Who are the faces behind our food? From young, regenerative farmers to those soon facing retirement, in this EURACTIV Special CAPitals edition of the Agrifood Brief, our network spoke to farmers on the ground across nine different member states.
What are their concerns for the agriculture sector, both now and in the future, in their country? What messages do they have for policymakers in Brussels? Read on to find out more.
‘I might be out of business next year – I don’t know’. Philippe Joubert, an organic farmer for 30 years, wants to bring back forgotten, ancient cereals. Millet and sorghum are among the crops that are gradually making a comeback thanks to their resistance to drought and their low water consumption.
“You can make a delicious dessert with hulled millet. But people don’t know this cereal, so they don’t buy it,” says the 61-year-old farmer, who is both hopeful and resentful.
On Joubert‘s organic farm, 100 kilometres south of the Loire, between Tours and Poitier, buckwheat and millet are grown alongside lentils and hulled weight.
He works with companies specialising in ‘gluten-free’ products and sells his products directly to the consumer and supplies specialist shops, as well as supplying the central kitchen of Tours with 9,000 meals a day.
The early death of his farmer father at the age of 57 in the 1990s spurred him on to pursue organic farming.
But, when asked about the situation of the organic sector, he looks downcast. As president of a local group of organic farmers, he struggles with what he sees as the lack of recognition of the players in the sector.
“We do more for the planet than others and we are not recognised. What’s worse, we’re being hindered. We are fed up!” he said, pointing to rules that are ill-adapted to organic production.
For Joubert, the development of competing, less restrictive labels, which ‘sow confusion’, combined with insufficient aid, ‘infernal’ administrative burdens and incomprehensible controls are plunging farmers into a situation of distress.
While he admits that some of his colleagues are thinking of stopping or even returning to conventional farming, he knows he will hang on for as long as he can.
For the moment, his customers remain loyal, but the future is uncertain. “I might be out of business next year, I don’t know,” he admits.
According to him, global warming may be an opportunity to diversify crops and create new organic markets. It is up to governments, especially the EU, to encourage people to discover new products. (Hugo Struna | EURACTIV.fr)
‘The future is uncertain for our farm.’ After running his farm for 44 years, Alfred Begon is preparing to retire and hand the reins to his 33-year-old son. Located in the Western German Eifel region, which is characterised by small-scale agriculture on parcelled-out land, the farm focuses on both arable farming and livestock.
Unlike many other farms, which often struggle with generational renewal, finding a successor to take over was not an issue for Begon. “The decision already fell when my son decided to become a farmer and started his vocational training 15 years ago,” he says.
Over the past years, his son has been taking over more and more responsibility on the farm and is well-prepared to take over.
But there is a key problem: Currently, with father and son working on the farm, there are only two full workers.
After the handover, son Peter will be the only family member left to do the work and will need extra staff.
But those willing to work in agriculture are hard to come by, Begon explains. “This means that whether he will be able to make it remains uncertain,” he stressed.
In the farmer’s view, jobs in agriculture are not attractive enough for young people. “They have to work practically day and night, and the appreciation from society is not there – something that is also reinforced by politics,” he says.
Asked if he has a message to Brussels policymakers, Begon’s answer is clear: “Your policy loses sight of food security.”
For the farmer, the grain shortages in many countries caused or exacerbated by Russia’s war on Ukraine have shown the importance of not relying on imports when it comes to food.
“We have such prime locations in Germany, France, and other countries – we can easily feed ourselves.” (Julia Dahm | EURACTIV.de)
‘People don’t seem to want conventional farms anymore’. Agritourism is crucial for Austria’s agriculture sector, with one-third of farms depending on hosting overnight guests for income, according to a December 2021 study commissioned by the Agriculture and tourism ministry.
Farmer Barbara Gartner, who specialises with her husband in growing Styrian oil pumpkins, wheat, soy and corn while combining it with a tourism offer, is building on the trust of holiday guests in their homemade products.
For this reason, she is critical of the ban on a growing number of pesticides within the EU, since it would not only make harvesting more difficult but also jeopardise food security.
“On the one hand, we want to produce good, healthy food and also manage our soils optimally, but as farmers, we are becoming more and more restricted,” Gartner told EURACTIV, adding that “people don’t seem to want conventional farms anymore”.
