When I was in class 5, I did so poorly that I was on the verge of being expelled. I recall my father scolding me, “You better study hard and pass your exams, otherwise I will send you to our village and make you a farmer. Then you will spend your whole life showering cattle, cleaning cow dung, getting bitten by reptiles and exposing yourself to the hot sun and harsh rains.”
While I did not know what being a farmer really was, his words made me believe it was not ‘cool’. Farming seemed like an occupation for those who did not have other options, an occupation without dignity. In class 10, most of my 50 classmates wanted to be engineers and doctors, a handful wanted to be pilots, and I chose to be a chartered accountant. No one wanted to be a farmer.
India has about 250 million people earning their livelihoods from farming, but three out of four farmers want to quit and find an alternative job. Three out of five farmers want their children to settle in cities and stay away from farming forever. Out of the 570 million farms across the world, almost 50 per cent are in lower-income countries. So, I believe that the situation is not too different in Africa and Latin America too.
With this dismal picture, goals like the UN’s ‘Zero Hunger’ seem unrealistic. Forget about being able to feed the estimated global population of 9.7 billion by 2050; especially given challenges such as climate change and rapid urbanisation, we won’t be able to feed the existing population if people want to stay away from farming. So, the big challenge is: How can agriculture be made an appealing profession for children and youth?
The first place to go to is schools. Generally, students select a career aligned with what they studied. In the case of agriculture, the subject is not formally learned at school. Unless one grows up on or near a farm, one does not gain exposure to farming. Thus, it is important for kids to have the chance to get their hands muddy in primary school. Seeing plants grow and yield fruits will be excellent experiential learning which may trigger an interest in farming. Also, this can give children an appreciation and understanding of agriculture and food from a young age.
Ideally, schools should offer hands-on agriculture options such as terrace or backyard gardening. The Goa government has announced an interesting kitchen garden initiative in 25 schools. Students will receive farming kits and instructions on urban gardening. This can ignite the possibility of farming as a deliberate career choice.
Another avenue is through camps. Yasoda Hospitals runs a Young Doctors Camp for kids in India who aspire to be doctors. Imagine a similar camp funded by schools, corporations or government about farming. I’d imagine some of them would gain a love of soil, respect of farming, and skill to do farming. Most importantly, they would gain exposure to this additional career option.
Opening up options
An ideal outcome from these two strategies is that more children will enter farming by choice rather than as a compulsion. This way, the next generation of farmers will be educated, innovative, and business-minded. Today, the small number of educated farmers is thriving. For instance, an equity researcher-turned-farmer named Ayush Sharma is working towards changing the lives of tens of hundreds of farmers in the State of Telangana by providing training on production practices and by creating market linkages. Harvard graduate-turned-farmer Siddharth Tata is influencing the lives of more than 500 vegetable farmers in creating an ecosystem for safe food.
Even with more exposure to agriculture, the traditionally low income of farmers may still make it a less desirable field than the legal or medical fields. There are efforts under way, however, to make farming more cost-effective. For instance, at Kheyti, , we created a model where farmers with 50 minutes of labour and 500 litres of water a day can earn ₹5,000 profit in just 200 sq m of land. Another example is that of Agriplast, founded by IIT Kharagpur alumnus Rajeeb Roy, which is working towards innovating and bringing the latest hi-tech farming technologies in India, and is helping attract professionals to farming.
In the words of food activist Alice Waters, teaching kids how to feed themselves and how to live in a community responsibly is the centre of an education. As much as pure ‘academic’ subjects are important in schools, hands-on lessons blended with vocational training must be treated as equally important; it is one of the main ways that countries in the global south can leave poverty. Bringing agriculture to mainstream education has the potential to feed the world.
The writer is the co-founder of Kheyti, a farm-tech startup