Farm labour holds keys to future of farms

It isn’t so long ago that the role of the hired-man was ubiquitous across the Prairies. Not every farm had them. Lots had more than one hired-person, and if the operation didn’t have a lot of livestock, those folks would leave for the winter and might, or might not be back in the spring.

Farm scales keep shifting to consolidation and sustainability.

Urban-public perception of farms is slowly moving off the red barns and critters moseying-about-the-yards iteration to something many of them find less idyllic, often dubbed factory farms. While modern farms definitely aren’t factories, they are creating the good jobs often associated with factories, where skilled folks can build their lives, raise families and enjoy the fruits of their labours in their off-hours.

Typically, in the old days, hired-men boarded at the farm and in some cases, if they were year-round workers, seen more as family than staff. As non-owners, their farm work, while valued by the farmer, was low-paid, had long hours and typically was viewed, at least from the outside, as non-career, labour.

Over time, those grain-farm jobs shifted to become skilled, but still seasonal. Taken up in part by young people, often with farm backgrounds and, while incomes rose, the work-season lasted from four to six months. Peak-season planting and harvesting operations might be bolstered by new retirees, generally running field equipment, and these highly skilled operators remain a valuable resource today — although becoming in shorter and shorter supply with each season.

In all cases, the grain industry largely wasn’t preparing for the reality of being a full-time, year-round job creator and sector that required a skilled, motivated labour pool. Kids in school still don’t hear the message that farm work is a place of opportunity with good pay and benefits and offering rural lifestyles.

With responsibilities for expensive seeding rigs, spraying gear and threshing equipment, the need for the farmer-owner to have reliable collaborators, with year-to-year availability can be the difference between success and failure of a farming operation that gets by on margins that hover in the $30 per acre region.

More than machinery operators, these jobs are multi-faceted with maintenance, construction and inventory control being key to keeping a modern farm rolling.

Agronomy skills such as crop scouting, soil sampling and digital field record management are highly prized skillsets and add to the non-seasonal nature of a career on the farm.

Record keeping, payroll and managing financial accounts, while doubling for labour in the peak times can make the work diverse and rewarding.

Shortages of workers with these skills, and occasionally the farmer-understanding of pay and benefits needed to attract them, are limiting the Canadian economy’s potential in agriculture and food.

The Canadian Agricultural HR Council is a federal non-profit organization set up to help quantify the issue and create the programs and awareness within the labour-force, and with producers themselves.

At the end of June, there is a Growing the Agriworkforce roundtable meeting in Ottawa where farmer groups, governments and industry will be discussing the changing nature of our work in the agriculture sector and what the most-needed occupations and skills are now and in the future. In addition, current national labour market forecast to 2029 for the agriculture sector will be released.

We all might want to pay attention to this meeting. We might want to ask our commodity group representatives for their experiences there and make suggestions to them before they attend.

It’s our shared future they are considering.

Karen Briere, Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen, Brian MacLeod and Michael Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.

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