The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged farmers worldwide. Now, only time will tell which of its impacts will be with us the longest, and which will have the greatest impact. Already, though, knowledgeable and influential young farmers across the globe have a sense of what may be next, and certainly what’s necessary for the road ahead.
In a midsummer webinar hosted by the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists (IFAJ) and the international grassroots program Rural Youth Project, six panelists from Argentina, Australia, Canada, South Africa, Scotland and Sweden offered their perspectives on “The Road Ahead: What’s Next for Global Young Farmers?”
In 2020, their perspectives on COVID-19 and other issues affecting agriculture may shape a whole generation of global farmers.
Each of the six addressed the need for improved land access for future farmers, and the need to bridge the gap between farmers and the public. They also acknowledged how, in one way or another, the pandemic seems to have has awakened society to where food comes from.
In Sweden, for instance, there has been a surge of interest in national food security, said Simon Wancke, who works as an estate manager on a farm about an hour south of Stockholm and is also vice-president of CEJA, the European Council of Young Farmers.
At present, it’s estimated Sweden produces about half of the food it consumes, he told the webinar participants. What happened this spring is that a lot more people began to take that number seriously. .
“We haven’t really had a lockdown compared to other countries but, of course, a lot of companies have closed and a lot of restaurants closed so a lot of people have been fired or unemployed,” Wancke said. “And a lot of those people actually volunteered and have taken a job (on the farm) helping out.”
Needless to say, that seems a very positive thing, and not only because Sweden, like elsewhere has an agricultural labour shortage, but because it raised awareness about agriculture.
“This is so important because currently only two per cent of people in Sweden work in the agricultural sector,” Wancke said.
Wancke said a hoped-for change for the road ahead is that new awareness about the country’s food self-sufficiency may translate into new policies that improve access to farmland for young farmers. There is a real dearth of available land and farms for the next generation to take over, even as many of Sweden’s farmers at this time are older, and remain on their farms because subsidies are a key source of income.
Across the North Sea in Scotland, dairy farmer Colin Ferguson shares Wancke’s concerns about access to land, saying a stronger rental market in the U.K. would represent progress in that direction.
What’s also been holding farmers back in Scotland are high levels of government support payments to prop up farm profitability, he said during the webinar. What now remains to be seen is whether that level of support continues as the United Kingdom enters one of its deepest recessions in decades, Ferguson said.
The belt tightening by consumers that will result will also be an issue ahead, and Ferguson said that’s something farmers, who don’t tend to give enough consideration to consumers’ priorities even at the best of times, will need to pay attention to.
The road ahead in Scotland needs a market-driven agriculture, said Ferguson, who farms with his family milking 450 Friesian cows over two units in southwest Scotland.
Ferguson said their farm is focused on reducing cost and driving output. “To survive and thrive we must be market-driven,” he said. “We need to listen to consumers and produce what the market wants and needs, which is not what we have always done.”
In central Argentina, Pedro Vigneau, a fifth-generation farmer and a passionate advocate for no-till farming and use of technology to improve the environment, said what makes him quite optimistic for agriculture’s future is that throughout these months, science and scientists have become the public’s go-to source for trusted information.
This may ultimately help push back the anti-science movement which has been no friend to farmers worldwide, Vigneau said.
“For science, it is like a new birth with this pandemic.”
Vigneau also pointed out that as the global lockdown continued, and entire industries shut down, air and water became clearer and cleaner. What’s become obvious is that humans and human behaviour are having an impact on climate change, not agricultural practices, he said.
“This really should change the perception of farming,” Vigneau said. “Our rivers became clearer, our air became clearer, but farming did not stop, and we need to highlight this to the public.”
In Australia, which went into a severe lockdown, restricting people from travelling outside 50 km of their hometowns, farmer and communications specialist Emma Ayliffe spoke of how she and her business partner used that time to come up with new ways for connecting their country’s farmers and the rest of Australia.
Ayliffe is a director and researcher with Summit Ag as well as chair of the Young Farming Champions Program and spoke to the need to have a lot more conversation going on between farmers and the public.
COVID-19 and the conversation about food security in her country created opportunities for that, she said, sparking interest in what’s homegrown and Australia’s significant capacity to produce food — about 95 per cent of what it consumes.
Meanwhile, her company seized an opportunity to develop a novel new communication app — called Yacker — to connect farmers with consumers through telephone conversations.
“As a business we took COVID as a great opportunity to take a step back to take a step forward, to bring regional Australia together,” she said.
Ayliffe added that she sees enhanced opportunity for agriculture to support her country’s wider economy as Australia shifts away from the use of fossil fuels.
Several of the webinar participants also highlighted the strong support for local businesses and increased local food sourcing this spring.
Canadian farmer Stephanie Maynard, who farms with her husband producing 250 acres of fruit and vegetables in Ontario and selling direct to consumers said they certainly saw an uptick in business this year; their sales were two and a half times greater on their farm compared to last year.
“There’s definitely been a huge trend supporting local business,” said Maynard who is also past president and treasurer of the International Agritourism Association.
Down the road, Maynard hopes this may result in more farmers directing more of their production to consumers, which in turn would enable farmers to control prices and have those important face-to-face relationships with customers.
Maynard does wonder whether these new customers will stick around though, or whether they’ll go back to their previous shopping habits.
She’s already noted a decline in online sales as consumers begin to return to the stores they were in the habit of shopping in.
“I’m not quite sure how we keep in front of people,” she said. “But we need to do something immediately. We need to remind them that shopping locally is important at all times, not just in times of a COVID crisis.”
In Australia, one of the ongoing issues is that consumers aren’t willing to pay premiums for Australian grown and made, Ayliffe noted.
Maynard also drew attention to the vulnerability exposed in Canada’s food system when workers in centralized slaughter houses and processing plants became sick and plants couldn’t operate. That’s underscored the need for more diverse processing facilities located closer to home, something many farmers have been asking for, she said.
“The entire meat processing system came to a crashing halt and the major shift will be looking at how do we support those smaller processors which, as farmers, we have wanted for a long time,” she said.
Meanwhile, in South Africa, Breyton Milford, a part-time sheep and beef producer who is also the Cape of Good Hope Agricultural Society operations manager, said while COVID-19 shut down many important agricultural shows and events, farmers in his country have been working hard to support poorer communities during the pandemic, and South Africa’s government has introduced specific programs to provide relief to smaller and emerging farmers.
His organizations have also launched online campaigns to enable farmers to sell products online.
Milford also agreed that agriculture needs to find ways to attract new entrants, but can’t do so on its own. “We need to make agriculture ‘sexy’ to attract young people but policy-makers need to provide incentives and more training facilities as well,” he said.
The webinar, which was also supported by NFU Scotland and Eat Farm Now, was chaired and organized by United Kingdom-based Jane Craigie of Jane Craigie Marketing.
She was responding to the need for interpersonal connection during this uncertain time, Craigie said. “There really is opportunity for real change to the farming and food supply sectors following the global pandemic.”