Fam­ily farms un­der threat as farm­ers age

Own­ers reach­ing re­tire­ment with­out suc­ces­sion plans


Bryan May­nard says his grand­fa­ther, a Prince Ed­ward Is­land potato farmer, didn’t start talk­ing about re­tire­ment un­til he was 80 years old and had been di­ag­nosed with de­men­tia.

At that point, with no suc­ces­sion strat­egy in place, May­nard and his brother sud­denly had to scram­ble to find a way to keep the farm in the fam­ily and just barely man­aged to do so.

The 33-year-old’s sit­u­a­tion is not un­com­mon. A grow­ing num­ber of farm­ers are near­ing re­tire­ment with­out hav­ing for­mally planned for their suc­ces­sors, putting the next gen­er­a­tion of small-scale farm­ing at risk — some­thing May­nard and ad­vo­cates are urg­ing farm­ing fam­i­lies to think about.

“Our grand­fa­ther didn’t re­ally want to talk about sell­ing the farm, ever, un­til it was too late and he had to,” May­nard said.

A Sta­tis­tics Canada study found last year that the av­er­age age of Cana­dian farm­ers had reached 55 af­ter rising for decades, and 92 per cent of farms had no writ­ten plan for who will take over when the op­er­a­tor re­tires.

It also found there were more farm­ers over age 70 than un­der 35.

Christie Young, of Guelph, is try­ing to tackle that is­sue with Farm­link, a match­mak­ing ser­vice she runs for farm own­ers and prospec­tive farm­ers across Canada.

She has found there’s no short­age of young peo­ple armed with busi­ness plans who want to get into farm­ing, and older farm­ers who want to see their land farmed by a new gen­er­a­tion when they re­tire.

The prob­lem, she said, is that many farm­ers have be­come heav­ily lever- aged in re­cent decades, hav­ing bor­rowed against the rising value of their farm prop­er­ties — which spiked nearly 40 per cent per acre on av­er­age be­tween 2011and 2016, ac­cord­ing to Sta­tis­tics Canada.

That means farm own­ers need to sell their prop­er­ties for full mar­ket value to re­tire, Young said, so the only buy­ers tend to be large agri­cul­tural operations con­sol­i­dat­ing farm­land in ru­ral ar­eas or, if the farm is in the shadow of a city, prop­erty de­vel­op­ers.

“If you’re a new farmer who’s try­ing to buy a piece of land and pay for it by work­ing the land, it’s al­most an im­pos­si­ble propo­si­tion,” she said.

Young uses Farm­link to help farm own­ers and young farm­ers set up part­ner­ships that be­gin years be­fore the owner’s re­tire­ment, such as lease-to-own ar­range­ments that can al­low a new farmer to start small and ex­pand.

“The prob­lem is that’s not how build­ing farms has hap­pened in the past — we don’t have a whole lot of his­tory with agri­cul­ture, we only have 200 years — and the tran­si­tion be­tween gen­er­a­tions hasn’t looked like this be­fore,” she said.

A suc­cess­ful farm tran­si­tion tends to re­quire time and plan­ning, so when a farmer comes to Young want­ing to sell his prop­erty to a new farmer for $5 mil­lion by next weekend, she can’t help, she said.

In May­nard’s case, when his grand­fa­ther sud­denly needed to re­tire in 2015, he and his brother bought 70 per cent of the farm. They’re suc­cess­ful to­day, but May­nard said they’re an ex­cep­tion to the rule.

He said they just man­aged to get a loan, se­cured with a par­cel of land that had been willed to them by their fa­ther and the fi­nan­cial back­ing of their mother — as­sets that aren’t avail­able for most.

“It’s not the way Cana­dian agri­cul­ture should be do­ing things,” he said. “It’s just tough to see fam­ily farms dwin­dle up and go the way of the di­nosaur just be­cause of the lack of plan­ning and lack of re­sources avail­able to young farm­ers to help them get off the ground.”

Sta­tis­tics Canada has, how­ever, iden­ti­fied a small sign of change, finding the num­ber of farm­ers un­der age 35 had in­creased slightly from 2011 to 2016, reach­ing al­most 25,000, with a marked in­crease in the num­ber of farms run by young women. It’s the first growth in the un­der-35 de­mo­graphic since 1991.

Brenda Hsueh at­tributes some of that growth to a re­cent trend of many young farm­ers be­ing mo­ti­vated by a pas­sion for small-scale or­ganic farm­ing and lo­cal food.

She took an un­con­ven­tional path to farm­ing, buy­ing prop­erty in Grey County, Ont., in 2009 at age 33, with funds from the sale of her Toronto condo, which she had bought while work­ing in the fi­nan­cial ser­vices in­dus­try.

Hsueh was trained to farm by the Col­lab­o­ra­tive Re­gional Al­liance for Farmer Train­ing in south­west­ern On­tario, a net­work of small-scale or­ganic farms that of­fer in­tern­ships.

But Hsueh said most of the younger in­terns she met can’t af­ford the price of en­try to farm­ing to­day.

That’s why Young said she’d love the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to fo­cus more of its farm­ing sup­port on young farm­ers, rather than on the eco­nomic vi­a­bil­ity of farm­ing in gen­eral, fear­ing that with­out a change, there will be no more small fam­ily farms. “We’re los­ing them,” she said. Sta­tis­tics Canada’s re­search shows the over­all amount of Cana­dian land be­ing farmed has re­mained rel­a­tively sta­ble over decades, as farms have con­sol­i­dated to be­come larger and the over­all num­ber of farm­ers has fallen.

“That’s OK if what we care about is GDP and gross farm re­ceipts,” Young said.

“But it’s not OK if what we care about is farm liveli­hoods and farm fam­i­lies and thriv­ing com­mu­ni­ties.”


As his grand­fa­ther hit re­tire­ment, Bryan May­nard and his brother had to scram­ble to keep the farm in the fam­ily.

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