It was a younger crowd at the House of Commons agriculture committee last week as seven of Canada’s finest young farmers visited Parliament Hill to talk about the challenges facing the next generation.
The House agriculture committee isn’t known to draw a crowd, unless there’s a food safety or transportation crisis.
However, the room was packed on the afternoon of Feb. 24 as some of Canada’s current and future farm leaders piled in to listen to what their colleagues had to say. The group was in town for the Canadian Young Farmers’ Forum’s annual conference, held Feb. 27 to March 1.
Those around the committee table appeared interested in the day’s topic, partly because half of the MPs were once young farmers themselves.
Liberal agriculture critic Mark Eyking, who suggested the topic, NDP member Francine Raynault, committee chair Bev Shipley and Conservative members Earl Dreeshen and Larry McGuire, who wasn’t in attendance, all farmed before entering politics.
Questions about the struggles and barriers that Canada’s young farmers face today, such as soaring land prices, a limited amount of available quota, tense succession planning, confusing tax rules and problems accessing capital, were plentiful
“Some of the other people, when I come to these conferences, when I tell them that I pay up to $80,000 to $100,000 an acre for my land, literally say, ‘why are you still farming?’ ” said Kerry Froese, a poultry producer from British Columbia and chair of the Canadian Young Farmers’ Forum.
The comment drew audible gasps from committee members.
Pierre-Luc Lacoste said those high land prices are making it more complicated for people who weren’t born into a farming family to enter the industry.
Only eight percent of Canadian farmers are younger than 36, which is “not a good demographic,” said NDP agriculture critic Malcolm Allen, echoing similar comments that NDP leader Tom Mulcair made during a speech at the Canadian Federation of Agriculture meeting Feb. 25.
The average age of a Canadian farmer is 55, according to Statistics Canada.
The number of farms in Canada is also shrinking, although Larry Spratt, a grain and cow-calf producer from northern Saskatchewan, said that’s partly because farms are getting larger and more efficient.
“Yes, farms are getting bigger, but you have to remember that we farm 5,000 acres. It takes us the same time that my grandfather took 30 years ago to farm 300 acres,” he said.
The demographic crunch is partly because farmers are farming longer. More than one attendee at the young farmer forum joked that their father, grandfather or uncle was unwilling to give up farming as early as they would like.
“We just don’t want to give up,” Dreeshen told the panel of young farmers when the issue of succession planning arose.
“We want to die as a farmer, and it’s not the tax implications. It’s the fact that there’s really something important about getting your hands dirty and getting involved in all of these types of things.”
Talk to almost anyone in agriculture about succession planning and they’ll likely say it’s not easy, al-though they won’t say it in polite terms. More than one person has a tale of strained family ties thanks to tense succession talks. It’s a lengthy, often emotional process, one that experts say should start at least 10 years before the farm is transferred.
Lacoste said one of the biggest challenges is that farmers’ retirement savings are often the value of their land. Other times, Mom and Dad do want to transfer the farm, Lacoste said, but there’s no one there to take it over.
As a way to mitigate this problem, he said, Quebec has created a list of farms available for transfer and a bank of people looking for farms. Individuals are then matched to a farm, a process Lacoste described as kind of like a wedding. It’s simply a matter of connecting young people who want to farm with others who also enjoy farming.
Paul Glen, who farms in Keene, Ont., and serves as vice-president for the Canadian Young Farmers’ Forum, told the committee he used to think he was crazy for wanting to farm.
It wasn’t until he met other young farmers at the annual conference that he realized there were people who were as enthusiastic about farming as he was.
“To be able to take that energy … luckily it lasts all year until the next conference.”