Farm­ing the fu­ture

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - EDITORIAL -

The farm­ing in­dus­try in At­lantic Canada is at a tip­ping point.

A Sta­tis­tics Canada study found the av­er­age age of Cana­dian farm­ers had reached 55 as of last year, and that 92 per cent of farm­ers have no writ­ten suc­ces­sion plan. There were also more farm­ers over the age of 70 than there were un­der 35.

For farm­ers in this re­gion ap­proach­ing re­tire­ment, this com­bi­na­tion of fac­tors means plan­ning for the fu­ture of their busi­ness can no longer be de­layed if they want to en­sure they have some say in what hap­pens to their in­dus­try.

The cost of agri­cul­tural land has in­creased an av­er­age of nearly 40 per cent per acre in five years, mean­ing farm­ers have to sell it for full mar­ket value in or­der to re­tire — ef­fec­tively putting the price out of reach for many young farm­ers who may be in­ter­ested.

In­stead, large agri­cul­tural cor­po­ra­tions swoop in to con­sol­i­date the land, or prop­erty de­vel­op­ers pur­chase it to later turn into a mall or sub­di­vi­sion.

There are pos­i­tive signs, though.

The sta­tis­tics agency also found that the num­ber of farm­ers in the un­der-35 de­mo­graphic rose to al­most 25,000 be­tween 2011 and 2016, rep­re­sent­ing the first in­crease in that cat­e­gory in nearly three decades. That fig­ure also in­cludes a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of farms op­er­ated by young women.

The in­creas­ing in­ter­est among younger people in or­ganic and lo­cal food move­ments is spurring this growth, but it likely won’t be enough to res­cue the small-scale farms that pep­per the At­lantic prov­inces.

It also doesn’t make much head­way in im­prov­ing the cost of start-up farms or a younger per­son’s abil­ity to pur­chase one from a re­tir­ing farmer.

Agri­cul­ture and Agri-Food Canada re­cently said it pro­vides fund­ing and loan sup­port to some young farm­ers, in­clud­ing loans for tran­si­tions that al­low for de­ferred pay­ments and in­ter­est-only pay­ments.

It’s a good start, but there needs to be more govern­ment in­ter­ven­tion with young farm­ers them­selves, rather than govern­ment prop­ping up the in­dus­try as a whole. That strat­egy will only lead to more large-scale land con­sol­i­da­tion, in­stead of keep­ing fam­ily or com­mu­nity owned and op­er­ated farms.

Cash could be fun­nelled into lo­cal net­works that pro­mote ag­ing farm­ers work­ing along­side their younger coun­ter­parts, in­clud­ing in­tern­ships. There may be many a young pro­fes­sional in the cor­po­rate world who long to leave the of­fice and try some­thing new. They may only need to be shown av­enues to help get them there.

There are even so-called agri­cul­tural match­mak­ing ser­vices that pair older farm­ers with younger ones. More fund­ing for en­tre­pre­neur­ial ini­tia­tives like these could help im­prove the over­all farm­ing pic­ture, while driv­ing lo­cal economies from the tech start-up front.

We can look at agri­cul­ture in the re­gion in terms of what we make and ex­port, and how that con­trib­utes to the bot­tom line.

But do we want to be known for our prod­ucts, or for our people? Or, better yet, a sus­tain­able com­bi­na­tion of the two?

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