Photographs courtesy of Sean Hawkey.
Small-scale farmers around the world are grappling with a number of challenges—volatile prices, lack of access to finance, the effects of climate change, land grabs—each more dire than the next. Among those, the issue of aging farmers can seem like a quaint problem, but it is every bit as important, especially if you’re one of the 7.6 billion people who like to eat.
Efficient production methods have changed the face of agriculture for products like soy or wheat, allowing fewer farmers to produce even greater quantities; yet most of the world’s food is produced by small family farmers, 84 percent of whom are cultivating fewer than five acres.
As these small-scale family farmers age, many are finding that their children have no desire to take over the farm. Mechanization in coffee has been difficult, especially at the farm level, meaning that manual labor is required for high-quality coffee. Most young people in these communities see farming as a high-risk, low-status vocation, and they’re not wrong.
When the price is adjusted for inflation, coffee farmers earn less per pound than they did 40 years ago. The current price for coffee futures is US$1.21—nearly 20 cents below the Fairtrade Minimum Price—and can fluctuate more than 70 percent over the year. Farmers rarely earn what’s needed to feed their families year-round, much less improve their businesses. The work is hard, the margins are non-existent, and there are few upsides.
These facts are fueling a migration of rural youth to urban centers in search of greater opportunity, leaving their parents on the farm. Currently, the average age of coffee farmers across Africa is 60, according to the International Coffee Organization. In Colombia, it’s 56 (for reference, the average age of farmers in the United States is 58.3).
The global market is waking up to the fact that few young people see a future in agriculture, which threatens global food security.
In reaction to this threat, there are numerous industry-led initiatives, including scattershot efforts to make farming more appealing, extend educational opportunities to young people, improve farm profitability, and invest more in rural communities. Few of these initiatives focus on the original cause—a fair price for a valuable product.
Carlos Reynoso is the General Manager of Manos Campesinas, a Fairtrade-certified cooperative based in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. As manager of a small cooperative producing some of the world’s finest coffee, Reynoso sees the impact of aging farmers and outward migration.
Reynoso puts the issue in relatable terms—opportunity. Every parent wants the best for their children, and coffee farmers are no different. Any effort to address the issue of generational handover needs to include parents, children, farmers, and cooperative managers at coffee’s origin in designing the solution.
Kyle Freund (KF): How do you see the issue of generational transition playing out at Manos Campesinas?
Carlos Reynoso (CR): We have to recognize that many farmers are getting older. In the majority of agricultural work—coffee included—youth involvement is quite low and income is very low, in addition to being very demanding physically. From the perspective of the farmer, it doesn’t generate much income for what you put into it.
So there’s this sentiment that ‘I’m going to work hard as a farmer because I want to make sure that my children can go to school and educate themselves and be involved in other activities that are not necessarily related to agriculture.’ They want something better for their children. That is a big part of the reality for farmers and why we see the decreased interest from young people.
From the perspective of the young people, this feeling is felt even more acutely given the current context with the threat of coffee rust, low prices, limited access to credit, and the effects of climate change. Production is very uncertain now.
KF: Stepping back from the issue, do you think that the departure of young people from farming is a sort of success indicator in the community? The fact that some children are aspiring to a different career?
CR: This is a good observation. In my opinion, it is an indicator of success that coffee has allowed our farmer members to generate the income that allows them to send their children to study in different areas. As you mentioned, we see this as a concrete result. It’s a success that the conditions are there where children can see other opportunities.
In relation to the choices of future generations, we must respect that. What should occupy us is teaching those with an interest in farming to implement good practices and how to make their farms profitable. This is the challenge facing every cooperative and association.
From the perspective of the industry and consumers, they’re going to face an uphill battle unless there’s the willingness to pay farmers a fair price. In my opinion, if farmers were decently paid, we’d have a very different reality in which young people would be very interested. Perhaps you’d even see young people leaving the city and moving to rural areas.
KF: Is this situation unique to coffee or Guatemala?
CR: In global terms, I don’t think it’s unique to coffee, it’s everywhere in the world. This is the general thinking. We’ve talked with other Fairtrade organizations in other countries and many of them are facing the same issues.
KF: What is Manos Campesinas doing right now?
CR: First, we want to approach the issue with a lot of responsibility and care, to see it as a challenge as opposed to some great difficulty. As an organization, we’re looking at how we can demonstrate that farming can be possible and profitable. We are designing a pilot project for young people, showing how they can improve their parents’ farm through better practices and diversification of crops. Obviously, it has to be a natural choice starting with the premise that every person is free to decide what they want in the future.
The other important part of the chain is the market, and that is where Fairtrade plays an important role. There is a commitment from buyers to pay at least a minimum price, and it encourages buyers and producers to share purchase plans ensuring that the coffee produced has a home—it includes a premium for investment in the community. If we don’t have that kind of relationship, the scenario will continue to be quite complex.
KF: Do you see some of them becoming interested in roles further down the supply chain, like coffee graders or support staff for the cooperative?
CR: In the case of coffee production and the supply chain, it will be necessary to help young people expand their view of what’s possible—for example, the agronomists are putting their knowledge into practice supporting farmers with better methods, but also aspects of coffee processing, cupping, and selection as well as roasting, coffee shops, etc.
KF: Even if young people would want to become farmers, wouldn’t there still be the problem of dividing up land among them? Would there be enough for them to make a living off their portion of land?
CR: Yes, that’s also an issue. Many farmers already have small parcels. For example, look at the farmer who has five acres and five or six children. You have this problem of dividing up the land and each child ends up with nearly nothing. This is why we have to support people to build other capacities, as well, so they can pursue their own interests, whether it’s in farming or not.
That’s why we think any effort has to focus on those young people with an interest in farming, and then we equip them with better technology, better planning, and better inputs. This is more or less how we can address generational change and youth inclusion.
The Fairtrade International system and the CLAC Network (the producer network representing Fairtrade farmers and workers in Latin America and the Caribbean) partner with cooperatives and associations throughout the region to ensure decent opportunities for young people. For many of these organizations, supporting young people goes hand-in-hand with their efforts to confront exploitative child labor.
For more information on Fairtrade’s efforts to address youth inclusion and child labor, click here.