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4-H Canada Blog

Youth Engagement – Sowing the Seeds for the Future of Agriculture

By Shannon Benner, CEO, 4-H Canada

“We have not inherited the Earth from our fathers, we are borrowing it from our children.” – Lester Brown

Truer words were never spoken. As the CEO of 4-H Canada, and the Chair of the Global 4-H Network, a positive youth movement with close ties to the agricultural community, I am often afforded the opportunity to contribute to conversations on the biggest issues of our time – including empowering youth to help steer the future.

Never has the planet faced such critical challenges – agriculture in particular. The declining number of farmers, an aging work force, and a world population expected to reach nine billion by 2050. At the same time, opportunities have never been greater – advancements in science and technology, unparalleled access to information, and a generation of young people with an increasing interest in effecting change in the world around them. It’s therefore easy to be overwhelmed by the big questions.

It is for this reason that I recently attended the 42nd meeting of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) Committee on World Food Security (CFS) in Rome, Italy, to discuss skill building and talent development in the field of agriculture. More importantly, I was there to talk about how public and private entities can work together to empower youth to be leaders in agriculture, and how youth already play an important role.

What everybody seems to be searching for is the “how?” How do we engage and retain youth in critical areas? How do we ensure buy-in? How do we tap into this incredible resource in a meaningful and authentic way?

To me, it is simple, because we have been doing this for over a hundred years. If we want to engage youth, we need to recognize the leadership that youth already exhibit today, and provide them with genuine opportunities to continue leading and learning, while offering them guidance and encouragement. It is our responsibility to intentionally mentor them from the grassroots up, and allow them to contribute solutions to the issues that affect them.  It is critical that we help guide the development of their character and integrity equally, and consider it to be as valuable an asset as skills transfer and education.

By no means do I think 4-H has all the solutions; however, there are a handful of organizations – 4-H included – that have the recipe to create this ideal environment for skill mastery through experiential learning, knowledge transfer through youth-adult partnerships, and youth engagement through empowering, confidence-building programs and opportunities.

We know this is an effective formula because since its inception as a grassroots idea in the early-1900s, 4-H has grown into a global movement with more than 7 million responsible, caring and contributing youth leaders in over 60 countries. Our 4-H members, volunteer leaders, parents, and hundreds of thousands of Canadian alumni, are lasting proof of the positive impact and trust we have built in agricultural communities.

So, how do we move forward together? We need to come up with concrete solutions to foster talent development and engage youth before we can start to answer the larger issues facing the future of agriculture. I believe strongly that public-private partnerships are essential to creating opportunities for youth engagement, and can often act as the catalyst for youth to call for action as a united voice.

The Youth Ag-Summit (YAS) is a stunning example of a multi-year initiative that has seen private industry (led by Bayer CropScience), NGO’s and multiple governments all work in collaboration to engage youth in authentic conversation about the future of food. The result – hundreds of highly-engaged youth, mobilized to impact their communities through “little things” – a challenge put forward at the YAS to implement small changes towards positive change – and united by their declaration, put forward on the floor of the general assembly at the FAO.

We need to ensure that we continue to challenge industry, agricultural leaders and our newly elected government to listen to the opinions of youth, volunteer to mentor them, work with the organizations that support positive youth development, and create opportunities for young leaders to grow and thrive.

The entire stakeholder chain has an obligation to address the overwhelming skills and labour gap, especially as we face a generation of leaders poised to retire en masse. This commitment to providing youth with mentorship, and the opportunities for knowledge and skill transfer, is essential to the engagement and retention of our talented young leaders, and the future of agriculture.

The risk we face – disengagement by this generation and those that follow – is too great if we don’t.