By Courtney Paisley

Agricultural development specialists and policymakers around the world are concerned that young people are not interested in remaining in rural areas and taking up farming. Agriculture is rarely the first choice of many who study it. Agriculture holds no prestige and young people taking it up as a livelihood are not considered success stories in their communities.

While there will always be farmers and farming will remain a livelihood for many, the concern is that those who are not keen on entering the sector will not invest in it with an interest in innovating within the industry. Are there enough young people committed to creating a viable future for themselves in the sector?

A study in Uganda indicates that young people in agriculture are often looking for ways to get out of the profession. The results of the study which asked young people about their current jobs and future job aspirations, demonstrate that those in agriculture would prefer employment in another sector. This may mean that they are spending time on seeking alternative employment rather than investing in a stronger, better agricultural sector.

While similar studies on aspirations are not available for the Asia-Pacific region, it can be surmised that if the agricultural sector can provide young people with significant financial remuneration, this can, in turn, improve its public perception, earning young people in the sector the respect of their peers and community.

In order to constructively engage youth in agriculture, the community and older people in the sector must recognize that youth can make a valuable contribution with new ideas and perspectives. Unfortunately, in many societies where tradition and hierarchy remain central features, it continues to be difficult for young people to provide significant input. More needs to be done to demonstrate the value of cross-generational work and what can be learned from young people.

While many organizations in agricultural development recognize the significant challenges in attracting the best and the brightest, there are few targeted initiatives for young people and even fewer that work collaboratively with different organizations in the sector on youth issues.

Mismatch between education and employment in the agricultural sector
Agriculture is changing, and with it, a revised set of skills is needed to address new challenges. As attitudes, expectations and employment in agriculture change, there is evidence that the skills and competencies of graduates do not meet the needs of today's agricultural sector (Blackie et al, 2009). The 'new professional' in agriculture should, for example, be better able to work across different disciplines, in partnership with different stakeholders and understand the value chain and potential for profit and entrepreneurship at different stages. The increased importance of holistic and multidisciplinary approaches requires agricultural professionals to be able to integrate knowledge and practices from outside their discipline and work within the multifunctionality of agriculture (IAASTD, 2009). As we move away from a 'business as usual' approach we must integrate this new way of thinking into educational institutions and agricultural curricula.

The broad themes that emerge from the literature point to a need for agricultural professionals with characteristics different from those that universities 'develop' at present, including soft skills, such as communication and writing as well as other non-technical skills. A Young Professionals for Agricultural Research for Development (YPARD) study examined the skills required for agricultural employment, as stated by recently graduated young agricultural professionals and employers. Rated top among these were entrepreneurship and business skills in which, many felt they had not received adequate exposure through their education (Percy-Smith and Akkermans, 2012).

These are but a couple of identified needs of youth in the sector. More country- and discipline-specific information is required. The educational sector must have stronger links with youth and major employers in the agricultural sector. This is the only way universities and technical training schools can ensure that their curricula remain relevant to a changing sector.

Youth in policy
There is growing agreement on the importance of bringing input from youth to policymaking processes. It is clear that young people must be part of the solution as they are facing the challenges that policies seek to address and know the future they would like for themselves. Many youth groups say: "nothing for us, without us" - a slogan used by several other interest groups to ensure they are consulted on decisions that affect them.

Different strategies have been employed for youth integration into policy development in agriculture, ranging from e-discussions to gather youth input which is then presented at meetings and events, to bringing young people to the policymakers' table and strong engagement of young people via social media. Many activities have been relatively informal, with the exception of the development of youth-focused policies where groups of young people are normally consulted.

Formalized and regular processes that bring together youth and decision makers are seen as more effective than informal and irregular consultations (Lintelo, 2011). These may include youth 'seats' in decision-making bodies and advisory groups. Youth representatives face similar challenges as those who represent other constituent groups, in that they represent the interests and concerns of all youth in agriculture, including those with different aims and interests in both urban and rural areas. Ensuring adequate representation of such a disparate group requires formal and wide-ranging consultations. This, in turn, requires significant organization and investment. A United Nations document warns that youth organizations should not go the way of many other organizations that speak on behalf of certain groups instead of empowering them to speak for themselves (United Nations, 2003).

It is important that once youth get the opportunity to speak, they are well prepared to offer a substantiated opinion on the issue at hand. A comment on the YPARD external review said: "Great, youth are getting a voice, now what do they have to say?" This confirms that we need to move beyond this ad hoc approach and ensure that youth input is provided consistently and in a manner that is usable by policymakers.

Policymakers will not sift through large amounts of information to reach the core message. In order to facilitate the uptake of their messages, young professionals require additional guidance and skills to build strong arguments. Training should be provided to youth on policy, which would cover communication with policymakers, developing policy briefs and education on processes, including how to become engaged from the start in policy development. Training must also include guidance on evolving a cohesive message from a large group of people with different backgrounds, experiences and opinions. This is not a perfect science, but being able to communicate nuances is important.

