Although the full scale effects are yet to materialize, sustainability of Europe’s own food supply is under threat. For years now, the farming community has been faced with a demographic crisis with not enough young farmers joining the ranks. Only 6% of European farmers are currently under the age of 35. With youth unemployment in Europe remaining high, this situation is not only unsustainable but also irresponsible.

The recent Common Agricultural Policy reform has travelled some way to accommodate the needs of young farmers but a lot more could and should be done. On this issue and more, I invite you to read an interview with the Secretary General of the European Council of Young Farmers (CEJA), Kleopatra Sidiropoulou.

1) As a young professional in Brussels who has spent best part of your career working for and in the EU institutions – first the Commission and then the European Parliament – how would you compare your previous experience with working for an NGO such as CEJA?

This is a very interesting question! To start with I would say that there are already differences between working in the EU Commission and the Parliament. The Commission is a hierarchical administration where information needs to be thoroughly analysed and filtered. In the EP the nature of the work is very different. One has to follow policy developments on many dossiers. For that reason – in the EP – the information circulates faster and the contact with external stakeholders is more frequent. Now, regarding the differences between working in the EU institutions and CEJA; clearly, when you leave the institutions, the work, especially in terms of receiving information, can become a bit more challenging. However, the link with the services is always there and I am very happy to say that help on technical issues was always given to us every time it was asked. Commission officials very willingly come to explain to us the technical details of the reform in question. In the same way, MEPs have also been very open to listening to our thoughts and actively helping in CEJA projects, so even if I am not working for them I am still very much working with them.

2) CEJA is not the only organisation in Brussels that defends the interest of farmers. How would you differentiate CEJA’s mission from all the others? What is it that makes young farmers a special category within the farming community?

CEJA’s main objective is to promote a younger and more innovative agricultural sector across the EU. Only 6% of agricultural holders in the EU are below the age of 35. Young farmers are a special category within the farming community for several reasons. Crucially, access to the agricultural sector is particularly difficult for young people because of the significant barriers to entry standing in their way. These challenges consist of access to land, access to credit, and high investments with low returns. Moreover young farmers have been proven to be more productive, innovative, and sustainable than their older counterparts. It is for these young people that CEJA works so hard to influence EU agricultural policy in order to facilitate their entry into the sector and make sure they stay afloat in it.

3) For decades, and in fact from the very beginning of the European project, the Common Agricultural Policy has formed the backbone of European integration. At the same time, the policy has faced numerous problems and inefficiencies which have occurred along the way. This has led to many reforms the last of which was adopted by the Council in December of last year. From a position of an expert on the CAP, can you explain the major improvements of the policy?

It is true that the CAP has had its ups and downs throughout its lifetime. Today, the new CAP is here to ensure farmers can continue to deliver public goods to the rest of society in a much more market-oriented way. The new CAP has also revolutionised the part European agriculture plays in environment protection and biodiversity conservation, by making a number of greening measures. Finally, direct payments are now also more targeted towards the younger generation in order to increase chances of young people setting up farms. However, and particularly in relation to young farmers, it is true that the CAP does not yet go far enough . Ideally, in the long term, the agricultural policy would be one which can ensure a fair food supply chain where farmers are price makers not just price takers.

4) What are the areas that you would still like to see improved? What would be the ideal reform of CAP for young farmers?

CEJA worked hard to see a big improvement in support for young farmers in the most recent CAP reform. However, it is crucial that these measures are maximised in the Member States – that is to say to make use of the most favourable methods when calculating a particular support for young farmers. Therefore it is not yet clear how effective the new CAP will be for the support of young farmers and generational renewal in the agricultural sector. However, in the long term, much more can, and should, be done. Particularly in relation to favourable succession laws, increased access to land for young people, and significantly more targeted financial support for young farmers. Most importantly, CEJA would like a mandatory installation aid measure where all young people who want to start a farm in the EU, and who have a viable business plan, should get a big enough lump sum to be able to embark upon their business.

5) What other policy areas is CEJA currently occupied with?

Although CEJA has been very focused on the CAP reform in recent years – with good reason – we try to keep an eye on a number of other policy debates that affect agriculture, and in particular young farmers. At the moment we are following the TTIP discussions very closely and working on the consultation for the Commission’s new state aid rules. Considering the year 2014 is the UN International Year of Family Farming, we are also playing a big part in events relating to this theme, ensuring that we maximise the benefits for young farmers in all policy areas possible, despite our limited resources.

6) Does CEJA cooperate with like-minded organisations outside of the EU and what other industries does CEJA have a strategic partnership with?

Yes indeed, CEJA does not only have strong links with policy and decision-makers in Brussels, but also has a substantial network of other relevant stakeholders. As an associate member of both the World Farmers’ Organisation and the European Youth Forum, CEJA is involved with wider policy areas than just European agriculture. CEJA also holds close relations with other farm organisations such as COPA-COGECA. We also have important strategic partnerships with the agricultural machinery company Massey Ferguson and Rabobank International.

7) What would be your advice to young professionals who are starting their careers in Brussels and are hoping to become successful like you?

I am not sure I am the best person to give advice on that as my career has not been that long but if I had to give an advice this would be first and foremost be yourself in any job or internship (yes we have all been there) you are doing. It makes no sense trying to fit a job by pretending to be someone that you are not. In the long term you might find yourself stuck in a position that is simply not for you!

Do not be afraid to speak your mind, no matter how young you are! If you disagree with something or you think that you have a better proposal to what is on the table go ahead. The people that matter will appreciate your proactivity and will see that you are someone who tries to make things better. Be patient as things might take a bit more time than you think. Last but not least hope for a bit of luck… if we have to be honest with ourselves,​ it always helps!