Passing on the family farm takes nurturing of the family

I’m a millennial. I don’t buy diamonds, or napkins or cereal. I lack manners. I am entitled, and I am impatient and I can’t seem to stay in one place, let alone work one job for long enough to be taken seriously. (Or so the media would have me believe).

I am also one of the nearly 25,000 Canadians under 35 who considers themselves a farmer.

Whether you call us — and by us, I mean anyone born between 1981 and 1997—millennials, Gen-Y-ers, Generation Me-ers, Digital Natives or one of the many other names designated to this group of tech-savvy, risk-taking, commitment-loathing group of people, there’s a certain amount of contempt attached.

My goal with this column isn’t to make older generations of farmers love millennial farmers and it isn’t to speak for an entire generation of farmers my age. That isn’t fair, nor is it accurate.

My goal is to get a dialogue going between the fastest growing age group of farmers (70 and older) and the one, though growing, that still accounts for the smallest percentage of farmers (35 and under).

Because while it’s great news that the number of farmers 35 and under has grown for the first time in 25 years, it’s alarming that only one in 12 farms have formal succession plans in place, and that since 1991, we’ve lost, on average, more than nine farms a day.

I don’t believe it’s because young people don’t want to farm. I do believe that there are a lot of obstacles in their way. Land is expensive. Equipment is expensive. Farming is chaotic and unpredictable.

If they aren’t from a farm, these obstacles are nearly impossible to overcome. If they are returning to a family farm, the expectation to “do as Dad did” is so present, and so heavy.

Earlier this year, at a workshop on succession in Lacombe, Alta., an older farmer stood up and spoke of how he was worried his “dream” wouldn’t be continued.

My cousin, a young farmer near Sundre, Alta., responded: if you don’t allow for young farmers to pursue their own dreams, how will they succeed?

It’s not about whose dream is better, and it’s definitely not about entitlement. It’s about working together to make sure the family farm doesn’t disappear.

If older farmers don’t make room, there won’t be a young farmer, family member or not, to take over when they retire or die. Instead, the land and the infrastructure will be gobbled up by Canada’s industrial agriculture machine.

Of course, there’s a place and a demand for that, but there also has to be a place for smaller farms that nurture and encourage the growth of millennial farmers because there’s a lot we can offer.

For one, we’re educated, meaning farming is often a second, third, or fourth career. We’re massage therapists and carpenters and journalists and soil scientists and engineers and electricians and interior designers and artists and teachers.

How does the way an artist looks at farming compare with the way a scientist looks at farming? It’s different, and it’s wonderful.

We not only use social media platforms such as Instagram to connect to customers and market our goods; we’re also following farm accounts from all over the world — accounts that introduce us to different breeds of animals, ways to save money and approaches that mitigate our impact on the environment.

We’re not so set in our ways that our minds can’t be changed. We re-search and challenge “fake news.”

And because we often studied and lived in cities, we are connected to our urban counterparts in a way our farming elders aren’t.

I’m not asking the older generation to hand over the reins because I know they’ve worked hard to get where they are and deserve to retire comfortably or to keep farming until they’re 100 if that’s what they want.

What I am asking is for them to start talking about it, to start seeing the potential in the dreams of a millennial and, if the kids aren’t interested in the farm, start looking elsewhere for a young farmer who is.

Nikki Wiart is a new farmer living in Castor, Alta., writing when her garden, bees, chickens and pigs allow.

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