater incomes can avoid the problem to a certain extent. Yet, more than 90% of the world’s farmers are small and mid-sized. This affects small farmers in Japan as much as small farmers in Jamaica. Farming may be noble but it is not an easy calling.
So, I was surprised recently to see the first results of COSA investigations in Colombia. Researchers there are trying to understand what happens when coffee farmers take up any of the many sustainability initiatives that are available today: Organic Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance, Utz Certified, 4C, Smithsonian M.B.C. They were not looking for effects related to aging and were surprised to find that the average age of farmers participating in some of the initiatives is significantly lower than the age of conventional farmers.
There could be many reasons. For instance, younger farmers are probably less risk-averse and more likely to try new approaches. But among the likely implications is that younger farmers are finding something to be interested in, something that may make farming more worthwhile, even sustainable. It is not yet clear what aspect of these particular sustainable initiatives most affects them. That may well emerge in the follow-up studies being conducted and it will be interesting to learn whether it is because of improved environmental benefits, social progress, or better productivity and farm economics. What is clear is that perhaps sustainability approaches may be one of the few positive lights in an otherwise darkening future for small farmers.
 COSA is the Committee on Sustainability Assessment, a collaborative effort of institutions to scientifically understand and compare the many social, economic and environmental aspects of commodity production (coffee, cocoa, tea, cotton, etc.). For more information see: http://sustainablecommodities.org/cosa