Who will feed us in the future?

Manitobans put a priority on eating local food, and that means we need local farmers to produce that food.

But alarmingly, we’re losing them in droves.

The average age of a farmer in Manitoba is 55, so retirement for many is on the horizon.

As well, the high cost of buying and running a farm business has resulted in a 73 percent drop over 20 years in the number of farmers younger than 35.

Young farmers are telling me that securing farmland has become too cost-prohibitive.

For example, land in southwestern Manitoba has been selling at up to $2,000 an acre more than it did five or six years ago, which means an average-sized farm could cost $3 million for the land alone. It’s difficult for young people to carry this debt load as they begin their careers.

The costs to operate the farm can be prohibitive even if a young farmer chooses to rent land instead of buying.

Sixteen years ago, it cost slightly less than $250,000 in annual expenses to run an average-sized farm in Manitoba.

That same farm now requires almost $500,000 to keep it running for a year, based on inputs, land and machinery costs, depreciation, storage and labour.

With these expenses, one bad season could wipe out a young farmer. Not having equity in the farm business means that one flood, one drought, one early frost or a decline in livestock prices would make it impossible for them to pay what they borrowed for operating expenses.

Young farmers entering agriculture or those having recently entered need backup in the form of solid and meaningful programs that will help them lower their risk. Only then will we see more farmers younger than 35 entering the business.

A recent poll by Keystone Agricultural Producers shows that 82 percent of Manitobans want to see government do more to assist young farmers. Those of us in the agriculture industry are concerned about its future, and it appears other Manitobans are, too.

Programs exist to manage risk for all farmers, but they have been significantly watered down to the point that many wonder whether buying into them is worth it.

Not only do the new federal and provincial governments need to return these programs to pre-2013 levels, but they must also make special concessions within them for young farmers.

I would also like to see new and innovative programs that support young farmers so they can continue the agricultural tradition in Manitoba of producing food for local families.

By providing this assistance, the next government will ensure Manitobans can continue to access safe and affordable local food.

Dan Mazier is president of Keystone Agricultural Producers, Manitoba’s largest farm policy organization. He grows grain and oilseeds near Justice, Man.

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