Moreover, she emphasised that Austrian farmers often feel like supplicants, when in fact they make a significant contribution to society by contributing to the well-kept management of the landscape.
Explaining that most small farms are active on the alpine pastures due to climate and geographical conditions, being those who actually ensure biodiversity and species richness, Gartner called for policymakers to provide greater incentives in order to prevent small farmers from stopping their operations.
Meanwhile, the lifting of trade restrictions on Ukrainian grain also causes great difficulty since the import of cheap Ukrainian grain affects domestic prices, Gartner explained.
“We produce according to strict regulations, and then products come to the European Union that are not obliged to have these regulations,” she criticised, adding that this is “simply injustice in competition”.
For the same reason, Gartner does not support the much-criticised free trade agreement between the European Union and the four Mercosur countries Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay. (Chiara Swaton | EURACTIV.com)
‘Less physical work than previous generations, but much more stress’. Óscar Moret manages a family farm in Aragón, one of the most depopulated regions in Spain. He lives in Osso de Cinca, in the northeast of Spain, close to Catalonia, where he has a 32-hectare farm where he grows stone fruit and apples, as well as a pork farm with more than 540 pigs.
He is 48 years old and follows in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, who were both farmers.
For Moret, local secretary of the Spanish farmers’ organisation UAGA-COAG in Huesca, ageing is one of the main problems for Spanish agriculture.
Family and small farms are disappearing, while investment funds and large investors move in to take over Spanish food production, he underlines.
The work on his farm, he explains, “has nothing to do” with what his father did, now there is less physical work but much more stress.
In addition, when he was a child all those who worked on the farm were from the family, while now there is temporary labour there, foreign labourers, from Africa or Bulgaria, just like in the whole region.
He believes that the CAP should increase the support to family and professional farming and to people living in rural areas.
He points out that, with the current design of CAP, a large amount of aid goes to companies that are not actually in the field.
He also advocates increasing support for young entrants into agriculture, because “it is very difficult, nowadays”.
For instance, he quotes that in Aragón, with two past years of frost and the current year of drought, as many as three out of every five farmers will be lost. (EFE Agro)
EU should act as a ‘bridge’ between farmers. From the enveloping, thick taste of oil to the beginning of a successful experiment to extract it in a circular and sustainable way. This is the journey of Adriana Angarano, a 33-year-old native of Bari, Puglia, in southern Italy.
Since 2017, she has been running a twenty-hectare farm called Tenuta Cesano and producing oil and natural cosmetic products in a circular economy production system.
Six years ago Angarano was still in the early days of her entrepreneurial activity. “I took the reverse path, instead of the traditional one,” she said.
After attending several product tasting sessions and connecting with farmers at events, she was convinced to turn some of the properties her family had since the 1990s into the starting point for Tenuta Cesano.
At some point, the young woman decided to devote herself to it almost full-time, in parallel with her work as a digital entrepreneur. After enrolling in agricultural classes and investing in more land, the 33-year-old’s farm now has 20 hectares planted, organically, with olive trees, almonds and cherries.
For the first year, the company entered the market ‘very well’ thanks to innovative packaging and a good marketing operation. Then, thanks to a research project with the University of Bari on the study of polyphenols, molecules also contained in olives, and their para-pharmaceutical effects, her cosmetics line was born.
“I have activated a circular economy process: with residues from oil processing, and leftovers from the previous year, when there are any, I make products for skin wellness”, Angarano says. Meanwhile, the waste water is used to irrigate the fields and other waste products are used as mulch for the soil.
Now Angarano’s goal is to spread her sustainable approach in her community as well. Conversing with local farmers, however, is not always easy.
“The biggest difficulty is its cost and the fact that the equipment is not readily available,” she explained, adding that if farms and communities got together the expenses could be softened” and the environmental impact of farming activities could be greatly reduced.
By encouraging collaboration between different companies, which already exists in some regions of northern Italy, one could, for example, access technologies to reduce water waste, “such as sensors that indicate how much water is needed at a given point”, or put in place training courses on the most innovative practices.
Angarano took a lot of value from her travels around Europe and the US, where she learned about sustainable practices that other farmers are implementing – but she notes that not everyone has the opportunity to do this.
