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What can we learn about the pathways of new entrants into sustainable agriculture?

What can we learn about the pathways of new entrants into sustainable agriculture?
28/04/2020 Steph Wetherell

In this blog post, Alice Taherzadeh, a PhD researcher at The Sustainable Places Research Institute, shares her findings on the learning pathways that young people take into sustainable farming.

Late in 2018, I attended the Landworkers’ Alliance Annual General Meeting and was surprised and excited to see so many young people who were new to farming, i.e. hadn’t come from farming backgrounds. Over the weekend, I got chatting to several of these young landworkers about why they had chosen to go into sustainable agriculture. It was really interesting and inspiring to hear their stories and I also saw similarities with my own path in becoming an ally of the movement through involvement in community gardens, community food projects and environmental activism. 

I soon found out that this high proportion of young and new entrants was definitely not representative of the wider agricultural sector both the UK and in the EU where there has been a steady decline and ageing of farmers. In fact, there was something about agroecological farming and the sustainable food movement which was drawing new interest from young people. However, I also found out that the situation of these young entrants was relatively unreported. They often don’t show up in official statistics because they don’t own the land that they work on – with access to land being a key issue for young entrants as they don’t inherit farms – and because they tend to take different routes into farming than in conventional agriculture. It was clear that this was a small but growing movement full of energy and passion to transform the food system and so I wanted to find out more about why and how people entered into sustainable agriculture and the challenges they faced. 

“I love being outside, because I love being part of it all…I just, I love growing […] if you’re going to spend your life doing something you might as well enjoy what you’re doing!” 

Some months later I started the project Learning Pathways into Sustainable Agriculture (full report here) and started seeking out young entrant farmers to interview about why they had started thinking about a career in agriculture and how they had learned the skills they needed. 

So who are young entrant farmers? I chose a broad definition to encompass all those who had started on their pathway towards becoming a farmer, didn’t come from a farming background and who were aged 16 – 40. As there are no clear or simple pathways for young people who are interested in sustainable agriculture as opposed to conventional agriculture, this means people choose a mixture of different routes and it is useful to understand what these are to support more people into farming. Over the summer of 2019, I interviewed 20 young people at various stages on their paths to becoming farmers including some who had established their own businesses. I asked them about how they’d entered into farming, what had motivated them and how they learned to farm. 

“I’d never considered farming as an option really or even working outside. I was pretty lost and felt a bit miserable, at sort of a dead-end. All my pathways I’d tried to follow through what I had been pushed to at school, I just didn’t feel inspired, I felt like something was missing actually.” 

Entry into sustainable farming

WWOOFing and other forms of farm volunteering were highlighted as key entry points by the people I interviewed, as well as being introduced through permaculture since it is a well-known international movement. Also, being involved in other projects such as care farming and a general interest in ethical consumption and living more sustainably made people begin to consider working in agriculture. 

Due to the lack of clear pathways, people took different approaches and often combined initial training with continuing their existing jobs. There was a hesitancy to leave other types of work and go into farming straight away since it is both undervalued in our society and people recognised how difficult it would be financially and first wanted to save some money. There were times when people made this shift rapidly and this was often due to a big life change or because they came across the opportunity, took it and then fell in love with farming. 

“It is one of the few things that I’ve found really aligns with my values and ethics in that growing food feeds people and it can be done in a way that is sensitive to the environment and local landscape and builds community.”

The motivations of young farmers I spoke to were both personal/social and political/environmental. Those interviewed saw farming as meaningful work that allowed them to have purpose while being outdoors and doing practical hands-on activities with tangible outcomes. There was also a real interest in community based farming and tackling mental health issues and wellbeing both for themselves and wider society. Young entrants spoke about farming as a right livelihood, a form of resistance and activism which allowed them to be part of a wider movement and systems change. Almost everyone interviewed was motivated by concern about the environmental impact of industrial agriculture and recognised the need for fundamental shift and how we produce food.

Learning to farm

“A lot of trial and error really. Or just putting things in the ground and maybe you’d read something about, “oh, you should do this” but you wouldn’t really understand why until it was growing.”

For most young entrants I spoke to, experiential learning (learning by doing) was the main way to learn farming. This was then strengthened by using also the knowledge and resources of nearby farmers and farming networks as well as key books and online information such as organic farmers’ YouTube channels. From the people I spoke to, the four main types of training were: traineeships or apprenticeships, which seemed to be a fairly common but non-standardised route; accredited courses within educational institutions which focus on sustainable food production; WWOOfing and volunteering, and then; short courses and workshops offered by organisations like the Permaculture Association and Landworkers Alliance as well as individual farms.

Challenges and barriers facing young entrants

“I had the technique of doing loads of jobs really well but I didn’t have any of that sort of overview because I’ve never had to think, what do we need to do this week? The tasks were all just written up and you’d just do them”

It is important to make sure that the learning pathways that are offered to young people support them to then become farmers and give them the confidence needed to start their own businesses. Some of the challenges found by young entrants, particularly with one season traineeships and volunteering, were the lack of experience with year-round farm planning and business management. There also seem to be a missing link between initial training and entrants setting up their own agricultural businesses with a need for mid-level training and opportunities to trial business models. On top of this, young entrants also encountered multiple barriers to entering farming. 

“Because not everyone can afford to take time off to do unpaid internships in order to gain the skills they need to do this work.”

Many of these were financial constraints as there was often an expectation that they have unpaid volunteer experience before being accepted to a traineeship and traineeships were low paid or unpaid. The challenge of trying to craft a route into farming when there were no clear pathways was another barrier along with the lack of adequate rural accommodation which makes training less accessible to those with other responsibilities or needs.

Supporting and encouraging young entrants

While doing this project I came across two projects which represented effective learning pathways and addressed several of the challenges that had been spoken about. One was the Biodynamic apprenticeship which is a two-year long apprenticeship and the other was the pilot project Pathways to Farming run by Mach Maethlon in Wales, a yearlong programme. 

There is still so much that could be done to encourage and support young entrants. This includes various types of financial support and the establishment of training networks, such as the traineeship networks Landworkers’ Alliance are now planning, which would foster peer support and enable more consistent and comprehensive traineeship schemes. We should also be encouraging young people into farming by presenting them with positive role models, opportunities in schools to interact with farms and presenting farming as a career option. Transforming the food system to one which is both sustainable and just requires more people to enter the farming sector and for farming to be a valued and viable livelihood. There are a growing number of young people wanting to put their energy and passion towards changing the food system but to draw on this incredible potential we must start removing the barriers they face and supporting them with comprehensive training, access to land and financial support.

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