30 November, 2016

Can Fairtrade keep young people farming?

Child holding packet of quinoa
by Patrick Say

Who'd be a farmer in 2016? This question is even more pertinent for the children of farmers in developing countries as it is for those of struggling farmers in the UK.

Almost everywhere we see the same pattern - the children of farmers fleeing to jobs in cities or even abroad. And it is in so many ways understandable. In a 2014 Institute of Development Studies paper, Who wants to farm?, authors Jennifer Leavy and Naomi Hossain interview ‘Miss S’, a 19 year old migrant job-seeker in Indonesia:

“I never want to be a farmer, ever … I don’t [want] to work under the sun; my skin will be darker. My mother said that I shouldn’t be a farmer; the [earnings] are not enough to provide for life; it doesn’t have a future; it’d be better to look for a job in the city…  It is better becoming a factory worker; I don’t have to work under the heat, it is not dirty.”

But this global shift towards urbanisation by the children of farmers can often simply result in the creation of more urban poor. Young people becoming trapped in jobs and conditions that are as bad or even worse than if they had remained in farming, but now stranded a long way from their families and communities.

At Fairtrade Foundation we're acutely aware of this problem. Cocoa farming communities in West Africa for example have been particularly affected by the exodus of the young to the cities or abroad. The average age of a cocoa farmer in Ghana is now 55 - a ticking time bomb given the world's insatiable demand for chocolate.

All of this however, was very far from my mind when I set out on a recent visit to meet some Fairtrade farmers in Peru. Arranged through Meet the People tours (an excellent company if you ever want to visit and meet Fairtrade farmers) I was on my way to some quinoa farmers at the Coopain Cabana co-operative in the southern province of Juliaca. By the end of my visit though, I was left with the impression that Fairtrade may offer a glimmer of hope for bucking the global trend of the exodus of young people from farming.

Farmer in field

Quinoa farmer Lorenzo surveys his land in the Peruvian Altiplano 

“An incentive to stay in farming”

The landscape in Juliaca province - known as the 'Altiplano' - is very high and very dry. As our bus juddered its way along a dirt track road towards the co-op we passed some scattered llama farms, but otherwise could have been on the surface of another planet.

The Conquistadors never really got a proper foothold on this part of Peru - too high, too dry and too poor to attract their rapacious attention. But for the indigenous Quechua and Aymara farming communities in the area, growing quinoa has been a key part of their diet, not to mention cultural identity, for centuries.

On arrival at the Coopain Cabana co-op, and following a tour of the co-op headquarters and processing facility, we took a short bus ride out to the surrounding quinoa fields where we met an older farmer called Lorenzo, who greeted us wearing a traditional wide brimmed fedora hat.

Amidst the general questions from the group about how quinoa is grown and harvested, I decided to cut straight to what I wanted to find out from the visit - was Fairtrade really helping Lorenzo's community, and if so, how? 

Half expecting the type of answer that we hear so often from Fairtrade farmers - that the Fairtrade premium they received had been used to build schools or medical clinics or suchlike for the community, Lorenzo’s response surprised me somewhat. He said that one of the key benefits of Fairtrade was that it had given local people - and young people in particular - the incentive needed to stay in farming rather than move to the cities.

In a nice and surprising moment that followed, Lorenzo then revealed that the President of the co-op - the young man standing alongside him who had accompanied us out to the farm - was his son Rufo. Having first been elected via popular vote to the position of co-op President in 2013, Rufo (28) is now serving his second term after being elected again.

four Fairtrade farmers discuss Fairtrade

Lorenzo (left) with Administration Council President, Rufo (centre left), Agroindustrial Engineer, Elmer (centre right) and translator Ruben (right). 

It was a case of my own prejudice being wonderfully unfounded. Sharply dressed and very much the modern businessman, I must admit I had wondered if Rufo was some city slicker middleman from further up the supply chain, who'd come out to the sticks to boss the rural farming community.

In actuality, having grown up right here on Lorenzo's farm, Rufo had then gone on to study agricultural engineering at university, but returned to his community after completing his studies. Rather than moving to the cities as the children of so many other farmers do, Rufo had chosen to return to farming this region as his ancestors have done for generations, because the minimum income guarantee of the Fairtrade Minimum Price means that, even in bad years, it still pays to farm.

One of the key issues preventing young people from going into farming, as noted in the 2014 Institute for Development Studies report ‘Who wants to farm’, was a lack of farming role models for young people in rural communities. Well here was a modern, educated, successful young Peruvian man who had gone off to university and used the skills and knowledge gained there to improve the situation of his community. It would be difficult to think of a better professional role model than Rufo for the children of farmers in the Juliaca area.

