While Portugal remains the European nation with the lowest percentage of young farmers – 2.9 percent when the average is 5.3 per cent – the number has grown exponentially in recent years. Around 280 entrepreneurs set up new farming businesses in the “garden of Europe” every month, and professional schools have doubled its student numbers over the last four years.
According to the Secretary of State for Agriculture José Diogo Albuquerque, out of nine thousand applications approved by the EU-backed programme for rural development (PRODER) in the last six years, over seven thousand came from workers under the age of 40, with almost half of them highly educated. The agricultural sector was the largest contributor to the creation of jobs in the second quarter of 2013, boosting the country’s recession-ravaged economy in conjunction with export growth.
The recession that brought Portugal to its knees in 2011 is the main driving force behind the significant shift in the agricultural sector landscape. Young entrepreneurs looking for new opportunities often find that, in a country where agricultural land occupies 80 percent of its territory, going back to the land can be the most viable option. Farming accounted for almost a third of Portugal’s GDP back in the 1950s, when the country’s economy persisted at subsistence levels, according to data compiled by the Bank of Portugal.
After joining the EU in 1986, Portugal’s agriculture suffered a considerable reduction in the number of producers through consolidation under the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (PAC). The country’s economic growth has mainly been driven by the services sector since then.
“Today, young people are joining the agricultural sector not due to their special skills or by choice, but as result of the lack of opportunities in other areas. That is why the sector is composed of people from virtually every area, from the arts to civil engineering,” said João Mira from the Association of Young Portuguese Farmers (AJAP).
Determined to fight back against recession, Portugal’s young are rolling up their sleeves and coming up with inventive ways to sell their harvest. “I wanted to have my own project and my sister was about to finish her studies with no job prospects,” said Jorge Ferreira Silva, 38, who started a fruit preserving business in 2013 with his younger sister Andreia, 25. Media Dúzia, which is already selling outside Portugal, relies on organic farming methods to produce artisanal preserves packaged in ink tubes.
Fruits and vegetables remain the country’s largest productions, followed by cereal, wine and olive oil, the last two being the only ones that have a trade surplus. Although the rural sector represents less than four percent of the GDP, the AJAP remains hopeful that young farmers will continue to play a part in the country’s economic recovery.