Growing pains

Young farmers say Spain should be doing more to help develop a sector which is graying critically

Juana Viúdez
A farmer looks out over her lettuce field.
A farmer looks out over her lettuce field.Getty

Life in rural Spain is not what it used to be. Once-remote communities are now well connected, and those who own homes in them have access to all kinds of creature comforts, such as central heating, and can enjoy all the benefits of new technology. At the same time, machinery such as automatic irrigation systems means that farmers can even think about taking the weekend off and going on vacation for a few days. That said, the image of them being out in all weathers, undertaking grinding work that barely generates enough income to survive, or that only the poor or badly educated are prepared to work the land in this day and age, are still widely held perceptions.

The question of who will take over the running of farming has become an urgent one in Spain, as it has in the rest of Europe. This is a sector that contributes 2.3 percent of GDP. Just five percent of farmers in Spain are aged 35 or under, while 55 percent are aged over 55, according to EU figures for 2010. Time marches on, and around 4.5 million farmers and agricultural laborers are expected to retire in 2020, and yet despite widespread unemployment, there seem to be few young people with their sights set on a life down on the farm. How come?

“In reality we are rural entrepreneurs”

When Agriculture Minister Miguel Arias Cañete met with young farmers on January 23 to discuss the future of farming in Spain, he made it clear that the government would not be offering much financial support, telling them it would be spending just two percent of the 4.850 billion euros in agricultural subsidies that Spain receives from Brussels on helping young people enter the sector.

Among the measures he outlined were tax breaks. "The agriculture sector will be one of the most competitive in the future, and it is worth fighting for," he said.

"The problem is that we don't know how to sell ourselves," says Paola del Castillo, the vice president of CEJA, the European Council of Young Farmers, which has a membership of around one million. "Our society has this image of us as going round begging for handouts; what they don't realize is that the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says that by 2050 there will not be enough food to feed the planet."

In 2012, the FAO and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) produced a report calculating that a 60-percent increase in food production would be needed over the next four decades to feed the world. "Farmers are the people who guarantee that we have variety in our food," says Marco Marzano, president of the World Agriculture Organization. "If our fields end up belonging to just five or six large corporations that decide what is planted and what we are going to eat, then what kind of food can we expect?" he asks.

Marzano says we are making a big mistake by not providing opportunities for young farmers: "They need to be helped and encouraged, because working the land is a difficult business."

"Farming is still a risky venture, and a long-term one, too. We have to explain to people why this sector needs help," says Duarte Mira, director of the Confederation of Portuguese Farmers. "If a shop doesn't sell its goods, it simply closes down, but if you buy 50 suckling cows and you have a difficult first year, what are you supposed to do with them? Farmers can't just close the door and walk away, like a shopkeeper."

Del Castillo, of CEJA, runs a beef farm in Cádiz, which she took over after her father died. In the six months she has been working on behalf of young Spanish farmers, she says she has been struck by how organized her colleagues in other European countries are in defending their interests. "In Spain, there is no single organization for young farmers, instead things are organized through labor unions or regionally."

José Andrés Palacios of the Agrarian Union of Navarre agrees that it's time to improve farming's image. "We have inherited this stigma, when in reality we are rural entrepreneurs; that's how we have to start seeing ourselves," he says, adding that there is no room in the sector for anybody who isn't properly trained.

The young farmers who protested outside the agriculture ministry in January believe that their sector has the potential to make a much bigger contribution to Spain's economy, but the obstacles are many.

Running a farm is akin to running a business nowadays, and involves long-term planning, as well as copious amounts of form filling and tax returns. It's not for everybody, but the experts say there is no escaping the paperwork.

"It can be very difficult in the early days," says Luis Roldán of the Agrarian Association of Young Farmers (ASAJA). "I have friends who have been turned down by the bank for loans, when they needed money to buy a herd of goats, and the manager tells them that they are insane."

The 36-year-old has been in farming since he was 18, and took over a patch of land owned by his grandfather, first producing almonds, and later goat's cheese. "If I want a loan, I can't wait for EU funding to come through, so we have to make do with personal loans from the bank," he says.

Ana and Raquel Sáenz, who run a chicken farm, say they nearly lost heart as a result of the difficulties they faced when starting up. "Just when we were all set to begin, with a huge investment at stake, and the chicks in the incubators, we were told that we wouldn't get the paperwork we needed for another two months. We had filled in millions of forms, but the authorities were prepared to shut us down over a minor detail. Fortunately, we were able to cut through the bureaucracy in time."

Office time is unavoidable, says Alberto Alba of the Valencia branch of ASAJA. "Our members are constantly swapping their overalls for a suit and tie, and need to know about how to set up a website, charter a ship, and which taxes they need to pay, and when..."

"If you don't have internet, you're toast, because all subsidy applications have to be filled in online," says agriculture lecturer Ana Velasco of the Politécnica Universidad de Madrid. "The secret of success in this game is innovation, and to constantly be learning new things. The future holds a lot of potential."

That said, Spain's new generation of farmers face a hard time in the years to come, says Marzano: "It takes a lot of motivation to be a young farmer."

