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Europe’s Abandoned Mountain Farms

How EU Farm Reclamation Efforts Seek to Restore Prosperity to the Land

Aragon, Spain. Mountain farms may have triple risk of abandonment in the EU.  ©Javier Ruiz/istock
Aragon, Spain. Mountain farms may have triple risk of abandonment in the EU. ©Javier Ruiz/istock

In countries around the world, the abandonment of small farms has resulted in a myriad of environmental, economic, and social problems. As farmland is deserted—in combination with human and climatic stressors—degradation of the land often follows, threatening rural ecosystems and the well-being of surrounding communities.

To make matters worse, abandonment and degradation of land can contribute to natural disasters, such as the tragic wildfires that occurred recently in Maui, Hawaii [See The Earth & I, October 2023] and in 2018 in Greece [See The Earth & I, April 2023].

Small Farms Matter

Smallholder farms are vital to millions of communities. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), about 600 million smallholder farmers are each utilizing less than five acres (two hectares) of land worldwide. But in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, these smallholder farmers produce as much as 80% of the food supply.

These resourceful and hard-working farmers also contribute to ecosystem health and sustainable agriculture [See The Earth & I, April 2022] and tend to be more resilient than large-scale farming operations to disease, weather events, and pests

Land Abandonment Hurts

Land abandonment refers to land that is no longer used for crops or livestock grazing for at least five years. Globally, small farm abandonment is often the result of worker shortages due to the remote locations, hard work, and isolation that typically comes with running a family farm. Poor soil conditions and adverse climatic, socioeconomic, and market factors can also drive people from the farms. 

When abandoned land loses its fertility and becomes unusable, there is potential for further land degradation. This can lead to soil erosion, desertification, flooding, and drought—and these increase the risks of wildfires.

Estimates of the global degraded land stock are considerable, varying from below a billion ha to more than six billion ha.

Estimates of the global degraded land stock are considerable, varying from below a billion ha to more than six billion ha (or 2.4 billion to 14.8 billion acres). One study found that 3.43 billion ha (8.4 billion acres) could be recovered through “natural processes if human intervention could be removed,” whereas about 878 million ha (2.2 billion acres) could “require active restoration.” In India, it is estimated that at least 30 million hectares (74 million acres) of degraded land will need to be restored in the remainder of this decade to reverse land degradation there by 2030.

Reviving Small Farms in Mountainous Areas 

Small farms in mountainous regions are especially prone to abandonment, with environmental and social impacts felt “downstream.”

The reasons for abandonment include steep and difficult-to-access pasture and crop slopes, poor soils, and limited available labor pools. This is particularly true in some mountainous areas of Europe—a continent faced with an ongoing decline in the number of farms and farmers—where efforts are underway to return some of these abandoned mountain farms to viability.

These efforts may be a necessity, as a study requested by the European Parliament projects that by 2040, Europe may lose 6.4 million farms, leaving 3.9 million active farms. In a separate study, authors estimate that land abandonment risk in EU mountain regions is currently three times higher than in non-mountain areas. Another study, which compared data from 2010 to 2019, found the highest risks for farm abandonment were in countries with “difficult” farming conditions, such as Greece, Spain, Portugal, Romania, and Finland.

Abandoned cattle barn in Spain.  ©Juan-Enrique
Abandoned cattle barn in Spain. ©Juan-Enrique

Fortunately, projects to address this decline in rural mountain areas of the EU are already underway or in various stages of planning.

MountResilience, for instance, is a broad partnership of organizations across the continent, from universities to local governments. It plans to “conceptualize, test, and scale up” solutions that address policy, social needs, and citizen behaviors to address climate impacts in the continent’s mountainous regions.

MountResilience kicked off its operations in September 2023 and is funded by Horizon 2020 to run until February 2028.

[A] Romanian demonstrator site ... will focus on increasing the fertility of mountain meadows [and] offer farmers field scanning and drone seeding services.

The coalition is launching nine climate-related projects, including a Romanian demonstrator site in Râu Sadalui that will “focus on increasing the fertility of mountain meadows to support local farmers.” The partnership will offer farmers “field scanning” and “drone seeding” services.

A Finnish Lapland demonstrator will target reindeer herding and tourism by providing coaching for stakeholders.

Lapland, Finland. Preparing for a traditional Sami peoples’ reindeer racing event.  ©Iim Jessica/istock
Lapland, Finland. Preparing for a traditional Sami peoples’ reindeer racing event. ©Iim Jessica/istock

Attracting Young Farmers

In the upper valleys of the Rioja region in northern Spain, a government fruit tree inventory in 2017 has shown that “117 walnut plots (32 hectares) were semi-abandoned and 93 walnut plots (19 hectares) were totally abandoned.” A major concern is that local youth are not interested in going into walnut farming.

A partnership called Innovation Operative Group for the Recovery of Abandoned Lands (GORTA) is responding to this problem. According to Nacho Ruiz, an agricultural technical advisor with CARNA, a lead partner in GORTA (as quoted on eip-agri, an official website of the EU), the partnership is using a social innovation approach or what they call “a business formula with social objectives” to modernize walnut farming while strengthening and protecting the social fabric and traditions of the region [see video].

GORTA’s aim, Ruiz explained, was to create a “holistic” model to engage policy makers, local stakeholders, and farmers. This approach—of focusing on land regeneration, community welfare and connection, and the farming experience versus a focus primarily on profit—should appeal to new farmers in the La Rioja region, he said.

Meanwhile, in Italy, there is an urgent need for more olive growers.

A National Strategy for Inner Areas in the Madonie has been crafted for a region of Sicily. To put it simply, local players co-designed and participated in the project, which addressed their concerns, strengthened community bonds, and helped new, young farmers succeed in this olive-growing region. According to il circolo, ”Young farmers profited from the local relationships and involvement … such as knowledge exchange and preferential land access.” They also benefited from working with different types of producers and players, such as manna farmers, schools, and NGOs.

Selling young people on the idea of farming remains difficult.

The EU Parliament is offering farming subsidies, but young olive farmers do not see government assistance as particularly helpful—they rue the added administrative burdens and bureaucratic disinterest in what younger farmers see as the value created by agro-regeneration work. The younger adults argue that regenerative value “might not be measurable in monetary terms” but should be considered when allocating funds.

Sloped olive grove in Cambria, Italy.  ©Clemens Brandstetter/Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0
Sloped olive grove in Cambria, Italy. ©Clemens Brandstetter/Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0

One alternative for abandoned farms is to “rewild” them. This tactic of releasing land back to its natural state can restore ecosystems at a landscape scale and help mitigate climate change, says the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Another outcome is to use the land for ranchers. A study of a successful shrub-clearing/cattle-grazing project in Spain’s Leza Valley highlights what the FAO calls the “cultural services” that agroecosystems can provide. These include “cultural identity” and the support  of traditional farming practices, biodiversity maintenance, recreational and tourism opportunities, protection against natural hazards, and food security.

Despite the land abandonment problem in the EU and elsewhere, there are signs a small percentage of young people are turning to an agrarian way of life. 

This could be good news for the future viability of mountain agroecosystems, especially if policy and public sentiment encourage farming as a career and lifestyle. With just 6.5% of European farmers being under the age of 35 years, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen declared in a September 13 speech that the time has come for “making business easier” for the continent’s future farmers.


*Kate Pugnoli is an Arizona-based freelance journalist and former educator who works with nonprofit organizations. Her area of interest is in addressing environmental issues impacting marine biodiversity and conservation.


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