Journeyman farmer idea is worthwhile to explore

The efforts of four farmers collaborating to set up a journeyman training program for farm labourers are welcome.

Given the vacancies in farm labour jobs, they should receive good support.

Kristjan Hebert, who farms near Moosomin, Sask., and three other farmers are putting up their own funds to hire an employee tasked with setting up a journeyman training program for farm labourers.

Hebert would have a good sense of what’s needed, since he employs upwards of 10 people to work on his 22,000-acre farm.

This comes at a time when the farm labour shortage in Canada is critical. Look at the opportunities lost: the Canadian Agricultural Human Resources Council says that in 2017, 16,500 farm jobs went unfilled, resulting in $2.9 billion in lost revenues, representing 4.7 percent of product sales.

Forty-six percent of farmers who had job vacancies delayed or cancelled expansion plans, and nearly 90 percent of producers with vacancies say they suffered excessive stress in a vocation that is already demanding and stressful.

So here are four Saskatchewan farmers trying to get something off the ground to help deal with a situation that has not been adequately addressed through government programs. (The Temporary Foreign Worker Program helps, but most agricultural workers who come to Canada do seasonal work. The federal government has launched a pilot program for immigrant labourers with a pathway to permanent residence, which starts accepting applications next month, but it will remain in the pilot stage until March 2023.)

There are, of course, farm management programs available.

Agrologists must take a four-year undergraduate course followed by further training before acquiring the P. Ag. designation.

McGill University offers a three-year academic and practical program diploma. The University of Guelph offers a two-year skills-oriented Associate Diploma in Agriculture through the Ontario Agricultural College. The University of Manitoba offers a two-year Agricultural Management Diploma, with the cost of tuition at almost $5,500 a year. Olds College and Vermilion College in Alberta offer diploma programs as well.

But the cost of tuition from a formal, government-run institution can be prohibitive for some people who just want to get started working on a farm.

As an example of what’s possible, the University of Georgia runs agricultural extension programs taught by accredited teachers. Some are taught over a few weekends with reasonable fees.

Whether the proposed journeyman program resembles this, or takes another form, is yet to be seen.

A journeyman program could target such things as common agricultural repairs, basic agronomy, crop selection and rotation, soil analysis, livestock care, how to set up and use a combine or seeder, and calculation of proper herbicide and fertilizer applications, to name a few examples.

A search for farm labourers on the job board Indeed shows 1,537 positions nationwide. A post from Trochu, Alta., will pay $20 to $30 an hour to work on grain farms in Alberta and Saskatchewan, requiring two years of experience. A Grenfell, Sask., farm is offering $18 to $23 an hour requiring one year of experience in operating equipment. These are decent starting salaries for labourers but not if they are carrying thousands of dollars in tuition debt.

The agri-business sector is identified for growth by the Liberal government with a goal of increasing exports to $85 billion by 2025 (up from $66.2 billion in 2018), which would make Canada the second-largest agricultural exporter in the world.

But a good labour supply is needed to get the work done.

The efforts by Hebert and his colleagues are preliminary, and the objectives appear to be modest at first, but small initiatives can spawn big ripples.

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

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