Europe Wants to Cultivate a New Generation of Sustainable Farmers
(Bloomberg) -- When it came time for Ainhoa Álava to take over her family’s cattle business in Spain, she decided to go in a greener direction. In 2006, at age 30, she launched the country’s first environmentally friendly snail farm.
The venture didn’t last long — Álava quickly got tired of the long, quiet winters when the creatures would hide away in their shells — but her commitment to sustainable agriculture stuck. She began raising chickens for their eggs, giving them plenty of space to run around and keeping them off antibiotics.
At the time, Álava’s approach was relatively rare. People in the Basque city of Urduña, where she lives, were skeptical when her 3,000 chickens started laying expensive organic eggs.
“There were distributors who would pat me on the back as if to say ‘Let’s see how long you last!’” she said. So Álava took to marketing her produce directly to nearby businesses, pushing a shopping cart full of eggs from shop to shop until she found enough partners. “Today I have clients I can’t serve because I’ve sold out,” she said. Her customers include fine-dining restaurants such as Azurmendi, a three-Michelin-star establishment perched on a hillside outside Bilbao.
Álava said the whole project was motivated by scenes she witnessed as a child, when her family killed chickens for food. “Inside of them, the chickens had lumps that looked like little tumors,” she said, which made her reflect on the impact of traditional feed on the meat consumed by humans.
Free-range eggs are no longer a novelty in Europe, but sustainable farming practices still haven’t been widely adopted. That’s why, as part of its plan to zero out planet-warming emissions by 2050, European Union policymakers have proposed Farm to Fork, a plan to halve the use of pesticides and antibiotics and make a quarter of all farming organic by the end of the decade.
Reaching those targets will require grooming a new generation of farmers willing to put the health of their livestock — and the planet — first. Álava’s success was possible in part because she had access to her parents’ land and state-of-the-art machinery. It’s much harder for young people with fewer resources to break into the business.
Amets Ladislao, 41, was studying history in the Basque city of Vitoria when she decided to go to agriculture school instead. Her parents had worked in a factory, but she longed for the farm life she’d experienced visiting her grandparents. “It was all very bucolic,” she said. She dreamed of having an allotment, some chickens and a few cows, and selling her produce locally.
But her new school didn’t teach the organic techniques she wanted to use, and she had to battle negative perceptions of her career choice. Most importantly, Ladislao couldn’t afford the high cost of land to start her own operation.
After she graduated, Ladislao worked for one farm after another until she found Bizkaigane, a cooperative in the northern Spanish province of Biscay, founded in 1983. The group hires a young person every time an elder retires. “It sounds very utopian, but we are nine workers, we get nine wages. We paid back a huge loan and we are a solvent company,” she said.
The farmers produce a wide range of cheeses, yogurt and raw milk that they distribute locally, and pride themselves on maintaining good working conditions. When Ladislao was expecting her second child, the team collectively decided to reduce their working hours to boost their quality of life.
Ladislao knows that every aspiring farmer won’t have the same opportunity, but she hopes the Farm to Fork strategy will help support young people who face the same hurdles she encountered. Diversifying the workforce, especially by encouraging those who aren’t the children of farmers, could bring new ideas and perspectives, she said.
In Europe, a direct payment program known as the Common Agricultural Policy has kept farmers afloat for decades. The problem, according to Alan Matthews, an economist at Trinity College Dublin, is that the subsidies have discouraged older farmers from retiring and slowed the reallocation of land to younger generations. “I’m not simply saying the only problem is too many older farmers, but that’s certainly the big elephant in the room,” he said.
The average Spanish farmer is over 60, and, unless their children take over the business, tends to end up selling their land. Today, more than half of the country’s farmland is owned by only 3% of farmers, according to EU data. Meanwhile the number of farmers in the region as a whole has shrunk in recent years, with more young people leaving rural areas for the cities.
That could change soon as the EU reforms its subsidy policy, with a new system set to come into force in 2023 that will, in theory, complement Farm to Fork. If the measures are successful, Europe could see many more farmers like Bidane Baskaran and her brother Arkaitz. Bidane joined the family farm at age 23 — over her parents’ objections. “They have had to deprive themselves of many things to get this going,” she said, and wanted their children to have a better life.
But if Baskaran’s job is tough, it’s also rewarding. In just five years, the siblings have won awards for their Idiazabal, a traditional hard cheese. They’ve also launched new products such as gaxure, a sweet treat inspired by Norway’s famous brown cheese, made from the whey that’s left over after producing cow’s milk.
“The main way to attract younger people into farming is to give them a decent income without subsidies,” said Matthews, the economist. “All the evidence shows that ultimately subsidizing entry into farming simply increases the demand for land and rents go up.”
Farm to Fork strategy is a good first step, he said, but the real problem is the large companies. “If you want European agriculture to be more environmentally friendly, the trick is to get the big guys to change their practices.”
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