MANY are blessed with arable land that can be planted with commercial crops and the size of the cultivation can be scaled up. Rural settlements now have access to infrastructure, which is crucial for getting agricultural products to local markets.
The most recent precision farming technology is available to them as well, which might ease the load of physically monitoring soil and weather conditions and keeping track of market demand. These factors, along with others, should serve as the perfect bait to entice young people, including recent graduates, to return to the countryside and set off on an adventure in search of their ‘fortune’.
Even the Sarawak Premier, Datuk Patinggi Tan Sri Abang Johari Tun Openg, threw in another bait when he said during the opening of AgroFest 2023 that the state would soon be introducing a special financial aid scheme for smallholders to improve their production and productivity, though he withheld the specifics of the programme till a later date.
It is obvious that the Sarawak government has done all possible to make agriculture appealing and conducive to young people. The ball is their feet and the onus is on them to respond and take the road that leads them to the ‘promised land’.
Yet, the response is slow in coming and at best, lukewarm.
Policymakers have become more cognisant of the difficulties encountered by the young people in the face of shifting dynamics over time, particularly with the growing cost of consumer goods and growth in imported food items, and have turned their attention back to the agriculture sector.
This gives policy, programme and project development a boost, and makes it possible for young people to work in agriculture for a good living.
The majority of the issues concerning youths and their involvement in agriculture are interrelated, much like the solutions. The old narrative has it that access to land and access to finance are the main challenges for starting an agricultural activity, despite the fact that youths are typically better educated than their parents’ generation in many areas.
These issues include access to land, financial services, green jobs, and markets.
Yes, Minister. Youths are frequently viewed by financial organisations as a high-risk group and rarely own assets (land) needed as security for loans. Young people have limited access to financial services, and a supportive regulatory framework is needed to make these services more accessible.
It is challenging for young people to obtain land due to delayed inheritance, increased land fragmentation, and degraded land.
Young lack finance
Young people typically lack the necessary finances to purchase land, and getting loans can be challenging. If indeed this is a major hindrance to many, the problem will soon be resolved and the special financial aid scheme initiated by the Sarawak Premier will lessen the impact.
For young people, finding markets for their agricultural goods can be particularly difficult since they frequently lack the capacity to produce in big enough numbers to take advantage of economies of scale, usually lack the necessary understanding of prices and market dynamics, and frequently have weaker negotiating positions.
Because decision-making is frequently seen as the purview of older males in rural areas, young people seldom participate actively in the creation of policies that impact them.
As a result, decisions frequently tend to not reflect the actual requirements of rural adolescents. Wherever they may be, rural youth organisations are small, inexperienced, and financially strapped, which prevents them from having a significant influence.
Rural youths, meanwhile, rarely assume leadership roles in mixed organisations.
Yes, Minister. Even more disadvantaged are the young rural women. This can be attributed to cultural practices that restrict their movement and they are likely to have less opportunity to attend educational events, take part in group activities, and access markets for products from the hinterland.
Agriculture is entering a transformative era. Although the green revolution has been successful in feeding a rapidly growing human population, it has also depleted the Earth’s soil and its biodiversity and contributed to climate change.
These extractive practices are not sustainable. We must move quickly to transform agriculture by employing a suite of practices known as regenerative agriculture.
In addition to meeting the needs of regulators, customers, food processors, and merchants, farmers must also do so in a changing environment. Pressures are increasing as a result of factors such soil erosion, biodiversity loss, changing consumer food choices, and worries about the production of food. Young farmers must prepare for this reality.
While there are many solutions offered by modern agriculture, the results are not always the same because every farm is distinct due to its unique topography, soils, accessible technology, and prospective yields.
Precision-spraying and applying crop protection to seeds are two examples of how using agrotechnology is boosting agricultural output, but farmers must make time and financial investments in it.
Since the Premier has announced a special aid programme for smallholders, the problem of a lack of resources should not be as much of a barrier as it previously was.
Who will farm in the future?
Yes, Minister. Another key question is who will farm in the future. The hundreds of rural residents who move to towns every year must be sufficiently persuaded by existing farmers and local community residents.
It cannot be left to the development planners and implementers since they must also pay attention to the local environment and the interests of diverse stakeholders and conduct ongoing review.
The farming community must continue to adopt and learn new technologies, stay resilient against global economic factors and inspire young people to stay in rural areas and become future farmers.
Farmers are increasingly under pressure to reduce their environmental impact, enhance the nutritional content of their goods, and further eradicate chemical residues from crops and the environment.
To meet the rising demand, farmers must produce more food of higher quality. In recent years, concern over ‘good food’ has replaced concern over ‘enough food’.
Priorities to facilitate transformation
As Sarawak steps up effort to accelerate agricultural transformation and rural development, a few priorities are considered critical and which the farming community, including those aspiring to join it, are to bear in mind.
First in the priority list is technology, which remains a key driver of productivity growth. Research and the application of technology will occur both in agricultural across the entire food chain.
Of importance also is the need to improve food value chains and agribusiness to support the promotion of agricultural trade.
Food safety and nutrition standards have merged as a definer of quality product to be developed and enforced across the entire food system.
In addition to the aforementioned, the agricultural community must handle new concerns such as ecosystem preservation for forests, land, and water resources, environmental management for air, soil, and water pollution, and climate resilience to drought, floods, and salinisation.
Yes, Minister. Despite the prospect it offers and assistance extended by the government, why is agriculture still not attractive to youths? Youths are usually not interested in farming, mostly due to their perception of farming being antiquated and unprofitable and involving physical work under the weather.
Society’s perception must change
Mankind is capable of being shaped by society. Agriculture is somehow negatively impacted by society as a whole. There is a perception that society is condescending towards young people who are interested in farming.
For instance, recently-graduated young people experience inferiority complexes when considering farming as a career choice since society has conditioned them to feel that failure is something they will always be unable to overcome.
Yes, Minister. There is a lot of talk about what will happen in the next 10 years and the next 20 years as we raise hopes and expectations on the younger generation to play a defining role.
Agriculture will always be here. Agriculture can be a job for the future as long as we are thinking creatively.
The challenge could extend well beyond the confines of a well-defined policy that aims to improve the agricultural industry’s economic performance and ensure that young farmers have a viable career path; the availability and application of IT for precision farming and to increase productivity; the introduction of attractive financing options for young farmers; and a host of other promising incentives.
It appears there is no single solution to break the ‘impasse’. The solution is in the problem, which is the young generation of rural graduates. Given its complexity, it would require a coordinated strategy including several modalities and agencies.
It cannot rely solely on a top-down approach for it has to engage players with experience in the industry and seek their advice.
Ultimately, the narrative is based as much on the need to boost the rural economy as it is to redefine the social and attitudinal behaviour of a new generation of rural communities that are affected by changing demographics.
* Toman Mamora is ‘Tokoh Media Sarawak 2022’, recipient of Shell Journalism Gold Award (1996) and AZAM Best Writer Gold Award (1998). He remains true to his decades-long passion for critical writing as he seeks to gain insight into some untold stories of societal value.