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Meeting young farmers’ ambitions: a condition for the success of the new CAP

By Diana Lenzi, European Council of Young Farmers (CEJA)

Picking apples in an orchard in Slovenia. Source: CEJA.

The Conseil Européen des Jeunes Agriculteurs (CEJA) is the EU’s main interest group for young farmers and has considerable interest in a CAP that will help them realise their ambitions in agriculture. CEJA presents itself as a forum for dialogue between Europe’s next generation of farmers and key decision-makers. Diana Lenzi is a young farmer from Tuscany, where she manages her family’s winery since 2008. Recently elected as the new president of CEJA, she presents some of the key perspectives of her organisation on the new CAP, which, in her view, is crucial for generational renewal and farming practices that are economically, socially and environmentally sustainable for both producers and consumers of agricultural products.

Young farmers are key to addressing the new CAP’s objectives

Generational renewal in agriculture has been on the EU political agenda for over two decades. As farm demographics continue their steady decline, never has the need for young farmers been so pressing. With the new Common Agriculture Policy (CAP), Member States will be at the forefront of determining whether common objectives can be achieved in the future through their National Strategic Plans. Without young farmers, who will be able to tap into the climate mitigation potential of agriculture and deliver on climate neutrality by 2050? How will the EU even realise its commitments to negative emissions after 2050? Without generational renewal in agriculture, who will build production strategies enabling resilient and sustainable food systems? Most importantly, how will the EU ensure rural areas are not left behind in the whole process? These are only a few question marks, but they illustrate with great accuracy the vital importance of attracting and sustaining young farmers in the future CAP.

Generational renewal: a cross-cutting objective…

The objective of generational renewal in agriculture is not a novelty of the CAP post-2020. Back in 2000, the European Court of Auditors called on the European Commission to include the situation of young farmers in its legislative actions. Only 7.4 % of farm managers were below the age of 35 years and today they represent around 5.6 %. While decreasing demographic trends are not limited to agriculture only, the unique role of the farming sector in feeding the population, acting against climate change and maintaining activity in rural areas make them a worrying development. In light of all the challenges ahead, it appears clear that the CAP is at a turning point. Thus, far from being a specific social and societal objective, generational renewal appears instead as the cornerstone of our ambition for the future.

At a time when the enabling of resilient and sustainable food systems is so central, with the United Nations Food Systems Summit approaching (26–28 July 2021), the lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic and the publication last year of the Commission’s Farm to Fork Strategy, generational renewal remains a vital consideration that is too often overlooked. Food systems in which producers are driven away from the fields, stables and orchards are not resilient or sustainable. Without young people who are able to live from their vocation for farming, it is ultimately the diversity and the strengths of EU food systems that will be undermined.

Climate adaptation and mitigation is another challenge that will require a workforce and fresh energy. In its Green Deal, the EU has made ambitious commitments to become the first climate-neutral continent by 2050. Targets have been aligned, as a consequence, but their achievement will in practice also depend on farmers’ ability to contribute to them. Management of natural resources, landscape arrangements to prevent the effects of adverse climate events, carbon sequestration and other sustainable practices are essential levers of action when translated both into regulatory and market-based solutions. But they will require young farmers, women and men, to be implementable in the decades to come.

The EU has put forward the objective of leaving no one behind. It is a crucial commitment to live up to when it comes to rural areas. In this perspective, agriculture remains a critical factor. Its capacity to boost growth, create added value and ultimately employment must be preserved. It is quite legitimate for new generations to defend decent living and working standards in their rural territories. Young farmers are at the forefront of such a movement.

…confronting the harsh reality of setting-up farming activities

Despite the importance of having young people setting up in agriculture, there are still many hindrances. To fully implement all CAP objectives on the farm, young farmers’ needs must be fully addressed in future National Strategic Plans. As foreseen in CAP Strategic Plans, three aspects will need to be covered by Member States: (1)

  • access to land ownership, land mobility and land restructuring;
  • access to credit and investment; and
  • access to knowledge and skills.

Access to land ownership remains a primary concern for young European farmers. Agricultural land has been under increasing pressure, resulting in higher competition and prices and urban sprawl. Land concentration, in our opinion partly due to the hectare-based nature of direct payments under the CAP, makes it increasingly complex to access land ownership. Land leasing contracts are not always as stable, undermining young farmers’ long-term environmental action. Land is also characterised by a low degree of mobility and transfer, illustrated by the phenomenon of land retention among pensioners or by the difficulty for retiring farmers to connect with young farmers willing to take over the farm.

