Greening the Islands Foundation

Who Wants to be a Farmer on an Island? Young Farmers Share Career Stories From Crete, Cyprus, and the Azores

Attracting youth to farming is no longer merely an issue of the mainland. Within the particular vulnerabilities of islands such as being the barometers of early impacts of climate change on farms and youth out-migration for better career opportunities on the mainland, concern is growing regarding the lack of young farmers as well as food self-sufficiency on islands.


But as youth careers are increasingly driven by desires of self-fulfilment, meaningful work, and aspirations for a more sustainable, innovative way of farming, there is potential to shift the balance for islands in the digital age.


Islands as a new career landscape for remote workers

The effect of digital transformation on the islands’ labour market is acknowledged by recent migration research that documents the in-migration trends to beautiful touristic islands. For example, seasonal, lifestyle migration, and digital nomadism are observed forms of in-migration trends.

The study here presented makes the case that these islands can use the changes in our digital working lives to their advantage by harnessing their power as new career landscapes, and investigates the question: To what extent does digital communication impact the career inspiration of youth in farming profession in the EU islands?

Our results draw from interviews from three EU islands: Crete and Cyprus in the Mediterranean Sea, and the Azores in the North Atlantic Ocean. All these islands have a vibrant agricultural activity and offer high-quality agricultural products thanks to unique climatic and environmental features that need to be protected. Examples include the Halloumi cheese, which has a Cypriot origin, the well-known quality of the meat and cheesemaking in the Azores, and the long history of wine and olive oil in Crete. However, all these islands deal with the challenges of the “Young Farmer Problem” in different farming types.

Study findings were based on face-to-face interviews with Cretan (11 respondents), Cypriot (10 respondents), and Azorean (12 respondents) young farmers. We asked a single question: “How did you end up in the farming profession?” that sought to reveal the narrators’ career stories. The interviews with young farmers were combined with supportive data by expert interviews (24 respondents) and quantitative surveys with farmers around the islands regardless of age (137 respondents).


Digital media facilitate unplanned careers in farming

For most interviewed young farmers, the involvement in farming with an unplanned and unpredictable career path, without a corresponding agricultural education, is one of the main trends. What is notable among these unplanned and unpredictable career path followers is how informal digital media have created a career initiation.

Personal social media accounts, blogs, and social movement networks create inspiration and connections. Career stories highlight the role of informal digital media in creating awareness and increasing sensibility on sustainable food movements, environmental activism, and the back-to-the-land movement, as well as helping to polish business plans with inspiration from other farmers.

“I observed from the Internet [mentioning some online network groups of organic family farmers] how the new rurals … coming from big cities … then … they bought a big piece of land and started to do some farming. And left their big jobs”. – A male organic vegetable farmer, Crete, (Greece). Studied Mechanical Engineering in Germany.

 

 “I saw some huge greenhouse examples on the internet. I think it helped and encouraged me to be a farmer. The strategy, the photos that they put up, the message … yes, I liked to see that. In my life it was a positive influence”. – A female greenhouse farmer, The Azores, (Portugal). Studied Management & Tourism in Lisboa.

 

“I reach all information [on farming] with my digital skills.  I used the internet very frequently at the beginning. I searched how to plant and grow flowers. I found potential markets to sell. Now I want to buy a drone for spraying”. – A female cut-flower farmer, Cyprus. Studied Graphical Design in Nicosia.


The quest for prestige by young farmers on islands

Most of the young farmers interviewed express their intense passion for their profession with “agriculture was calling me” and “love”.  Some see the farming career as an opportunity to “progress” in the contemporary lifestyle-led working life, and to “protest” the industrial agri-food sector.

Even though the participants explain that their involvement in farming was driven by their personal accomplishment and self-fulfilment rather than simply by having a prestigious job that doesn’t make them happy, our study found that binary emotions exist regarding their professional identities.

The challenges related to the farming profession’s reputational damage are significantly grounded in career stories. Overall, the inner conflict between farmers’ subjective perspectives on their professional identity and how society considers their profession results in dual-tasking: growing food at the farm and growing prestige on social media.

As put in by one farmer: “Prestige [of farming] is connecting with the right publications [digital media]. Things are very visual today; the best way to communicate with people is social media. I’m working with two photographers, one for Facebook and one for Instagram. Visitors of these two platforms are not the same public”. – A female winegrape grower and winemaker, Crete.


