For Tran Thi Khanh Trang, who holds an MBA degree from Colorado State University in the US, going into farming was not exactly a trendy career option in an agrarian country where parents typically expect their university-educated children to score urban jobs.
For Andreas Ismar, a 38-year-old Indonesian financial journalist, quitting the city for country life was just the ticket he needed to realise his dreams.
Both Trang, who is Vietnamese, and Andreas are among a wave of younger, educated farmers in the Asia-Pacific region that are part of the nascent “green collar” movement that seeks a return to the land – through farming and viniculture, by starting renewable-energy and social-enterprise projects, or by investing in sustainability-related jobs.
Such entrepreneurs could be at least part of the solution to reviving regional economies hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic , helping create new career opportunities in the wake of corporate downsizings and generally declining fortunes.
Regional governments have also got on board in the sector, with Singapore planning to generate 55,000 green jobs over the next 10 years in the environment and agricultural sectors and South Korea budgeting US$95 million (S$130 million) for green projects to help lift its economy out of the doldrums.
Trang, 34, the founder of FarGreen, an organic farming start-up, was the first in her family to have received a higher education, let alone gone overseas to study.
Hailing from the small northern Vietnamese town of Ha Nam, she said her awareness for the surrounding environment and for limiting waste came about as a result of many childhood influences, including living next to a polluted river and witnessing her parents’ deliberate avoidance of leftovers.
In 2015, she came up with a zero-waste agricultural production system based on the use of rice straw – one of the by-products of rice production that is typically burned by Vietnamese farmers after a harvest.
Trang set up a network of local farmers in northern Vietnam who collect the rice straw and use it to grow gourmet mushrooms. After the mushrooms are cultivated, the leftover mushrooms and by-products are used as bio-fertiliser to enrich the soil to grow more rice and other vegetable crops.
Their products have been served at high-end hotels and restaurants, a niche target market of Trang’s start-up. Her customers include Hanoi’s Metropole hotel, where US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un met for a summit last year.
Andreas, meanwhile, is collaborating with more than 600 local farmers around his own farm in Sirnajaya village, in West Java province for his start-up project, Horekultura – wordplay on “hooray” and “agriculture” – which he said is aimed to “drum up interests for a sector avoided and deemed unsexy by youths”.
He started his project with his five friends – a tax consultant, a financial analyst, a marketer, a creative industry worker and a human-rights activist, all from Jakarta – as the coronavirus pandemic started to take a toll. He also partners with a senior organic farm practitioner.
Although he still writes stories for a financial outlet from his new base, he dreams of focusing on his farm full-time if his start-up becomes profitable.
He aims to produce spring onions and sell them to wet market vendors and street food sellers, and he planted his first crop earlier in May on rented land near the Indonesian city of Bandung, which is about 150km southeast of Jakarta. Horekultura has also planted sunflowers, which it will cultivate for the chewable seeds it plans to sell to food and snack shops in the area.
Andreas said he expects to sell each kilogram of spring onions for 7,000 to 10,000 rupiah (US$0.50 to US$0.70), with each square metre of land yielding nine kilograms. A year could result in three harvests.
Andreas also wants to help local farmers embrace technologies like using local microbes and grass to make for a healthier soil, resulting in more robust crops and sustained harvests, as well as introduce new machinery to the farmers, who have been using sickles for decades.
Horekultura also runs an internship programme to draw Indonesian youths into the agricultural industry, and it offers financial management education for farmers. Andreas said he was motivated to pursue Horekultura in part as a means of regeneration – bringing young people back to the land, much like their parents’ and grandparents’ generations before them.
Kuntoro Boga Andri, director of public relations and public information at Indonesia’s Ministry of Agriculture, said there were an estimated 32 million agricultural workers in Indonesia, which has a population of about 270 million.
He added that the sector together with its derivative industries and services are expected to contribute 30 per cent to 35 per cent of the nation’s GDP this year.
The country’s economy contracted by 3.49 per cent in the third quarter of this year as a result of the pandemic, with Indonesia officially falling into its first recession in more than two decades. Its agricultural sector, however, grew by 2.15 per cent, according to Statistics Indonesia.
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Agriculture also found that there were more than 17.2 million agricultural households in the country as of 2018. More than 45 per cent were headed by a person aged 45 to 54, while roughly one-sixth were headed by a person below the age of 35.
Trang does not own her own land but like Andreas, she has friends to help her. Trang met them in the US and they are experts in agriculture.
She also has local partners – farmers in three provinces whose rice fields, gardens and even free space in the farmers’ homes she rents out for her team to grow mushrooms. In some cases, she pays the cultivators for their labour if they want to tend the crop.
Trang uses her relationships with people in her generation to get in touch with farmers in rural areas, and although she is fascinated by the agriculture community and the older generation’s rich traditions, she faces unique challenges.
“The cultural differences are difficult. Even if you are a local person, you are not local. You find yourself a foreigner in the rural area,” she said. “There’s no huge plan to convince anybody. If you build a successful case, people will follow you.”
Another young Vietnamese entrepreneur, Nguyen Thi Thu Huong, 27, faces the same challenge. She continued a family tradition when she became a coffee farmer in 2018, and has managed to encourage other young people like herself to grow chemical-free coffee beans in her hometown, the Dak Lao commune in Vietnam’s Central Highlands. The region is the birthplace of the coffee plant cherries that have made Vietnam a coffee giant.