At the same time though, not every child can grow up to be President of a co-op. Whilst he works 'in farming' and has bought his expertise from his education to assist farmers directly, technically Rufo was no longer physically toiling in fields every day.

The good news for children in this farming community not lucky enough to be elected to a position such as co-op president like Rufo, is that the intensity of the physical labour is lessening with access to new technologies, partly enabled by Fairtrade. Farmers at Coopain have used Fairtrade premium money from sales of the Quinola Mothergrain brand quinoa in the UK, to purchase two tractors. As a result, sowing - a job which once took two days of hard manual labour with ox and plough - is now a mechanised task of a mere two hours.

Quinoa producer holding product

A young technician in Coopain’s on-site processing facility poses with finished the Quinola Mothergrain product

It's the hope of Quinola founder and Managing Director, James Livingston Wallace, that increasing mechanisation amongst farming communities in this area – helped by the Fairtrade premium they recieve - and the easing of the physical labour associated with this will ensure that farming remains an attractive prospect for young people here.

Entrepreneurial spirit 

Returning to the co-op for lunch and a delicious pisco sour, it was notable that the staff who had prepared the meal were all local young people and our Peruvian translator Ruben (who was visiting for the first time and was as fascinated to learn about the place as we were), made a special unprompted point of toasting them, remarking how great it was to see so many young Peruvians working to support their local community.

Indeed, it may be the retention of youth at the co-op that is helping to drive a new spirit of innovation and entrepreneurialism that has come to define Coopain Cabana. 

Thirty-year-old Elmer, an Agroindustrial Engineer at the co-operative, explained to us that they have already acquired or are working towards a number of certifications for their quinoa. Already Fairtrade and organic certified, they are now working towards being Kosher and Halal along with a plethora of certifications for foreign export markets that I’d never even heard of. 

It was clear from Elmer's presentation to us that younger members of the co-op intrinsically understand the importance of obtaining certifications for their product. They know that the quality and ethical standards consumers are increasingly demanding are a great way to increase market share and access new markets.


Coopain-Cabanas numerous certification scheme marks are proudly displayed at the co-op entrance

Despite the injection of new ideas being spearheaded by the younger generation of farmers at the co-op, none of this would matter a jot if the income they earned from growing quinoa didn't justify the hard work.

As James Livingston Wallace of Quinola explains, being Fairtrade certified has made a real difference to incomes in this community;
"Fairtrade and its minimum price guarantee mean that farmers can enter the business with some confidence in the minimum revenues they can generate - climatic conditions permitting. For example this year we [Fairtrade quinoa brand Quinola] have been paying $2600/tonne + $260 premium all year, whereas the market price for organic quinoa has been between $2000 and $2400.

Given that, labour aside, most of a farmers costs are fixed, the marginal extra revenue is pure profit. So, on an average land holding of just under 3 hectares and a yield of about 800kg per hectare, the Fairtrade farmer will be getting something like an extra $1500 of revenues (which is quite a chunk of change when local GDP per head in the Altiplano is somewhere around the $4000 mark)."

The reality is that in good years farming has always been an attractive profession in this part of the world for young people - assuming you don't mind the physical labour and long hours. The issue has always been the weaker years, where the fixed costs of farming eat up most of the revenues, leaving farmers with little more than a subsistence level livelihood. By ensuring a minimum revenue at a level that enables a decent quality of life even in weaker years, Fairtrade is helping to ensure that farming remains a realistic career option for the next generation.

Farmer walks in field

A changing climate still mean that farming faces an uncertain future for Lorenzo’s children and future generations

The next generation

Perhaps the biggest factor in determining these 'weaker years' is climatic conditions. As we'd seen from the bus journey across the altiplano to the co-op, the surrounding landscape is extremely dry. With this in mind, I asked Lorenzo and Rufo if their farms had been affected by climate change and their simultaneous reaction was telling - this area is now much drier than before.

Fortunately quinoa is a very hardy crop and requires little water, but many of the llama farms previously in the area have now disappeared as grazing pastures have dried up. The looks of concern on Lorenzo and Rufo’s faces on being asked that question made me worry about the future of the farming community here. Despite their entrepreneurialism, innovation and retention of young people, farming here may one day become unviable for future generations due to forces beyond their control.

For the immediate future though, at least, the viability of farming in this quinoa growing community in Peru appears secure. Fairtrade has ensured a stability of income and access to new knowledge and farming techniques that are convincing young people that they can have a decent future in farming.
The pull of the cities will always be strong, but with the support of consumers in the UK continuing to choose Fairtrade products, the young people in this farming area at least are bucking the trend.

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