Human Stories

Why European Farming Faces a Demographic Crisis

With fewer young Europeans choosing to become farmers, there’s growing uncertainty about the future of Europe’s agricultural industry. So what caused this demographic crisis, and what’s being done about it?

European agriculture is experiencing a demographic crisis - only 11% of farms in the EU are run by people under the age of 40, and only 3% of that number are female.1,5 While these figures only include the head of the farm, not children or young people working on the farm in a leadership capacity or those intending to take over in the future, they still point to a clear scarcity of young people leading farms across the continent. And as an older generation of farmers also stops farming, the situation is only worsened as overall farmer numbers start to dwindle from both ends of the age spectrum.1

Barriers to entry

Rather than a lack of interest in farming from young people, it seems that barriers to entry are getting in the way. These barriers include the vast amount of money needed to invest in farming infrastructure, equipment and land and the difficulty setting up a financially viable business, as well as farming being a traditionally poorly paid and unstable job involving long hours and physical labour.1,2

Would-be young farmers from non-farming backgrounds, known as newcomers, arguably face an even tougher uphill battle.1,3 This is because the most common industry access point for young farmers is succession on intergenerational farms owned by the young person’s parents or grandparents. Without the inheritance of land, stock, tools or infrastructure, the upfront costs of starting from scratch could leave newcomers without viable income for years before profits are turned.

In the EU, 93,4% of the farms are still built on the traditional model of family farm, cultivating the 61,4% of the utilised agricultural land, and one third of the holders are already in retirement age. Source: Eurostat.

In the EU, 93,4% of the farms are still built on the traditional model of family farm. This farmmodel cultivates 61,4% of the EU’s utilised agricultural land, with one-third of the holders already in retirement age. Source: Eurostat.

What could this mean for the future of food?

Without young farmers, large agricultural plots can be sold, portioned up and repurposed, either as smallholdings or for re-development. In most cases, some or all of the land is absorbed by neighbouring farms, leading to large industrial-style holdings that are difficult for young farmers to access. This is one reason why the number of farms in Europe has been in steep decline in recent decades, but the amount of land under production has remained steady. As farmland is concentrated in the hands of fewer people using intensive practices like monocultures and automated machinery, food security comes under threat.

Find out why monocultures threaten food security

The current system of agriculture, not just in demographic terms, is largely unsustainable.4 Intensive farming systems are a major contributor to emissions responsible for climate change, as well as the degradation of air, soil, and water quality.24 With this, there is an argument to be made for some farm closures being a good thing for the planet. With less intensively farmed land, greater areas of land can be left to nature, which helps to improve biodiversity, allows soils to regenerate, reduces the impact of flooding and wildfires and improves carbon storage, among many other benefits. Ideally, there’s a compromise that doesn’t require a total transition of farmland, one that sees our use of agricultural land become more ecologically integrated, less damaging, and less financially prohibitive for young farmers. But striking a balance between producing local food using sustainable farming systems, providing a decent living to farmers, and protecting and expanding wild spaces to stabilise our climate and provide ecosystem benefits is not an easy task. Thankfully, policymakers and grassroots organisations across Europe are working hard to bring more diversity into the leadership level of farms across the continent.

What is being done about it?

“Generational renewal” was listed as a priority aim of the 2023-2027 Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), and member states have been tasked with introducing measures tailored to national needs that entice young people into farming.5,6 As part of the CAP, the European Commission has asked member states to increase funding available for young farmers from a maximum of 2% of the current direct payment budget to a minimum of 3%.7

The CAP currently occupies about one-third of the EU budget, amounting to some €386.6 billion over the 2021–2027 period.1

The global number of farms in the EU has been in steep decline, but the amount of land used for production has remained steady: between 2010 and 2020, the EU lost about 3 million farms, almost all of which were family farms, englobed by bigger exploitation

While the number of farms in the EU has been in steep decline, the amount of land used for production has remained steady, indicating a shift to larger scale production. Between 2010 and 2020, the EU lost about 3 million farms, almost all of which were family farms, englobed by bigger exploitations. Source: Eurostat.

Support available under CAP includes income support or start-up aid, in addition to access for all farmers to direct payments and agri-environmental measures, but each member state also has its own schemes on offer.1 In Finland, young farmers can access a start-up scheme through the country’s food authority.8 The scheme offers funding for farmers under the age of 41 starting out in the industry for the first time, including young people taking over generational farms.