Two generations at work, Austria. Source: CEJA

Farm income and investment capacity are a central issue to all farming activities and especially to young farmers. Agriculture is a highly capital-intensive sector, and starters need to make critical investments in the first years whether or not they are on a family farm. Yet, when applying for a loan, young farmers are two to three times more likely to have their application rejected by the bank compared with other age categories, due to the perceived risks, the lack of appropriate fixed assets as collateral, or inadequate business plans. (2)

The sector is also characterised by increased exposure to risks — economic, environmental or sanitary — and a structural asymmetry of information on market developments and price building, making earning a decent and stable income a challenge. When confronted with unforeseen risks, young farmers do not always have capital available to guarantee cash flow and provide them with an adequate buffer. Risk management instruments and strategies are lacking on farms, and Member States do not necessarily align the subsidised tools (i.e. insurance, mutualisation funds and the income stabilisation tool) they have at their disposal in the rural development pillar of the CAP to facilitate uptake.

Last but not least, knowledge is power, and agriculture is no exception. Anyone who has ever spent some time on a farm knows that the sector demands a wide diversity of skills. Life-long and peer-to-peer learning are powerful tools, but information about educational and training opportunities is not always straightforward or accessible. Furthermore, training is time-consuming, and it is not always possible for farmers to get away from their farms for several days, particularly when they do not have employees or family to help out.

Recipe for successful strategic planning

To implement successful generational renewal strategies, Member States will need to shift the approach with the aim of not only attracting young farmers but also sustaining their activities in the long run. They will need to grub up some of their most deeply rooted conceptions, including the simplistic idea that boosting new technologies will drive more young people towards agriculture. Most importantly, it will be essential to look at the aspirations of new generations starting up in farming: work-life balance, more attention given to safety and mental health, reduced urban-rural gap, and adequate infrastructure in rural areas, to name just a few.

Young beekeepers in Bulgaria. Source: CEJA.

When it comes to instruments, the principle that should prevail is ‘the broader, the better.’ On top of the complementary income support and installation aid, which should be ensured throughout the entire programming period, many instruments exist under the rural development pillar to tackle very central issues. Investment support, in the form of grants and financial instruments, is instrumental in facilitating credit access. Cooperation measures, which favour intergenerational instruments, will positively affect land mobility — as has been the case in Ireland with the land mobility service. Risk management instruments and knowledge exchange and transfer schemes will produce positive outcomes for building resilient business plans and boosting environmental performance.

For environmental and climate-related objectives, the same principle must apply. Member States must be encouraged to promote a diversity of sustainable agriculture practices, including, among others, organic farming, agroforestry, agroecology, precision farming and conservation agriculture. A broad diversity of on-farm solutions exists, adapted to specific pedoclimatic and socioeconomic conditions, to unlock the full potential of agriculture for climate adaptation and mitigation. To encourage such diversity, young farmers are looking forward to implementing eco-schemes and agri-environmental measures, which are perceived as enabling a wide range of opportunities on the farm.

Finally, national policies matter too. Through their strategic plans, Member States will be held accountable for the results of EU funding and their capacity to align coherent national policies. Young farmers’ instruments require further effort on that front. Land ownership access and mobility, for example, must be accompanied at the national level by land planning, taxation and succession policies favouring new generations. Outside the realms of the CAP, Member States must promote and align regulatory tools to ensure a fairer income for farmers and allow for a better spread of margins along the agri-food supply chain. The first objective of young farmers is to be rewarded by the market for the products and public goods they produce. Ethical and transparent commercial relations and a better organisation of sectors are key to achieving such an objective.

Young farmers are indispensable for a sustainable Europe

The new CAP offers the opportunity to fast-forward the objective of generational renewal and ultimately answer the many challenges ahead for EU agriculture. Rather than treating the objective of attracting and sustaining young farmers as a separate one, it is essential to understand the cross-cutting potential it has. Achieving the higher economic, social and environmental sustainability of agriculture by 2050 is highly dependent on the capacity of new generations to overcome obstacles and live from their vocation for farming. Vocations for agriculture have not disappeared. They have changed with the times, but they still have the same objectives: making a decent living out of producing safe and healthy food for consumers, while preserving the natural resources borrowed from future generations. As policymakers try to envision the future of our food systems through an unprecedented farm to fork strategy, young farmers have figured out the transformative role they can play in the whole process. When the future of agriculture is set out in the CAP’s Strategic Plans, we cannot afford to leave young farmers behind.

(1) As formulated in the different chapters, Member States have to include these aspects in the Strategic Plans required under the new CAP, for example in relation specifically to Objective 7 on generational renewal.

(2) Fi-compass, April 2019, Survey on the financing needs of agricultural enterprises.

This article was first published on the 2/2021 issue of the ECA Journal. The contents of the interviews and the articles are the sole responsibility of the interviewees and authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the European Court of Auditors.

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The ECA Journal features articles on a variety of current audit topics, the ECA’s role and work. It is available in electronic form below, and paper copies can be ordered online at the EU Bookshop.

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