The statistics suggest one story. Young farmers tell another.
The latest Census of Agriculture found the number of young farmers continues to plunge – with the percentage of farm operators under age 35 down nearly 60 per cent in the last two decades (8.2% in 2011 versus 19.9% in 1991). So are young people turning their backs on a career in farming?
Not at all, says Justin Beck, past chair of the Canadian Young Farmers’ Forum.
The stats partly reflect Canada’s aging demographics, the high entry cost for farming, and the fact that, outside of supply-managed sectors, returns have been pretty iffy for much of the past two decades, he says.
“In our area, the big draw has been the oil sands,” says the 26-year-old Nova Scotian.
“People would go away for the big money. But now you’re starting to see more positive returns from farming, and I think you’ll see it swinging the other way. Let’s face it: Farming’s a lot more interesting than lugging pipe in some oilfield.
“Farming’s not about shoveling manure all day or sweating in the fields under a hot sun. We don’t need as many people to be on the end of a shovel; we need more with strong computer skills and able to operate the technology we’ve got today.”
Along with being more sexy and, in some sectors, better paying, the demographics of farming may start to change, too, Beck predicts.
“A lot of farmers are older and there’s a lot that don’t have anyone to take over, but want to see the operation continue. There are some opportunities there.”
In fact, change may already be underway. Many people in agriculture report an upturn in the number of kids wanting a farm career, returning from their jobs in the city, or looking for some way to break in.
This edition of the Canadian Farm Manager was designed with this in mind. Kevin Olson offers some insights on succession planning, Garry Meier shares his experience in helping young farmers get established, and Pat Dunphy talks of how he’s found a different route into farming. Beck has some advice for young people just starting out while Jean-Guy Vincent has a tip for surviving the ups and downs of farming.
It’s not a statistical sampling, but these five stories have some ‘lessons learned’ that might be handy if your farm is getting a youthful make-over.