In Italy, the government has launched a Land Generation initiative which funds state land loans for experienced farmers younger than 41, helping them purchase land up to a value of 1.5 million EUR.11 The initiative also targets inexperienced farmers under 35, offering loans of up to 500,000 EUR to fund agriculture degrees, buy farmland and start new farming projects.11

Land management schemes in France

Two schemes in France focus on acquiring rural land and retaining its use for agriculture. The first scheme, SAFER, was created in the late 1960s as part of a series of reforms intended to modernise French agriculture.12 There is a SAFER in every region of France - a not-for-profit organisation that seeks to support farmers, prevent land consolidation, and ensure that any proposed rural projects fit in well with the local community’s needs.12

For example, SAFER can purchase rural land and resell it to the best bidder (projects focusing on regenerative farming, preserving heritage, and protecting the environment), rather than the highest bidder, like a private seller might.12 This process helps young farmers with the funds to purchase land get on the land ladder, by preventing them from being constantly outbid by larger agribusinesses. In 2014, 20% of sales in which SAFER intervened were used to help set up new young farmers.12

A second organisation helping young farmers in France is the community farmland trust Terre de Liens, which raises funds to conserve farmland.13 The organisation uses the funds to buy farmland and then offers 99-year leases on the land, which may include infrastructure and/or livestock, to young people who want to get into the industry.13 Terre de Liens also offers a mentorship programme to farmers in their area to help young people starting out in the sector.13

NGOs in Romania

The Romanian Farmers Club, an NGO in Romania, runs a programme called “Young Leaders in Agriculture” for young people born into farming families who are considering staying in the sector.14 Young farmers in Romania can also access money through start-up and modernisation grants run by the government. Meanwhile, Bucharest also has a scheme to lease state reserve lands to young farmers to help them get started in agriculture.

However, Alin, a succession farmer in Romania, told FoodUnfolded that these schemes are often difficult to apply to, are not transparent, and can lead young farmers to face litigation over repayment. He said: “I received 70% financing for a project worth several hundred thousand euros, received the funds, implemented the project and paid off my debts. But now, the Agency for Financing Rural Investments (AFIR) has told me I must repay the money because they found some so-called irregularities in the original proposal submitted in 2021. I have contested this decision, and I am waiting for a judge to decide the case.”

Asked whether his case was unique to him, Alin said, “Not at all. Several young people in Romania have been subject to enforced reimbursement without much investigation. In most cases, their newly established farms, which received development grants, are shut down.”

Does the Netherlands want more farms?

The Netherlands faces a unique situation as the government is currently trying to reduce the number of livestock farms in the country to help bring down the country’s particularly high nitrogen emissions.18

More than 750 farmers in the Netherlands have volunteered to shutter their holdings under a €1.5 billion government scheme.19 Their livestock farms, based near nature reserves, are being bought out for up to 120% of their value.20 Belgium, a neighbour to the Netherlands, faces a similar problem, and farmers there are also being asked to reduce nitrogen emissions.21 But while some farmers have volunteered to shutter their businesses, many are protesting the new regulations and arguing that farmers should not bear the brunt of emissions reductions. Dutch agricultural organisation LTO has called for transition programmes to help farmers reduce emissions without having to close.22

Even as some farms close, there are still options for young farmers in the Netherlands, such as leasing land through Land Van Ons.23 The organisation raises money for land conservation, uses the funds to acquire agricultural land and then leases it to nature-friendly farmers using sustainable practices.23

Are we doing enough?

Farmers who spoke to FoodUnfolded generally described the schemes listed above as ineffective, either because they are too difficult to apply to, have narrow eligibility criteria or come with litigation years down the line. The most effective programmes appeared to be land management and lease schemes through which young people can acquire land and sometimes infrastructure.

Inheritance of the land is influenced by social factors: men born on farms being expected to inherit from the exploitation, women being socialised to join and “marry in” another farm, reinforcing patrilinear hierarchies.

Inheritance of the land is also influenced by social factors: men born on farms can be more expected to inherit, with women being more likely to ‘marry in’ to another farm, reinforcing patrilinear hierarchies in farming. Source: Agricultural and Food Economics.

These schemes, however, focus solely on getting more young people into farming, despite there being no evidence that young people aren’t interested in the industry itself. It’s rather that the financial barriers are too great for many young people to overcome, and the low pay and instability in the career can put them off further.1 At the same time, farming in Europe is wildly unrepresentative of the continent’s population as a whole - remaining an overwhelmingly white and male industry.1 Women, People of Colour, LGBT+ people, or people of certain religions are particularly underrepresented, but FoodUnfolded couldn’t find any European schemes aimed specifically at these people. Could more be done to change the industry by focusing on specific groups, rather than young people as a whole?

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