The average age of crop farmers in New Zealand is currently almost 50 years and rising. As many growers are reaching a retirement age, this will leave a huge gap to fill for the next generation. Even if the kids are up for taking over farm operations, farm succession plans are quite complex structures to set up, requiring a great amount of commitment from young people. When there is no one in the family willing to take over operations, there are not many other options to keep the farm going after the farmer stops working.
Unpopular career choice
For a while already farming does not have the best image when it comes to career choices. Studies in agriculture are not popular and there are only a few places to get a degree in New Zealand in this area. There are no national programs to encourage young people to choose this direction, it is often more seen as a last resort choice for those not suited for a more demanding career in law or economics. For a country where the economy depends for almost 80% on agriculture, this does not seem to add up. More than ever is there a need for young educated people to bring innovative sustainable farming to the next level.
New lifestyle choices
However, there is a trend of young people heading back to the land, lifestyle blocks are more popular than ever as more families are realizing a fast life in the city might not be the best recipe for a happy and fulfilling life. Albeit small scale, food is often grown on those lands, and ambitions to increase production to feed others in the community are certainly there.
What is often lacking however is actual experience raising good quality crops, as first generation farmers there is no family experience in farming to draw from and the wheel sometimes needs to be reinvented, with the necessary failures along the way.
Growing nutritious quality produce is not easy but these skills are more necessary than ever. What is needed is a way to capture the vast knowledge and experience of the older generation going out of business soon and connect this with the new wave of eager young growers. This will create continuity in the food production and prevent valuable experience from getting lost. This is needed not just in New Zealand, but everywhere in the world.
Capital and support
Besides food growing skills, what is also often necessary is a starting capital for young growers. Banks are already sensing this need and offer special farmer starting packages, with reduced loan rates and expert advice. Flexible lease agreements between landowners and new growers can help get food production started without a massive capital injection up front.
Finally there needs to be a reliable channel to market, with efficient distribution and fair rewards for the hard work of the growers, to make growing food for the community a worthwhile and rewarding endeavour again.