Nov 18, 2017 Last Updated 3:54 AM, Nov 13, 2017

Would I like to be a farmer?

Published: Apr 07, 2015

 AKATIGA and Ben White

Afar (29) is the son of a tenant rice farmer in Wajo, South Sulawesi. He works as a garment trader in the Bombana mining region of Northeast Sulawesi, several hours and a ferry crossing away from home. He has no ambition to follow in his parents’ footsteps. ‘It’s better to be a trader than a landless farmer. If you’re a tenant on someone else’s land you have to start work early in the morning, you’d be ashamed if the owner sees you going to the fields late in the day. But if you have your own land and feel a bit lazy, you can be as late as you like.’ Another disadvantage of farming, he says, is the high risks involved, particularly harvest failure and unstable prices.

Agriculture, and small-scale farming in particular, is still the biggest single source of employment for young people in rural areas. But all over Indonesia – as in many other countries, both rich and poor – one hears people saying that ‘young people aren't interested in farming’. Farmers themselves often say they hope their children will find better work than farming. Does this mean there will be no next generation of smallholder farmers to produce rice and other food for Indonesia’s growing population?

Turning away from farming?

Researchers in the Bandung-based non-government organisation (NGO) Akatiga have been studying these issues since 2013, in 12 rice-producing villages in West Java, Central Java and South Sulawesi. We talked with young men and women between the ages of 13 and 30 from different backgrounds. Some were children of landowners, others from smallholder, tenant farmers or landless families. When we look closely at these rural young people’s views and hopes, the picture is quite complex, as the stories below from young people in South Sulawesi demonstrate.

Ami (17) is a high school student whose father has a relatively large three-hectare farm, but only owns one-third of the land. She has never helped her father on the farm. She hopes to go to college away from home in Makassar, to study accounting or economics and then to get a job in a bank. But her mother prefers that she go to college in the nearby district town of Sengkang. Ami anticipates that when she is married, she will want to come back to live in the village, where her mother can help look after her children. Her new boyfriend wants to join the police. But if he doesn’t succeed and becomes a farmer, she can accept that: ‘So long as I can do whatever work I choose, and he can make a living by farming so we don’t have to borrow money, that won’t be a problem.’

Ladi’s parents also have a smallholder farm, part of which they own. Ladi is a student in a teacher training college but often helps his father in the fields. His father does not give him wages, but pays his tuition fees. Farming, he says, is hot and thirsty work, and sometimes you have to work in the rain. ‘But I wouldn’t be ashamed – it’s better to work hard in the fields than to hang around the house’. When he becomes a teacher, he says, he will still work on the farm. His friends who have moved away from the village earn more than they would in farming, but much of their earnings are spent on lodging, food and other needs. They often tell him they miss their home village.

Rian is the son of the village head, a large landowner with 20 hectares of rice fields. A final-year student at Makassar State University, he hopes later to get a job teaching sports. Successful villagers, he says, are those who own land but don’t cultivate it themselves – ‘it’s hard for a tenant farmer to be a success’. Most local farmers do not own their land and the big landowners are mostly outsiders. Those whose parents own land may expect to get some land when they marry, or after their parents die. But many have moved to Sumatra and work as drivers delivering oil from the Tembilahan refinery, where they can earn more than farmers. Later when he takes over the land he will find share tenants to work it, and ‘let my desk earn money for me – the money will come in by itself and I won’t have to go to the fields’. 

Combine harvesters threaten work opportunities for rural youth and rural poor - Tyastana Kusumastanto

Hara (17), from a landless family, is well aware of these divergent prospects between the land-rich and land-poor. When we asked her, ‘Do you think there is a future in agriculture for young people?’ she replied, ‘Do you mean those who have land, or those who don’t? For people like us with no land, there is no future in agriculture’. Hara often joins harvesting groups to earn some wages, but hopes one day to get a job as a shop assistant in the nearby market town, even though she knows that her monthly earnings would be very low. Earning only Rp.300,000 (A$30) per month, she would not be able to afford the daily commuting cost and would have to sleep on the shop owner’s floor. 

As these stories show, there are many young people who could become farmers but do not want to, and there are others who would gladly become farmers, but have no chance to do so. What lies behind this mismatch?

Barriers to becoming a farmer

In most villages, the landholding structure means that most young people have no realistic prospect of becoming farmers, or at least not while they are still young. Landlessness is widespread and less than half of farmers own the land they cultivate. The only people who have some chance of owning land while they are still young are those who come from wealthy land-owning households. But they typically go to university and aim for a future in a secure, salaried job; their parents also have the resources to get them into these jobs. They may look forward to inheriting and owning land, but as a source of income through rent; they have no interest in farming it. 

Meanwhile, young people growing up in smallholder farming families may eventually inherit a piece of land, but their parents have too little land to hand over part of it to their children while they are still young. They may be in their forties or fifties when they finally receive land from their parents. For the many young people whose parents are landless there is only the prospect of becoming a sharecropper or farm labourer, unless they can find another way to access land. For young people like Hara and many others, the only possible way to become a farmer is to first find work first outside agriculture (and often outside the village), and hope to save enough money to buy or rent some land.

