LONDON, Ont. — The education level of young male farmers in southwestern Ontario has slipped, according to research published by the Alliance of Crop, Soil and Environmental Science Societies.
“Why I think this is interesting is that there appears to be a correlation between the degree of education and environmental behaviour,” study co-author Silke Nebel said.
“My guess is they (younger male farmers) inherit the farm and, because they already have a farm, that they don’t bother to invest in education.”
Nebel became involved in the study through the Upper Thames Region Conservation Authority. More than 18,000 surveys were sent to rural landowners within the Upper Thames and Grand River watersheds. There were 3,256 surveys returned that were usable.
With female farmers, female non-farmers and male non-farmers, education levels increased significantly with decreasing age.
The opposite was true for male farmers. Older farmers responding the survey tended to have higher levels of education compared to their younger counterparts.
The paper’s finding has caught the attention of Rene Van Acker, dean of the Ontario Agricultural College at the University of Guelph.
“This is a remarkable finding,” Van Acker said.
“If this was true, it is concerning given the increasing sophistication of farming and the increasing expectations by society for farmers to deliver not only safe, affordable food but to be stewards of the environment and leaders for economic growth.”
Van Acker said there is no lack of educational opportunity for farmers in Canada. However, at the University of Guelph, there has been a declining proportion of males in some programs as compared to females, he said, a phenomenon that may partially be driven by higher application averages among the females.
“We do have space to expand our programs, especially our agriculture diploma programs,” Van Acker said.
Nebel said that while the finding is surprising, understanding its implications is more difficult.
The study does not speak to the degree of education among young farmers who do not own land but are involved in a farming operation.
The paper refers to other studies. Some suggest farmers with higher levels of education are more likely to adopt organic practices, participate in agricultural projects with an environmental component and/or invest in sustainability measures. Others have found no link or even the opposite relationship between the degree of education and environmental behaviour in farmers.
Nebel admitted to a certain bias, leaning toward concerns related to the natural environment. Still, she feels there are places where agricultural productivity and environmental stewardship can come together.
“There are ways to make decisions that are good for health, the environment and for farming and so when that can be done, it should be done,” she said.
Nebel is an ecologist attached to Western University in London.
The co-authors of the paper are Jeff Brick with the Upper Thames Region Conservation Authority, Van Lantz with the Faculty of Forestry and Land Management at the University of New Brunswick and Ryan Trenholm with the School of Forest and Environmental Management at B.C.’s Simon Fraser University.