The role of the EU, according to Angarano, should be that of a ‘bridge’ rather than a financier, bringing different agricultural realities closer together, locally and internationally, and enabling them to imagine an environmentally sustainable future together. (EURACTIV.it)
Imports from the East worry Polish apple growers. Poland is most known for its apple production, with the third largest production in the world.
One 53-year-old female orchardist, who spoke to EURACTIV.pl but preferred to remain anonymous, lives in one of the country’s biggest orchard areas in Poland, 60 kilometres south-east of Warsaw, where she farms 10 hectares of apple orchards.
The European Green Deal is a source of concern for Polish small orchardists, she says, expressing concerns over potential restrictions on some chemicals that prove effective in fruit production.
For the farmer, the future of the sector will largely depend on the shape of the prices of products and productive factors, she adds.
Another concern relates to the increasing costs of production resulting from rising prices of fertilisers, chemical plant protection products, but also farm machinery necessary in food production and rising wages the labour force gets more expensive.
“While the prices of fertilisers, among other things, may rise or not rise, the growth in salaries is stable, which makes labour more and more costly. At the same time, the prices for fruit are not increasing or they are even dropping.”
To make things worse, the trade area for fruit is shrinking with Poland having lost its key markets for apples in recent years, mostly due to the embargo from Russia, which used to be a large importer of Polish apples. The war in Ukraine and cold political relations with Belarus do not help, either.
New markets are opening for Polish apples, including the Asia Pacific region and North Africa, but these are often unstable, she noted.
What also worries Polish orchardists, including the one speaking to EURACTIV.pl, is the trend of rising import of fresh fruit and fruit concentrate to Poland, mainly from the East. Ukraine keeps setting new records in the export of apple concentrate, with Poland being its largest importer.
“The prices are dictated by processing plants, which, having access to cheaper apple concentrate from Ukraine, are lowering prices for apples for industrial processing,” the orchardist explains.
“We, as the farmers, have no impact on price negotiations. We cannot withhold the sale of our products,” pointing out that these imports do not have to comply with the EU’s strict requirements.
The orchardist already knows she is the last generation in her family that is involved in farming, as she has no one to pass the farm to, as her children live in the city and are not involved in the agriculture business.
“The young generation tends to back out of agriculture, which is no longer profitable. Also, it is very much based on physical labour and that does not attract young people either,” she said. (EURACTIV.pl)
Pioneer in regenerative agriculture in Romania. Alex Tudose, 34 years old, belongs to a new generation of farmers with great ambitions and, in the long term, aims to develop a network of regenerative farms that share an ethical system of food production and distribution with a positive impact on the environment and the economy.
He discovered his path, and his connection with nature, at 23 years old, when he discovered permaculture thanks to his travels around Europe and “learned what it means to be a farmer”.
“I tried to be a farmer on my own in Romania, to sell vegetables. I succeeded to some extent. Then I have worked with the Permaculture Institute and things have evolved,” Tudose told EURACTIV Romania.
After meeting Ionuț Badica, and – with the help of the Permaculture Research Institute of Romania – they created ‘Soil and Soul’, an innovation project in regenerative agriculture.
‘Soil and Soul’ is a medium-scale, 6-hectare regenerative farm in the county of Dambovita, south of Romania, which is holistically designed and based on principles of regenerative agriculture and permaculture, which includes economic, ecological and socio-cultural ethics and design principles.
The farm has a flexible number of seasonal workers and volunteers, and there is an educational module within the farm, for those who want to learn how to do regenerative farming.
”Currently we sell everything that we’re producing, but we need help,” says Alex, noting that ”there’s a lot of interest in organic farming”.
“For me, agriculture – and especially regenerative agriculture – is a way of being free, some sort of ethical entrepreneurship. It’s about being master of your time, doing things that are in line with some principles, without having to put your head down, being master of your own life”, Tudose explained.
He says that asking for money only from the state is a very outdated view.
“It’s a bet and a risk for us as well. Personal life depends on the success of this farm. I suffered and I gained. But this farm is still our magnum opus,” he said.
As for the European funds, he complained that there are no specific financing lines for small farmers who grow a wide variety of vegetables.
“Subsidies are given per hectare of tomatoes, but I may not have a hectare of tomatoes and I’m basically out of the scheme. We produce in one season almost all the varieties of vegetables that a vegetable shop can sell”, he explained, calling for more flexibility in funding options.