Buying land is becoming an increasingly unrealistic option except for those who are already rich. This is due to speculative investment in land (by non-farmers) and rising land prices. In our 12 research villages, the price of one hectare of irrigated rice land varied between about Rp.100 million and 1500 million. Local wages or informal sector earnings, meanwhile, are generally not much more than Rp.1 million per month. Migrant worker wages in factories, or in oil palm plantations in Malaysia, are around 2.5 million per month. Therefore, even if a young person could save Rp.500,000 per month out of those earnings, it would take him or her between seven years (in the cheapest location in South Sulawesi) and 100 years (in the most expensive, in Central Java) to buy a rice farm of only 0.4 hectares.

It is not surprising, then, that so many young rural men and women decide to migrate to do various kinds of paid jobs or informal-sector work, sometimes in other regions or as far away as Malaysia. But young people’s decisions to farm or not to farm, and to stay in the village or to migrate, are not permanent decisions. Many of today’s older farmers themselves migrated when young, and returned when they had saved money or when land became available.

One kind of farm work that is quite attractive to young men and women is rice harvesting. Working in teams with sickles and a thresher, harvesters can earn relatively good wages of Rp.40,000–50,000 per day. This is still an important source of income for young people in landless and near-landless households, and it is also an occasion for boys and girls to meet. Some school children miss days of school so they can join the harvest, from ages as young as ten years. During the morning’s harvesting work they cannot get to know each other, as their faces are completely covered to protect them from the heat and sun. But during the mid-day rest period they take off their face-coverings, and can chat and exchange phone numbers. Many young harvesters have found their boy or girlfriends, and in some cases their future marriage partners, in this way.

However, harvesting work is now threatened by the introduction of cheap Japanese or Chinese combine harvesters, typically owned by a few of the village’s richest landowners.

One combine harvester (serviced by a couple of paid labourers) replaces about 50 manual harvesters working with sickles. These machines, which cost about Rp.390 million, were already operating in some of our research villages in South Sulawesi, and they are easily available in Java. The Department of Agriculture has even donated combine harvesters to some farmers’ groups, so that they can enjoy ‘modern technology’. But in the context of Indonesia’s ‘jobless growth’ and high youth unemployment rates, this is inappropriate technology. It does not increase productivity, or improve anyone’s quality of life; it simply transfers harvesting earnings which used to go into the pockets of many workers to the already prosperous combine owners and the few lucky workers they employ to run the machines. 

An image problem?

There may of course be other reasons why leaving the village seems attractive to young people. Mass media often portray the rural world and farmers as backward and poor. But many dimensions of rural life are changing fast. In many villages connectivity is now as good as in the cities; motorbikes are cheap and common; and all young people are busy with Facebook accounts.  Where a few years ago any sort of mobile phone was a ‘positional good’ (one whose value to its owner lies in the fact that others do not have it), now it is more often a question of smartphone versus basic phone and good quality versus cheap Chinese smartphones. In Kali Loro village, Yogyakarta, for example, many children have their own mobile phones before leaving primary school. Those whose parents cannot afford them may be supported by an elder sibling or cousin who has found work outside the village. Those without phones can still open Facebook accounts and borrow their friends’ phones. These young people engage actively with global ideas and global youth life styles, which may make them look at rural life and farming differently to how their parents did. 

Mobile phones and motorbikes are a vital part of youth lifestyles in rural Yogyakarta - Bakti Utama

When we look at young people’s migration and their apparent decision not to become farmers, we need to take a longer-term, life-course perspective. If Indonesia’s rice and other food needs are to be met in future largely by smallholder farmers, rather than by the large corporate industrial food estates favoured by the technocrats, rural life and farming have to be made more attractive to young people. We need to have a clear idea of the main barriers – both practical and cultural – to young people’s entry into farming, either while still young, or as a later lifetime option. First, the issue of young people and access to land needs to be taken seriously. This generational issue has attracted little attention in Indonesia, although it is interesting to see some of those advising the new President on agricultural and food policy raising this issue. 

There is a need to look at possibilities to take land out of private property markets and to allocate it in use-right form to young people; and also to find ways to curb speculative investment in land. Speculation in land is bad for the economy (it is an unproductive, parasitic form of investment), bad for social cohesion in rural areas, and as we have seen, bad for young people’s prospects. While men and women formally have equal rights to own land, there are many practical gender distinctions and barriers to young women’s access to land and farming opportunities. 

Indonesia’s young people are the most important potential source of innovation, energy and creativity in developing new, environmentally responsible and highly productive farming practices. Much can be done in general education, the public media and particularly on social media to correct the prevailing images of farming and rural life. Concrete examples of young men and women farmers, practising new, smart and creative ways of production and making a decent living out of it, can potentially have powerful impact.  For most of the young people we have talked to it is not rural life or agriculture as such, but the lack of local jobs and the poor incomes from smallholder farming, that make them decide to move away.  

The AKATIGA Foundation (www.akatiga.org) has been active since 1991 in research, advocacy and knowledge sharing to promote social transformation of marginal groups. Ben White is Professor Emeritus of Rural Sociology at the International Institute of Social Studies, The Hague. This article draws on Yogaprasta A. Adinugraha and Rina Herawati’s article in Jurnal Analisis Sosial 19 no. 1 (2015) and Ben White’s ongoing research on young people in Kali Loro village, Yogyakarta. The names of informants are pseudonyms.

Read the Indonesian version


Inside Indonesia 120: Apr-Jun 2015

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