Tuesday, June 8, 2010

New Farmers Get Attention

“We can't solve problems using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them”
Albert Einstein
(quoted in the BC Agriculture Council report to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Agriculture for its study on Young Farmers and the Future of Farming)

In the 2006 Census of Agriculture, the average age of a farmer in Canada increased from 49.9 in 2001, to 52 in 2006. This was accompanied by a decline in farmers 35 years and younger from 11.5% to 9.1%. Farmers over 55 increased in that period from 34.9% to 40.7%, In the outer Gulf Islands (Mayne, Penders, Saturna, Galiano) there are 135 farmers, with an average age of 57.1 (The average Gulf Islander is 56.8). This is slightly greater than the CRD at 55.3, Vancouver Island at 54.6, and BC at 53.6 (population average age in BC is 40). So what does this mean?
I often see it stated that farmers are getting older, and that fewer young people are getting into farming. This brief statement often goes without any further explanation, but the popular press will often stress that we must find ways to get young people farming. Sometimes it is suggested that they just need access to land.
Farming publications paint a different picture. It is not as simple as just the cost of land. Farmers are well aware of the complex issues behind the statistics. More older people continue to farm, and more younger people are discouraged from farming; increasing uncertainty, declining farm incomes, escalating input costs and cost of living, capital costs of land, equipment are just some of the challenges. In BC, there was an unprecedented three consecutive years of negative net farm incomes from 2006-2008. For a kid on the farm, the talk around the dinner table can often revolve around farming and its challenges. To make ends meet sacrifices are made, and realities are often different from the romantic images of farming that the public may have. In many cases, the next generation would very much like to take over the family farm, but are encouraged to get further education in something other than agriculture so they can either have a good off-farm job to support them in the tough times, or to leave the farm altogether.
In the supply managed sectors of dairy and poultry the story is different and young people are taking over the family farm with much more optimism. This is because the system is designed to give a fair return for their product. In some farm sectors, like beef and tree fruits, there have recently been discussions of going to a supply manged system that would ensure a fair price to farmers. This fall apple producers were getting twelve cents per pound for apples, and yet they were sold retail for much more. Cattle prices have not recovered enough to keep farms afloat, and just last week one more farm on our island sold the last of their cows. Direct marketing is an option for some, and cooperatives have also been revived to help with marketing. It's a lot for a young person to step into, and like any business they need to do their homework. Despite the hurdles, young people do enter agriculture and can achieve success. A successful farmer will learn abut agriculture, business, marketing through further education, networking with other farmers, and experience. Some young people in the Gulf Islands – from long time family farms, and some new to farming, have eased into their own styles of farming.
As for the increase in ageing farmers, the average age of a farmer has always been higher because of the nature of the work and the lifestyle. The number of older farmers have increased with increasing lifespans and technology that reduce hard labour. Farmers often view retirement as the first nail in the coffin, and as long as they are able to work and enjoy the work, they will continue to farm. Many farmers have also said that passing on a viable farm is important to them, and someone has to be willing to take it on when the time is right.
In response to a lack of a young farmer community, and to encourage young farmers, the BC Agriculture Council started the BC Young Farmers in 2008. Their motto is “keeping farming alive with the next generation”. They offer business training, communications to their members, leadership and human resources training, and networking. Of the 200 members, a majority do not own farms, and begin farming by leasing land and gaining experience. Steve Thomson, the BC Minister of Agriculture and the Chair of the BC Agriculture Council at the time of the formation of the BC Young Farmers, stated that young people will enter farming when agriculture is viable and thriving.
The federal government has also taken notice of the need for more young farmers. In November 2009, the Honourable Jean-Pierre Blackburn, Minister of State for Agriculture, hosted roundtable discussions across Canada with young agriculture students and farmers to better understand the challenges and opportunities they face with respect to starting and transferring farms. In April and May of 2010 the House of Commons Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food went across Canada as part of its study on Young Farmers and the Future of Farming. Although many different points of view were expressed, the common theme was one of farm viability being critical to the future of farming in Canada. Hopefully as we reach a critical point the federal government will have an action plan that can address concerns at the root of the problem.

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