Young farmers must innovate to keep industry alive
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.
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.
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.
|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 |
Resources for urban and incubator farms