When assessing the impact of youth engagement in policy, teasing out the appropriate information is challenging. Youth input cannot always be extracted from the outcome of a meeting, making the monitoring of youth input more difficult and the assessment of programmes designed to increase youth contribution to policymaking less clear. The indicators for impact assessment must be well developed and capture the input processes, if not measure the final degree of input.

While interest in promoting youth input in policy- and decision-making is becoming stronger, there remain weak linkages in consistently and effectively bringing young people into policy discussions and clear avenues to have these messages heard. It is difficult for youth to access high-level policy discussions and policy arenas of influence. They require help from the agricultural community and those in positions of influence. Governments must show willingness to bring about high-level and long-lasting change in this regard.

Strategies for engaging youth
Youth are keen to belong to a community that supports their development and where they can share ideas and learn from others. Those lacking experience find it daunting to share ideas with senior professionals, but may feel more comfortable doing it with their peers. Youth networks provide freedom and space to 'try out' and obtain feedback on ideas before sharing these in the professional sphere. Both informal and formal guidance are important to support young professionals in the sector. The following are some strategies that have been employed:

Sharing success stories of young professionals in agriculture
Success stories of young professionals in agricultural development are gathered from the 7,000 YPARD members around the world and through partners, and disseminated through the YPARD 'Showcase'. Successful individuals are encouraged and supported to share their stories in local media to get these messages out to other youth, particularly in rural areas. As the media does not usually provide in-depth coverage of this field, it is important that examples of successful careers in the agricultural sector are shared so that positive messages reach young people.

Social media plays a strong role in disseminating positive messages to a global audience as well as information on opportunities in the sector. The sense of community provided by social media reduces isolation and encourages exchange of ideas and experiences. The online space can provide powerful promotional and networking tools for young professionals who do not have very many opportunities for connecting with traditional networks of professionals.

In many countries, national agricultural research institutions consist of an ageing scientific community where many staff members are close to retirement with few young professionals to carry on their work. Mentoring is critical in these institutions to pass on knowledge and skills before senior staff retire.

Within the Asia-Pacific region, there exist national research institutions with ageing senior staff as well as those with a disproportionate number of junior, inexperienced staff members. Mentoring is difficult in both cases (ASTI, 2013). Investment in staff recruitment and training is essential for both types of institutions to maintain research quality and sustainability.

Organizations use mentoring to develop the capacity of their employees, prepare staff for promotion and invest in new, inexperienced staff.

Mentoring identifies and improves professional areas requiring development, provides access to guidance and continuous learning, and enhances productivity and teamwork. Mentoring can help to unlock the potential of young professionals and develop human capital to enable them to promote agricultural development.

A survey by YPARD of its network indicated that 93.5 per cent of its members were interested in joining a mentoring programme. It is thus something that many young people value, but few have access to. It is critical for young professionals for enhancing their skills and understanding of the sector, their confidence and the drive to excel. The broadening of horizons through mentoring enables young professionals to be more innovative and facilitates cross-disciplinary approaches.

Mentoring must be a two-way process, however, and not follow the traditional 'senior-knows-best' approach. In addition to providing a valuable mentoring role, senior professionals benefit from the new perspective on their work offered by the young professionals they mentor, including how to reach a younger and more modern audience, information on new tools and technologies as well as emerging trends and ideas. Mentoring is hence, not a one-way but a two-way transfer of knowledge.

This is better recognized in sectors other than agriculture with corporations increasingly using younger mentors to develop successful business leaders (BBC, 2014). Top leaders recognize that it is important to understand today's youth in order to reach out to them, take advantage of social media and improve their own work.

International Year of Family Farming (IYFF)
Youth are an integral part of the family farming unit, but many rural parents in developing countries do not want their children to take up farming. Without the support of parents, it is not easy for young people to become involved in family farming and help improve it.

The 2014 IYFF focuses on working together and being receptive to new ideas and strategies from youth to improve family farm productivity. The older generation must understand that young people can bring modern practices and tools to help modernize farm business activities.

Not all parents will be open to the ideas of children, nor will all children want to take over the family farm. Nonetheless, as the youth population rises and employment prospects become more limited, rural families will need to consider the farm as part of their children's future and this is thus how this critical legacy will be passed on.

Way forward
The development of strategies to engage young people in agricultural development must, above all, include input from young agricultural professionals themselves. Young people are best positioned to know how to reach out to their peers, what interests them, how they can best contribute and what additional support they require to do so. Approaches should include a mixture of informal and formal mechanisms and different actors should work together with a multitude of strategies combined into a comprehensive approach.

There is no doubt that national governments will need to play a key role along with other main actors in agricultural development. While many are aware of the need to bring more young people to and provide interesting opportunities in the sector, few are taking steps towards this. The time is now and the time is critical. Bring some young people together in your organization and find what they need to become leaders and innovators and take the sector forward - it is the only way to ensure the future sustainability of the sector.

(References will be made available upon request)