His message to Brussels: ”Farmers are not seen at the European level.” The rules are made by non-farmers, he said, which creates ‘conflict’ between those who take the decisions and those who are supposed to enforce them. (Cătălina Mihai/Iulian Ghervas | EURACTIV.ro)
‘We have not inherited the land from our parents; we are borrowing it from our children’. “My father was a farmer, and my son is a fifth-generation farmer. For us, farming is a tradition, not just a business,” Aleksander Dimitrov from Brashlen, a small Bulgarian village in the northern part of the country near the Danube River, told EURACTIV.
Fifth-generation farmer is not a common phenomenon in Bulgaria, as the nationalisation of land during the totalitarian regime severed the connection to agriculture for multiple generations of Bulgarians.
Dimitrov, 50 years old, has been in agriculture for the past 27 years. He cultivates 13,000 acres of cereals and oilseed crops.
Additionally, he manages the cooperative in the village, taking charge of organising production, including machinery, agronomy, and technology.
However, he stands out as a non-traditional Bulgarian farmer due to his enthusiasm for new developments in agriculture. He speaks passionately about advancements such
as innovative land cultivation techniques, the latest machinery, and precision farming.
Dimitrov heavily relies on precision planting, full sowing control, and the precise use of fertilisers. He uses selective plant spraying on his farm. Using camera technology, the sprayer can detect weeds among crops and spray only where needed.
“Farmers cannot work with outdated machinery and outdated vision,” he concluded.
Soon, the farmer will start testing precise spraying by drones on his fields. “This is the future of agriculture,” states Dimitrov, offering support for soil-friendly innovations in agriculture. His guiding principle: “We have not inherited the land from our parents; we are borrowing it from our children.”
The new machinery is highly efficient, enabling multiple operations to be carried out simultaneously. This not only reduces fuel consumption but also minimises harmful carbon dioxide emissions. The market launch of the autonomous tractor is not far away either, says Dimitrov.
When asked about his message to Brussels policymakers, Dimitrov emphasises the importance of tailoring rules to suit farmers and ensuring practical application.
He highlights the existence of conflicting rules that should complement each other and believes that certain rules are impractical and should not be universally applied.
“Europe is not small, and the climate and soils vary across the continent. Farmers in Europe need rules that account for these specifics,” Dimitrov said, urging policymakers to listen to farmers and adding he would be”happy to have one on our farm”.
Young farmers discouraged by Greek state mechanism shortcomings. Ilias Moschotos, a 25-year-old farmer that cultivates table grapes in a village nearby Kavala, in the northern part of Greece, spoke to EURACTIV Greece about his concerns regarding the country’s agricultural sector.
Moschotos obtained a diploma in plant production, specialised in viticulture, as an assistant agronomist and he has attended several state-funded seminars/courses. “Otherwise, you can’t do your job properly or you don’t have access to several resources which are necessary,” he explains.
Moschotos said he is ‘very disappointed’ with the current state of the agricultural sector, voicing frustrations that the existing payments system does not adequately support young farmers.
“The state mechanism forces the farmer to pay compulsory crop insurance to the so-called fund ELGA, but it does not compensate you properly in case of damage to the crop. It also delays significantly issuing the announced aid programmes and finalise the payments to farmers,” he stressed.
Another thorn in the Greek agricultural sector’s side is the significant shortage of workers in combination with the massive exit of young farmers.
“The state mechanism discourages young people from farming by the way it works,” he observes, adding he is “often discouraged when I see there is not substantial state support for the agricultural sector of my country”.
On top of that, Greek farmers, regardless of their age, must keep up with the new European regulations and the evolution of the primary sector globally; More than often new EU guidelines “do not respond to the Greek reality at all”, Moschotos said.
EU restrictions over pesticides and table grapes export standards present increasing challenges and, as a result, producers often end up “throwing away their crops each year” the 25-year-old cultivator states.
“There are more and more plant diseases year after year, and we cannot face them with the EU-approved pesticides; they are either not strong enough, or they do not cover all diseases. We need more freedom in our job so we can make our income”, he says as a message to Brussels policymakers.
[Edited by Natasha Foote/Gerardo Fortuna/Nathalie Weatherald]