The Aging of Agriculture

Young farmers must innovate to keep industry alive

The Aging of Agriculture

Seventy percent of Canadian farmers will retire within 10 years, changing the face of agriculture in Canada. New farming concepts are drawing young farmers back to the land.

Does an aging population of farmers pose a threat to the future of agriculture in Canada? For the first time in Canadian history, the largest age group of farmers stands at 55 and up. How will Canada answer this looming threat to its agriculture industry—and to the food supply we all depend upon?

The traditional route—inheritance

Logans—from conventional to organic

Dwayne Logan grew up farming conventional grain and cattle. The Logan family, which includes Dwayne, 36, Shelley, 34, and their young daughter, now own and operate the farm in Manitoba that belonged to Dwayne’s family.

When he took over the farm, Dwayne continued the family tradition of conventional farming, but slowly transitioned into organic. “The changeover from conventional to sustainable farming has been worth it,” says Dwayne. We’ve only been able to remain successful in farming through sustainable practices and diversification.”

When asked about ideas that might help encourage young farmers, Dwayne suggested “unique land share/rent situations with like-minded existing or retiring farmers. Perhaps established groups can provide enough capital to begin farming.”

Reenders—still organic after all these years

Roland Reenders, 48, a seasoned organic farmer, began farming as a child on his father’s commercial garden. After his father retired in 1997, Reenders bought his remaining land, built a house, and continued the business by turning it into a u-pick operation.

“U-pick farms, one way to address the growing interest in knowing where our food comes from, provide the freshest and most economical produce for customers,” said Reenders. “It also allows customers to see the crops grown, interact with the grower, and get back to the farm.”

“Farming is a lot of work,” says Reenders. “Many retiring farmers’ kids aren’t interested in taking over the family farm.” While there are many challenges, Reenders believes these can be overcome by finding a niche in farming sectors (such as organic or natural vegetable fruits/vegetables or animal production).

New innovations—from the ground up

Community supported agriculture

A unique marketing method that is attracting a new wave of young farmers involves engaging community support to help defray the financial risks inherent in starting a new farm venture.

Farms involved in community supported agriculture (CSA) establish a network or association of individuals who pledge to support the farm by sharing the risks and benefits of food production. The CSA farming model helps farmers by providing early season cash flow and a guaranteed market for farm products.

CSA members/subscribers pay at the onset of the growing season for a share of the anticipated harvest. CSAs focus on high quality food production for a local community, often using organic or biodynamic farming methods.

Urban farms

In cities across Canada, concrete jungles are being transformed into edible forests as young farmers take advantage of empty spaces to plant sustainable crops. Some are on school land, others at the back of social housing complexes, many on abandoned patches of concrete or rooftops, while a growing number are community initiatives on private land or even ad hoc patches on the grass verges of city streets.

There are other innovative urban farmers who, without a plot to plow, search out city residents with nonproductive yards who are interested in renting their space in return for a share in the produce.

The urban farm concept is growing in Canada, and some see considerable potential for urban gardens to satisfy the needs of their urban populations. They cite Hong Kong, where nearly half of the population’s vegetables and most of its poultry are produced within city boundaries.

Incubator farms

Young farmers with expertise and desire but who are short on cash to establish their own farms are taking advantage of incubator farms, where land, equipment, and infrastructure are available at an affordable price.

The concept, pioneered in 1988 by Intervale in Vermont, involves nonprofit groups, communities, municipalities, and/or agricultural colleges coming together (funded by government and private donations). Such farms lend community and mentorship along with business planning support to people who have no/minimal connections in the Canadian farming culture.

There are many new innovations in agriculture, but, as Reenders notes, society, as a whole, needs to promote the importance of farming, while also providing better educational options, showcasing successful farm models, and offering more farm mentorship opportunities with enticing incentives.

Educational resources for young farmers

Just some of the popular Canadian university and college programs and educational resources out there for young (organic) farmers.

Program Description Contact
Harvest Moon Learning Centre a wide variety of educational programs, including university credit courses and agro-environmental curriculum development Harvest Moon Society harvestmoonsociety.org
Centre for Urban Organic Farming both academic and applied learning are available; six organic courses can be taken independently or as the core of the BSc(Agr) Organic Agriculture major University of Guelph www.organicag.uoguelph.ca
Agriculture and Environmental Sciences three-year college-level academic and practical program gives students skills to operate and manage an agricultural enterprise, make the transition to professional life, and promote career mobility in the agri-food sector McGill University mcgill.ca/macdonald/programs/fmt
Farm and Food Discovery Centre both a research station and an operating farm, looking at everything from farming to agricultural science and research, food production, grocery stores, and people’s personal kitchens University of Manitoba umanitoba.ca/afs/discoverycentre
Organic Council of Ontario Production Clubs production clubs throughout Ontario offer farmer-to-farmer training through field days, kitchen table meetings, information sharing, and mentorship Organic Council of Ontario organiccouncil.ca/initiatives/farmer-training
UBC Farm 24 hectares of integrated farm and forest lands on the University of British Columbia campus provide interdisciplinary learning, research, and community programs to explore sustainable communities UBC Centre for Sustainable Food Systems 
ubcfarm.ubc.ca 

Resources for urban and incubator farms

  • US Environmental Protection Agency provides information about how to create a community garden or expand urban
    agriculture.epa.gov/brownfields/urbanag/steps.htm
  • Urban Agriculture Notes, operated by City Farmer News, provides news stories and information about city farming.
    cityfarmer.info 
  • Farming the City, started in Amsterdam, is an online project that brings city dwellers from around the world together to share their experiences of city farming projects.
    farmingthecity.net
  • In Vancouver, the SPEC/YWCA Urban Farmer Field School provides classes and hands-on training in small farm business planning and sustainable agriculture.
  • The Toronto Urban Farm project—a partnership between the City of Toronto and Toronto and Region Conservation—promotes urban agriculture and creates local food production pilot projects.
    trca.on.ca/the-living-city/programs-of-the-living-city/near-urban-agriculture/toronto-urban-farm.dot
  • FarmStart is a nonprofit organization that works with new farmers through various programs to provide support and leadership.
    farmstart.ca
  • Plate-forme Agricole de l’Ange-Gardien in Quebec is an incubator farm that rents certified organic land and farm infrastructure (heated greenhouse, tunnels, central irrigation, a cold room, a cleaning and preparation area, cultivation machinery, etc.) to new farmers.
    demarretafermebio.com
      • Intervale Center, the pioneer in incubator farms, provides new farm incubation, farm business development, agricultural market development, agricultural land stewardship, food systems, and research.
        intervale.org

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