Starting farming as a second career in touristic EU islands 

 Involvement in farming as a second career in the studied touristic EU islands was another significant trend, particularly among university-level educated participants. Farming career choices involve transitions across professional occupations, industries, and countries. For the return “islanders” or “settlers” (coming from abroad), islands represent the geography for a new beginning in life with a second career opportunity in farming.

In such a career transition, digital media contributes to career break adaptability, and eases career mobility by providing an ability to overcome geographic isolation mainly in three ways:

  • Digital media provides the competence of adaptability by re-skilling individuals online;
  • The use of mobile applications increases autonomy in farm-related tasks;
  • Digital life offers emotional online connections across distant locations, such as between the mainland and the island.

The career transition decision that includes mobility from the mainland to the island appears deeply courageous in some career stories, particularly in cases where family members and friends did not show any support. 


“My parents didn’t want me to come here because I had a good job [in the USA]. But I said, I’m going to go.” – A female farmer, Crete. Career transition from lawyer (in the US) to winemaker.

 

“We were very happy with our achievements [on the mainland], but as career achievements it’s not very satisfactory. That’s why we switched and thought about doing farming [on the island].” – A male farmer, The Azores. Career transition from forest manager (in Denmark) to animal farming.


“When I decided to enter into farming and left my job in design in the city my friends show a snobbish behavior to me.” – A female farmer, Cyprus. Career transition from designer (in Nicosia) to cut-flower farmer.


Island effect

Described as the “island effect”, some aspects of culture (e.g., linguistic) are maintained longer than on the mainland, due to peculiarities in the island’s identity. Our results revealed strong support that islands’ “smallness,” “economic boundedness” and “belonging” make farming on islands particular compared to the mainland.

Regarding “smallness”, short rural-urban distances on small islands provide a unique opportunity to benefit from both urban and rural life-style advantages, and experience dual careers in life: farmer in the rural location, and officer in the urban location of the same island.

The “economic boundedness” of islands was noted within the multifunctional nature of their job market. We found consensus among part-time young farmers on second career intentions aiming to partly mitigate unemployment and decrease risks attached to single occupation in an island.

The islands’ “belonging” was expressed by several young farmers as “land is emotional if you are living on an island” or “island calling”. This strong attachment to the island culture serves to rationalize their return decision.


Conclusions and recommendations

  • The career involvement into farming with planned and predictable career pathways are changing. Unplanned and unpredictable career pathways are a fact among today’s young farmers.
  • Digital communication tools managed by informal actors (e.g., personal social media accounts, blogs, and online social movements) play an essential role in the career inspiration towards a farming career, as well as contribute to career break adaptability.
  • The power of digital media to create farming career inspiration can be considered with more attention by formal actors such as policy-focused professionals, civil society, and front-line practitioners.
  • While young farmers express a sense of pride in their professional identities, they also struggle with the “reputational damage” of the farming profession.
  • To build reputation and credibility of the farming career, communication campaigns (by schools, communities, government and civic society) presenting young farmers’ voices and their sensitivity to environmental-friendly farming practices are needed.
  • Study results revealed strong support that island particularities of “smallness,” “economic boundedness” and “belonging” make farming on islands peculiar compared to the mainland.
  • Touristic EU islands can use the changing nature of career development to their advantage by promoting part-time or full-time farming careers to targeted youth groups such as out-migrated “islanders” for education, and part-time “islanders”.

Recommended further readings

 Unay-Gailhard, İ., Brennan, M. A. (2023). Young farmers in “The New World of Work”: The contribution of new media to the work engagement and professional identities. Rural Sociology. 88(2), 2023, pp. 426–460. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/ruso.12481

Unay-Gailhard, İ., Simões, F. (2022). Becoming a Young Farmer in the Digital Age—An Island Perspective. Rural Sociology, 87(1):144–85.

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/ruso.12400

 

Acknowledgement

This study was funded by the EU Horizon 2020 programme, Marie Skłodowska-Curie Global Fellowship (No: 895185). The data collection was supported by the mobility funds of the German Research Foundation (DFG) (No: 433488472), and the EU COST Action Rural NEET Youth Network (No: CA18213).

Ilkay Unay-Gailhard

Ilkay Unay-Gailhard

On Key

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