“Growing up, everyone around me grew coffee . My parents have been coffee farmers for 30 years. But nobody really understands what it is,” said Huong, who spent several years working as a barista at big coffee chains in Ho Chi Minh City while she was studying to become a tour guide.
Huong harvests only ripe cherries (many coffee makers around the world use green or unripe one, which makes the taste more bitter) which are then sun-dried instead of using mechanical driers – the preferred method of many producers and traders in the region.
The beans are then washed and fermented – practices unfamiliar to her parents.
“My model from harvesting the beans to the final products is three times longer than what my parents have been used to,” but is a process that yields higher-quality coffee, she said. “My parents didn‘t like it and thought the process was too long and feared that they wouldn’t earn money from it.”
Her parents also did not approve of her plan to leave Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s largest city and economic hub to be a coffee farmer like them, thinking it was “unrealistic”, she said.
After she finally persuaded her parents, she started her business on her family’s land and slowly expanded to the land plots of others in her commune, applying her own model as she went.
Her goal, she said, is to use as many low-tech solutions as possible, as not every farmer in her community can afford machinery. This gives them more motivation to follow her farming model.
Her coffee beans have since been sold across her province and in Vietnam’s three largest cities – Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi and Da Nang, although she does not yet have any contracts with major coffee chains.
Nguyen Duc Loc, Director of Ho Chi Minh City-based Social Life, an independent social science research institute, said Vietnamese in their 20s and 30s often feel the lack of space in the cities but typically cannot afford a house, so some have ventured out to rural areas, either to agrarian lands or to tourism hotspots, where they also come up with business ideas.
But he added that the trend in Vietnam “has been detachment from agricultural life and emigration out of rural areas, for instance in the Mekong Delta or the central region. So my estimate is that this trend certainly outnumbers the trend of young people becoming farmers.”
Wannabe farmer millennials in Vietnam also have to deal with a variant they have no control over – climate change .
Both Huong and Trang said it was harder to grow crops as changes in temperatures and rainfalls have become more common, forcing them to either switch to different crops or rely on backup stocks to meet customers’ demands.
But Mervin Chunyi Ang, a research scientist at Disruptive & Sustainable Technologies for Agricultural Precision (DiSTAP) of the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART) – the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s research enterprise in Singapore – said that there has been a mindset shift towards agriculture in Southeast Asia that has been facilitated by the industry’s adoption of new technologies.
“Young farmers are recognising that traditional farming methods would no longer be a sustainable way to meet the growing demand for food and nutrition for the ever-increasing global population in the coming years,” Ang said. “Hi-tech farming today has also been accepted as a viable career option, given the growing industry.”
Audria Evelinn, the 28-year-old Indonesian founder and farm director of Little Spoon Farm on Bali, noted that the urban farming trend in Indonesia has increased, especially amid the coronavirus pandemic, and that she and her business team have been approached with more consulting inquiries with regards to how to cultivate a mini-farm at home.
Audria, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies from Seattle University in the US in 2014 with a focus on urban sustainability, worked as a research coordinator at an agriculture start-up company based in metropolitan Seattle before relocating back home in 2015.
She has also received training on various farms and is also part of the Women’s Earth Alliance global initiative.
She started her own community-based business in 2017 and launched operations in 2018, despite not having a family background in agriculture.
She now practices “regenerative farming” at her urban greenhouse, where others may learn about growing plants and have access to buy crop seedlings to grow at home and technical staff to assist them.
Her farm, with a total area of around three hectares, grows mostly heirloom seeds such as tomatoes, local varieties of green products and beans that are in high demand from Bali-based hotels and expatriates. She has produced about five tonnes of goods so far and acquired eight more partnering farmer families this year.
Audria said the ongoing outbreak has influenced the rise in farmers in Indonesia as people became more concerned over their food security and they would learn how to grow their own food on their backyard. Others would also look for alternative activities as they stay indoors.
Audria said she has spent up to US$140,000 to develop Little Spoon Farm, including about US$20,000 to establish her in-house greenhouse. She employs 20 staff members, and is also responsible for managing her local farmer partners.
She has found that food security is an entrenched problem in Indonesia, and she and her team are taking steps to address the issue in Bali.
“I feel like I have to become a farmer because it is a way to achieve the goal of [realising] food sustainability in Indonesia,” she said. “I think it’s always been critical because for Indonesia itself, not all food in Indonesia comes from Indonesia, so in times of Covid – like the airport is closed or there are changes in logistical regulations – we do not have food resilience.”
Meanwhile Horekultura, as part of its sunflower operations, has so far planted about 12,000 out of the 200,000 sunflower seeds it has targeted for 15 hectares.
Andreas projects they could generate a gross income of about 900 million rupiah (around S$85,000) each harvest (with three harvests a year). Each harvest is expected to yield 45 tonnes of sunflower seeds with a retail price of around 20,000 rupiah (US$1.40) per kilogram.
Andreas said he and his investment partners have already put a total of 400 million rupiah into Horekultura so far, with about 80 per cent of the expenses allocated for working capital to procure seeds, till the land and on farm maintenance.
He plans to fully commit to his farm while also pursuing his hobby of writing – not necessarily journalism – if his project succeeds. If that comes to pass, he said, he will also tell his friends in Jakarta that there is a better life outside the city, away from the long office commutes, pollution and limited opportunities – a life on the land.
“It’s safe to say it will be the trend going forward, as many are fatigued with big-city hassles,” he said.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.