Growing farmers

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When thinking about agriculture, it’s logical to think about “growing” in terms of crops and livestock. There’s another “growing” concern, and that is the need to grow the number of farmers. According to the Census of Agriculture 2016, there are now 193,492 farmers in Canada, which is down 5.9% from the Census of 2011. By comparison, in 1961, there were almost 481,000 farmers. The (sort of) good news is that this is the lowest rate of decline in the past twenty years.

According to Stats Can, 92% of farmers have no written succession plan for the future of their farm. In the past, it was just assumed that the next generation would step in and take over the farm, but this is no longer a safe assumption. Instead, farmers have been forced to begin selling off their land, in whole or in parts, to developers or other farms, in order to recover the equity they’ve built up. For anyone looking to get into farming (and even for those who are part of an existing farming family), the cost to buy an existing farm, or even a piece of productive agricultural land, is often well beyond their reach, especially for young people.

On a positive note, there was a slight increase in the number of farmers under age 35, between 2011 and 2016, for the first time since 1991 (up to almost 25,000). This appears to be mostly driven by an increase in the number of young women now operating farms, and millennials who are motivated about small scale organic farming and local food. Though this is a positive development, the average age of a Canadian farmer is 55, and this has risen steadily for decades, with the number of farmers over 70 far exceeding those under 35.

The message appears to be clear: we need more farmers and, further, we need to support and encourage young people to enter farming. Instead of focusing on the general financial viability of farming, it might be time to shift gears and start providing direct support for young farmers. Agriculture and Agri-food Canada states that the federal government does supply some funding and loan support to young farmers for farm transitions in the form of deferred payments and interest-only payments, but it is limited.

One important aspect of providing effective support for young farmers would be the need for education and relevant hands-on training. Even with the financial resources needed to begin farming, not having an appropriate level of knowledge and training is like starting any other business without knowing anything about how to run a business and/or having limited knowledge about your chosen field. In this case, the long-term result will probably not be a positive one.

Maybe it’s time to consider offering an open, free, post-secondary education program in Ontario to potential farmers, one that requires a long-term commitment from participants (for example – participants must agree to operate a full-time agriculture-based business for a specified period). A comprehensive two-year limited entry program that incorporates hands-on training in essential topics like agricultural business finance, marketing for agricultural business, livestock basics, soil science basics, crop planning, agricultural innovations, etc., could prepare graduates for the day-to-day operations involved in farming. There are a number of organizations that offer workshop style programming for farmers throughout Ontario, but an all-in-one program would probably be a more efficient way to deliver the necessary training.

There are some limited programs available in Ontario, like the Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training in Southwestern Ontario, which is helping young people to prepare for farming by offering them internships at a network of small-scale organic farms. Unfortunately, some other similar programs that have been offered in the past have disappeared because of the lack of long-term sustainable funding.

By combining these elements: education, hands-on training, and post-program funding support for graduates, this would appear to be the best-case scenario to ensure a steady influx of new farmers that can “hit the ground running” and reduce the rate at which we’re losing farmers. Some would argue that a program like this would be too costly.

Respectfully, from a food security perspective, the more food that we produce locally, the less vulnerable our food supply becomes to negative forces beyond our control and influence. Add to that the sizable local economic benefit generated by buying locally produced food and agri-products, and one could argue that it’s an essential investment in our collective future.

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