Almost everyone has a cherished childhood memory of enjoying homegrown or home-cooked food with loved ones. But as times change and today’s youth transition to urban lives, careers and mindsets, the rural areas which cultivate the ingredients we each need to live healthy lives, safeguard food security and preserve cultural traditions, are being forgotten.
There is a stark shortage of young people joining Europe’s agricultural sector, fueling a demographic crisis which is putting the future of farming at stake.
Whether it’s cultivating grapes in Italy, growing cereals in Belgium or harvesting apples in Slovenia; as the President of CEJA (European council of young farmers), Diana Lenzi, says: “Europe needs farmers.”
Yet, “only 10% of farmers in the EU are under the age of 40,” Diana told us, “and the average age is 57 plus.”
We spoke to Diana to learn more about the important work that CEJA – the “voice of Europe’s next generation of farmers to the European institutions” – is doing to empower young European farmers and futureproof the sector through sustainable agriculture and generational renewal.
“Europe needs farmers”
Diana is a young farmer from Tuscany herself. Since 2008, she has been running her family’s winery and farm in the village of Petroio near Siena, cultivating grapes, olives and ancient grains to make Chianti Classico wines, extra-virgin olive oil, flour and pasta.
Managing the farm led her to meet many other young farmers in her area, Diana told us, sparking her to found the Siena section of ANGA (Confagricoltura) which she led as President for six years (also acting as ANGA Vice-President at the national level from 2015 to 2019). She explained to us that:
“From that, I started meeting all the other groups from all over Italy and was really kind of shocked at how many other young people there were that were also taking over or starting fresh, that were leaving the jobs that they had been pursuing to go back to agriculture, to take over family farms, to transform them, and it was very inspiring.”
In 2021, Diana took on the role of President at CEJA: “An umbrella organisation that holds together 33 young farmer organisations from all over Europe,” she explains.
“We represent farmers but also organisations that represent rural youth,” says Diana, sharing how CEJA aims to “represent the needs but also the aspirations of young farmers trying to push for generational renewal in farming.”
As well as empowering young farmers, CEJA is a “forum for dialogue” between farmers and decision-makers, playing a vital role in shaping EU agricultural policy to better suit the diverse needs of the next generation of farmers.
“There’s such a huge diversity in EU agriculture,” says Diana, “you have very different systems, very different political systems and different types of agriculture and interests that are trying to be protected.”
CEJA bridges communication gaps and pushes for change in the farming sector; necessary conversation and evolution in a modern world full of fresh challenges.
A new farming model is needed
“I feel it has been quite a challenging couple of years,” says Diana, telling us that climate change, COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine have all presented unique challenges to the farming sector.
“I think we’ve been in a continuous spiral of uncertainty,” she says, “but that’s where I found most of the inspiration in a way.”
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Diana explains that she felt the old agricultural system is somewhat unrewarding for farmers, which sparked her to push for a new agricultural model with “everything in the mix” – productivity, profitability, social aspects and sustainability alike.
She hopes a new and improved model can help attract more young people to the sector and transform challenges “into an opportunity.”
“The road to sustainability in agriculture”
On Tuesday, May 16, CEJA is hosting a conference in Brussels entitled: “The road to sustainability in agriculture.” The event will feature panel discussions around CEJA’s five position papers on sustainable farming: “One on soil, one on animal welfare, one on NGTs (New Genomic Techniques), one on smart farmers for smart farming, and a policy paper on access to the land,” explains Diana.
When she started her mandate as CEJA President in 2021, Diana explained that she felt the framework for achieving sustainability in agriculture needed to be reformed.
“To me, honestly, it made no sense,” says Diana, “I knew that there was so much more complexity behind that needed to be addressed that I thought no, this is not how we can have the EU talk about agriculture and sustainability in agriculture.”
“So we kind of took it directly into our hands,” she says, explaining how, for the past two years, CEJA has zeroed in on the concept of “the road to sustainability in agriculture.”
“It’s a seven-step road,” explains Diana, “and it really takes into consideration every vital element of a farm; so soil, animals, plants, the farmer and his knowledge, his capacities, his skills, and we really started breaking down those different topics.”
Diana describes next week’s conference as “both a finishing point and a starting point,” explaining that she hopes it will act as a “trampoline into really starting the discussion with policymakers,” yielding “commitment to a strategy for generational renewal in agriculture.”
Did you already register to CEJA Conference "The road to sustainability in agriculture". Experiences from the field and panel discussions on enabling #Sustainability on the #Farm, #Soils, #AnimalWelfare, #NGTs and #SmartFarming.
Register here https://t.co/o6HPE79D3R pic.twitter.com/pW4mWRIvBE
— CEJA Young Farmers (@_CEJA_) April 25, 2023
Generational transition in the farming sector is an “emergenziale”
“We often talk about how the green transition is a necessity, the digital transition is a necessity,” says Diana, “I really think the generational transition is also one that is as vital and as necessary.”
An “emergenziale,” she says, “it’s truly an emergency.”
Diana underlined the importance of “finding ways to incentivise that generational renewal,” equipping young farmers with the tools they need to succeed and then empowering them to share their success stories to attract other young people to the agricultural sector.
“Otherwise we don’t have an alternative to produce food that doesn’t come from farmers,” warns Diana.
Diana also underlined that the five position papers are a result of the collective efforts of CEJA’s diverse members, and that the fact they came together to face the challenge of talking about sustainability in the agricultural sector (a topic which she says is “sometimes very controversial”) is “quite special in a way.”
Hearing the voices of the next generation of young farmers cultivating the European landscape, and empowering them to have a say in shaping the farming policy landscape in this way, is vital for the future prosperity of the agricultural sector in Europe.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by the authors are their own, not those of Impakter.com — In the Featured Photo: Aerial view of farmland. Featured Photo Credit: 毛 祥 / Unsplash