The Indonesian version of this article appeared in Kompas Daily Opinion Column on February 24, 2023, which can be accessed via the link:

A series of news related to failed agricultural projects around youth and digital technology in recent months, such as those experienced by the startup TaniHub (, 12/12/2022), to those related to the Millennial Farmers program promoted by the West Java Provincial Government (, 3/2/2023) show more than just technical failures. More fundamentally, they indicate a paradigmatic error – a failure to see agriculture as part of the broader structure of our society.

Young people in urban areas, in particular, are bombarded with news about various agricultural problems, accompanied by narratives to save farmers and the agricultural sector, but often without a comprehensive understanding of the dynamics of rural sociology. We need to re-examine the assumption that the solution to the downturn in agriculture is to mobilize young people in implementing digital-based innovative agriculture that is connected to integrated sources of capital and markets.

In this paper, I offer four perspectives that seem to have been missed in addressing the problem of agriculture in Indonesia.

Seeing from a different perspective

First, agriculture needs to be seen as more than just a technique to produce food, but an activity that is deeply embedded in rural communities and across generations. Young people in rural areas learn farming at an early age from their parents, are actively involved in the fields and start taking responsibility as part of the agricultural workforce after finishing school.

Agricultural communities also have their own way of understanding the ecological conditions of their farmlands through a long learning process, even passed down from generation to generation – something we know as local collective knowledge. Through this understanding of local agroecology, farmers can adjust what types of crops can be grown in the best ways possible.

Furthermore, the wider rural community also acts as a buffer against the risks and uncertainties experienced by farmers, in such a way that the impact of crop failure or price fluctuations can be collectively mitigated. One key factor in this risk absorption is the strong social ties in rural communities. When young people are placed on farms far from their hometowns without such social support, the burden of farming will be too great for these young people to bear.

Secondly, in the context of agricultural communities, middlemen are important actors. Middlemen help farmers channel agricultural products to a wider market-something that is difficult for farmers with limited market access. It is not uncommon for middlemen to provide upfront capital assistance to farmers, conditional on the purchase of crops.

However, our study results show that in many cases, farmers still have the freedom to choose which middlemen will serve as a link to the market for their products. In agricultural centers such as Lembang, West Java, middlemen compete to offer the best price to farmers.

On the other hand, middlemen are often family, neighbors, and community members in the same village as the farmers. Some of them are village community leaders, or originally farmers who have been able to scale up their production. This helps build strong social ties between middlemen and farmers. Ultimately, middlemen also act as a buffer against the risk of crop failure experienced by farmers.

Attempts to break the ties with middlemen have led to a shift in the role of middlemen to corporate offtakers/wholesalers, who do not share the same ties and values with farmers. As a result, farmers are again entangled in a new debt scheme that is even more rigid and binding.

Third, we need to stop glorifying young people as agents of change and sources of creativity. Indeed, the reality is that the structure of the agricultural community is currently supported by farmers over the age of 50, that young people are increasingly leaving the agricultural sector, and that farmer regeneration is not happening. However, the solution is not to burden young people with the label “creative”. Studies by Sumberg and Hunt, for example, show that young people can be creative as long as they are supported by a strong innovation environment and infrastructure, such as in universities and creative communities. Alone, young people will face the same problems as their parents, or even worse due to the absence of supportive social capital.

What should be heard from young people in rural areas is the challenges they are currently facing (with accelerating technology, increasingly uncertain market dynamics, and climate change), as well as the support system needed to deal with these in building their livelihoods.

Fourth, technology alone cannot solve agricultural problems. Technology has always been part of the wider constellation of rural community life. Technology is driven by values in the community, and farming communities adopt technology through a long process, such that technology becomes an integral part of the social life of the community.

In line with the industrialization (and more specifically now with the digitalization) of agriculture, technology is becoming increasingly unfamiliar to farmers. These digital technologies have not been fully tested technically and socially within the farming community, and the risk of their failure is often borne by small-scale farmers. The slightest loss, for small-scale farmers, can be decisive in losing access to their land and livelihoods.


So what kind of approach can the government and private sector take in dealing with the complexities of our agricultural society? I propose some concrete steps.

First, instead of encouraging young people in the cities to farm small plots of land through bank loans and industry offtakers, the government can incentivize local young people from their hometown to continue their parents’ farming businesses. This can be done through public infrastructure support, more accessible traditional markets, increased competitive advantage of farmers and middlemen, and the strengthening of local farmer groups.

Second, start-ups can build partnerships with farmers and middlemen to open more alternative markets for agricultural products. Diversifying marketing access helps farmers avoid dependence on a single market and “flagship commodities”, and helps farmers choose the marketing channel that works best for them (farmers’ preferences are not always related to price; they also consider factors such as quality, ease of access, and scale). Farmers’ flexibility in choosing what crops to grow and which marketing channels offer the best deal is a key factor in building farmers’ autonomy.

Thirdly, research institutions, universities and technology designers need to listen to what farmers really need, including innovations that are in line with the culture of the community (such as Warung Ilmiah Lapangan), before offering new technologies. Finally, the government in particular should address a more fundamental problem: agrarian issues and farmers’ increasingly limited access to land and agricultural resources.