It's not just about money, although it's a key factor, say the country's farming unions, which complain that the government is not doing enough to improve access to loans and land. Other experts, such as agricultural engineers, sociologists and rural development specialists, point to inefficiencies in the way land is worked, as well as to widespread ignorance among the population about just what farming entails, and whether it really is such a hard life.

The crisis of the last five years has prompted some young people to either think about returning to the land worked by their families, or to start a new life in the countryside away from the grind of long hours and low wages in the city. That said, it was probably their own parents or grandparents who told them that there was no future in the countryside, many of them having grown up in rural poverty in the 1950s and 1960s, when there was a mass exodus from rural areas to the cities.

"From 2010 onwards, we have seen a slight increase in the number of young people looking for work in agriculture," says Begoña Nieto, the director general for rural development at the Ministry of Agriculture. She says most of the young people considering becoming farmers have been hit hard by the collapse of the property sector, and are looking to make a new start.

"Obviously the sons and daughters of farmers are going to have a head start in this, because they already have access to the land, which is the biggest entry barrier that young farmers coming into the sector for the first time face," says Ricardo Bayo of the Union of Small Farmers (UPA). Buying agricultural land is not easy, and the stiff conditions that the banks impose on borrowers don't help matters. "There was a lot of land speculation during the property boom," Bayo explains.

The problem is illustrated by what happened in Murcia, says Ana Velasco, a lecturer in the Agriculture School of the Politécnica Universidad de Madrid, who has studied farming communities and the way that the crisis has prompted some young people to return to the land. She set her students the task of analyzing what had happened to the agricultural land in this southern region with a long tradition of smallholdings. In their findings they discovered that close to half of agricultural land had been rezoned for construction purposes. "These were typically small farms that were no longer worth working, due to the value of the land," she says.

The most recent agricultural census, carried out in 2009, shows that there has been a 44.7-percent fall in the number of farms being worked over the first decade of the new century. Of the 1.7 million farms in 1999, there are now just 989,786 left. That said, the amount of land being worked has fallen by just 10 percent - the hardest hit have been smallholdings.

"The farming model that the European Union wanted to encourage, and we're talking about the Treaty of Rome here, back in 1957, were small, professional, family-run units, but paradoxically, EU agricultural policies since then have hit these types of farms hardest," says Velasco.

Another factor that has prevented young people from making a profession out of farming is that older farmers have held on to their land at all costs. Young people from farming communities interviewed by Velasco and Silvia Martín, of the agricultural department of the regional government of Castilla y León, all complain that their parents and grandparents refuse to lease them land.

"Young people see that they are not going to get their hands on the land until their parents or grandparents die, and that this isn't going to happen any time soon, and that they will be too old by the time they inherit the land to be able to work it," the pair say.

But as Begoña Nieto points out, many in the older generation are rightly fearful that their children will simply sell agricultural land that may have been in the family for several generations. "Land is just held on to, and not used, when it could be making money by being leased out to other farmers," he says.

The scarcity of agricultural land, and the reason why farmers are so determined to hold on to it, is in part the result of the subsidies doled out by the European Union through the Common Agricultural Policy, which in recent years has focused more on extending and preserving farmland, but not on working it.

"There are people being paid not to farm their land. We call them sofa farmers, many of them are retired. If they sell the land with the rights they have acquired, the price can triple," says Pilar Cuy, who comes from a farming family in the northeastern province of Huesca, and is married to a farmer. Of the 900,000 farmers in receipt of subsidies through the Common Agricultural Policy, only 320,000 pay Social Security contributions.

This year has seen protests by Spanish farmers about the EU's agricultural policies. Around 500 of them gathered outside the Agricultural Ministry in January, calling on Minister Miguel Arias Cañete to implement policies to revive the agricultural sector. They handed out 5,800 apples, each one representing an application for government grants to help set up a farm: half of the applications were rejected due to lack of funding.

"In 2012, around 70 million euros of funding for farmers was lost because the Spanish government didn't make its contribution [the European Union provides 70 percent of grants, and the Spanish government 25 percent]," says Miguel Blanco of farmers' union COAG. At the very moment that the EU is preparing a new Common Agricultural Policy that will run until 2020, farmers were protesting because subsidies from 2012 and 2013 had not been paid in full.

But creating a new generation of farmers, and perhaps doing something to lower Spain's terrible unemployment rate, doesn't depend solely on subsidies and grants, says Alicia Langreo, an expert in rural economies. "In La Rioja, for example, there are a lot of people who want to work in agriculture, and in Huelva, the strawberry industry remains a potent one," she notes.

Langreo says that more training is required for young farmers. "Very little has been done in this regard, and productivity could be improved as a result."

Alberto Alba of the Valencia branch of the Agrarian Association of Young Farmers (ASAJA) says older members may not have any problems when it comes to selling a truck of fruit to an international buyer, but many of them have had to take courses to learn about computers, or how to send a message via a smartphone to an automatic watering system. The cherry cooperatives in the western province of Cáceres keep in touch during harvest time via a digital platform.

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