When Indonesia unveiled a plan to turn 2.5 million millennials into farmers within five years, it was a big ask. Success would mean reversing a global trend where tech-savvy youngsters were being lured away from rural areas to exciting startups and city jobs. So far, the results are encouraging.
Despite a tropical climate and some of the largest swathes of fertile land in Southeast Asia, the country's farms often lack the capital, expertise and technology to run efficiently. Farming families earn an average of 26.6 million rupiah ($1,876) a year – about half the minimum wage – and the work is demanding, insecure and subject to the vagaries of weather.
This means the farming population has long been shrinking, forcing the nation of 270 million people to rely on imports of a range of staples like sugar, soybeans and onions. But it seems the exodus has been checked, with some 1.6 million farmers already trained up since the recruitment drive was launched in December 2019, according to Dedi Nursyamsi, head of the agriculture ministry's human resources development agency.
While that number includes some existing farmers looking to improve their skills, the government says most of them are new to farming.
"We must focus on attracting millennial farmers who are more creative and adaptable to change," Nursyamsi said. The program emphasizes the potential to innovate, not just to maintain a tradition.
Training for 19- to 39-year-olds is being offered through village schools and international job schemes in countries like Japan, South Korea and Australia. Skills being taught range from soil management to online marketing and operating equipment like smart greenhouses.
Didin Silahudin, 37, is a millennial ambassador for the government in Cianjur, West Java. He's been farming crops including cayenne pepper and tomatoes since 2008, and recently received training on cultivation technology. That's helped him to "implement better production management and harvesting schedules, as well as planting based on market demand," he said.
"The government aims to attract thousands of new young farmers," he said. "It's also important to ensure existing young farmers can continue to grow."
West Java, Indonesia's largest province, has its own program to encourage would-be millennial farmers. The scheme – which focuses on high-margin goods such as ornamental plants and quail eggs – offers small plots of land, supply deals and loans of up to 50 million rupiah.
Almost 9,900 millennials have applied and 55 have started the program, according to Benny Bachtiar, who leads the province's economic bureau.
It will take years to assess the broader impact of the program. There were 38.8 million Indonesian farmers in February 2021, a drop of 2.5% since 2018. Globally, the share of agricultural workers has been dropping for decades as automation wipes out roles and job-seekers turn to better paid and less back-breaking employment in cities.
Running a successful farm is easier said than done. After Fajar Oktavianto's poultry business in Kulon Progo, Yogyakarta, collapsed during the pandemic, the 29-year-old tried planting watermelons. But the harvest wasn't good enough to turn a profit.
"The most difficult thing is to outsmart the soil conditions," he said, blaming his lack of training.
Budiman, who is 39 and uses only one name, is having better luck – but he has been farming in Kulon Progo for more than a decade. He tried planting crops including rice and chilis before finding success with watermelons.
A farmer has to juggle land and fertilizer conditions, weather, planting schedules and market prices, he pointed out, adding that finding the right balance can be exponentially rewarding.
"I still believe that farming work can actually be more financially productive than office work," he said. "It can even be many times over."