Logically, the future of agriculture is in the hands of the younger generation as the current generation of producers and managers make their exit naturally or by force. But is that a future we should look forward to with delight or should we be terrified by the mere thought of this impending reality? A review of some key points may provide some justification to doubt the capability of our youth to lead us to greener pastures.
A Public Education Forum hosted by the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) was held in Saint Lucia on March 10, 2017. The theme of the Forum was ‘Investing in the Caribbean’s Food Bowl’. To highlight the potential for local/regional production of agricultural produce, a representative of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) noted that “the region’s food import bill is US$4 billion per year and 85 per cent of the food consumed in the Caribbean is imported from outside the region, including lots of processed foods and meats”. Needless to say, the panelist and stakeholders agreed that “the future of agriculture is in the hands of our youth” and “more young persons need to be encouraged to go into agriculture as a viable career choice”. But why hasn’t the agricultural sector been able to attract young people to meet what appears to be a great demand for agricultural produce or the need to reduce the food import bill?
The FAO (2014) noted that “few young people see a future for themselves in agriculture or rural areas”. The FAO (2014) also highlighted several challenges that young people face that may be applicable to the Caribbean region, namely, insufficient access to knowledge, information and education; limited access to land; inadequate access to financial services; difficulties accessing green jobs; limited access to markets; and limited involvement in policy dialogue. However, an agricultural economist at the previously mentioned forum made the following comment that possibly better describes the situation in Saint Lucia and the wider region: farmers who generated revenues never encouraged their children to go into agriculture. There appear to be several reasons why farmers (and farm-workers), even today, would generally not encourage their children to go into agriculture.
The socioeconomic status of a typical farmer and farm-worker in Saint Lucia has remained relatively low. In 2005 the International Labour Organization (ILO) reported that the low level of income of farmers and farm-labourers discouraged the payment of contributions to the National Insurance Corporation. It is highly likely that their relative socioeconomic status has worsened given the instabilities in the global financial market, and natural disasters in the subsequent years.
Of note, some farmers and farm-workers remained in the agricultural sector largely to finance their children’s education in areas that would lead these children away from the agricultural sector. Usually, the few parents who encouraged their children to view agriculture as a viable career directed them not into direct production but to serve in some managerial or technical capacity. The experience of the average farmer or farm-worker is that even a junior staff member in such positions is able to achieve, within a short space of time, what a farmer or farm-worker may not achieve in a lifetime. There appears to be little evidence to suggest a change in parental attitudes towards agriculture in more recent times.
In addition, the poor accountability and frequent cases of embezzlement that plague the sector are major sources of discouragement. Moreover, the bad experience of their parents or neighbours is enough to deter some young people from agriculture.
It the end, it seems sensible to call on the government to do more to “create the enabling environment for agriculture to thrive through direct capital investment in the sector, and the provision of fiscal incentives to spur growth”. However, equal importance must be given to the positive effects of success stories and upbuilding experiences.
The organisations working in the agricultural sector often point to success stories in an effort to motivate young people to consider a career in agriculture. But this trickle of success stories may not be sufficient to dilute the flood of negative reports and life experiences. At any rate, improving the socioeconomic status of the current cadre of farmers/farm-workers and devising some compensatory mechanism for the retired ones, may prove beneficial.