Lack of capital tough on young farmers

The National Farmers Union calls for new ideas to make it easier for beginning producers to get started

DRESDEN, Ont. — A National Farmers Union survey shows that 70 percent of young, beginning farmers are from non-farm backgrounds.

Youth president Ayla Fenton told the organization’s annual conference in London, Ont., that 75 percent of established farmers looking to retire makes for interesting dynamics.

“I’ve been working on organic farms and I’ve been with the National Farmers Union for a few years. A lot of young people are coming into farming with an understanding of what’s wrong with industrial agriculture,” she said.

“Most of the new farmers are going into areas that involve niche markets, like honey or wild harvesting or organic vegetable production — that’s a big one.”

Fenton was part of an NFU committee that worked with Julia Laforge, a PhD candidate at the University of Manitoba, to conduct a survey of 1,300 young farmers.

She plans to eventually buy her own farm but said the lack of access to capital and high land prices are major challenges to that goal.

NFU president Jan Slomp said young farmers can be limited in how they farm if they don’t own their own land.

He related the experience of a young woman from the Maritimes who approached six lenders, including Farm Credit Canada, before finding a small community-based lender willing to finance her.

Slomp said it’s an issue all Canadians should be concerned about: young people have limited means and lack access to sufficient capital, while a large percentage of established farmers are looking to retire.

Government has a role, he added, using the example of his son, who moved to Quebec where farmland prices are much lower than in eastern Ontario.

He said the Quebec government enforces a policy that discourages speculative farmland purchases.

Farmland values should reflect their true production value rather than what they might be worth in a few years or if non-farm development is a possibility, he added.

Hilary Moore, the NFU’s new vice-president of policy who operates a non-certified, 100-acre organic farm in Lanark County in eastern Ontario with her husband, said maintaining the existing agricultural land base and infrastructure such as abattoirs and commercial kitchen space is necessary to the success of small farm operations.

Hard work and perseverance are need for success, she added.

“Out of the percentage of young potential farmers, I would estimate that 10 to 20 percent will carry on. That’s great,” she said.

“The other 80 percent can be out there advocating.”

Slomp said fair returns for today’s farmers and those of the future should be the priority for Canada’s farm organizations, but it requires a unique and separate voice.

“Our ultimate interest is that we have a healthy bottom line, and that does not always mean being on a team with the companies that supply us with chemicals and fertilizers,” Slomp said.

“I’m not looking to fight that, but I don’t want to be a part of it. Ultimately, our interests are not the same.”

He said Canada’s farm leaders should consider the example of U.S. organization’s such as the National Farmers Organization and the National Family Farm Coalition. A co-operative approach to the industry is important, but farm organizations should make the interests of their members the top priority.

“We’re living in times when the power of these corporations is obvious,” he said.

“We need to limit our dependence on these companies.”

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