Madrid/Brussels: Tracts of countryside in Spain are likely to turn into desert or waste dumps unless the European Union provides enough support to young farmers to stop them from leaving the land for the city.

File photo of an unidentified farmer carries farm implements on his horse-drawn cart in eastern Poland (Bloomberg)

But with just 6% of European farmers under the age of 35, time is running out to prevent many farms from being abandoned, and the incentives may not be enough to lure young Spaniards to cultivate marginally profitable land.

Cesar Trillo, who grows grains, forage, fruit, vegetables and beans in the northern province of Huesca, grew up in a household of six who worked a small holding, but he is now the only farmer left in his family. He advised his two daughters to study engineering rather than take up farming.

“That’s the way it is. Farming in this country has been unprofitable and God-forsaken for years," said Trillo, who is 64. “There won’t be a generational handover in my case."

More than 10% of all land in Spain is used to grow grain on land where irrigation is not feasible, and it only yields about one third as much as fertile parts of northern Europe and the Black Sea basin.

This makes farm profits marginal, and Spanish farmers depend on EU subsidies for 30-40% of their turnover. EU data show that European farmers earn an average of less than €1,000 a month, or 34% less than urban workers.

The unirrigated acreage planted to cereals in Spain has already dropped by 11.5% since 2002 as direct subsidies have been cut in previous CAP reviews. Expected further reductions could put young people off farming altogether.

“The CAP is less and less supportive of farm economics, and that will wreck competitiveness, for example, of dry-land farming. Young people leave because they have no hopes," said Luis Lopez-Bellido, professor of agriculture at the University of Cordoba.


More fertile farmland in some regions may be snapped up by other producers. Demand by farmers is propping up land values in several parts of the world.

“The trend of consolidation has always been there. But there’s a limit to what consolidation can achieve, and you still need enough well trained people to manage production," said Joris Baecke, president of the European Council of Young Farmers (CEJA).

Andres del Campo, president of the 700,000-strong Spanish Federation of Irrigators, Fenacore, noted that farmland is not in demand in Spain’s dead property market and needs constant irrigation or tillage to remain productive.

“What society in general and politicians must realise is that when farmland is abandoned, especially in the Mediterranean, it does not turn into a forest, say, but rather a desert or dump for the nearest town."

If ageing continues, much of rural Spain could be depopulated in 20 years, while overpopulated cities would increase problems with global warming and waste management.

“If small towns are abandoned, then this really is important, because that will mean the surroundings won’t be cared for, (and) it will provoke forest fires," Lopez-Bellido said.

Proposed solutions

Currently under CAP rural development rules, member states and the EU can jointly finance payments of up to €55,000 for qualified farmers under the age of 40 over the first five years after they set up business.

The Commission will propose raising the maximum “installation aid" payment for young farmers to €70,000 (as part of its plans to reform the CAP from 2014, according to draft proposals due in October.

Del Campo noted that of €630 million already earmarked for installation aid between 2007-2013 in Europe as a whole, only one quarter has been allocated and just 8,000 young people have taken up farming.

Mindful of such criticism, the Commission will also propose a 25% increase in direct EU subsidies for young farmers in their first five years - payments that are fully funded from the bloc’s budget and therefore universally applied.

Baeker, who is 33 and grows cereals, potatoes, onions, beans and sugar beets in the Netherlands, said new subsidies could be a cost-effective way of reversing the ageing of Europe’s farm population.

“The real problem for young farmers is being able to start up a business. It keeps even some very motivated people out. We are entrepreneurs in the end. You take on loans to be able to run your business, but interest needs to be paid," he said.

“The share of young farmers in the overall farming population is quite small, so if you target support to the first five years after they start up, you can do a lot with a relatively small part of the total budget."

Lopez-Bellido was less optimistic.

“CAP (installation) aid is not going to solve this, because it is a token gesture," he said. “If Spanish farmers depend on subsidies for 30-40% of their income, then you tell me how they will live without those subsidies."