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EDITORIAL: Farming the future

A growing number of young women - like Jocelyn Durston of Seven Acres Farm in Canning, N.S. - are operating farms according to a recent Statistics Canada report.
A growing number of young women - like Jocelyn Durston of Seven Acres Farm in Canning, N.S. - are operating farms according to a recent Statistics Canada report.

The farming industry in Atlantic Canada is at a tipping point.

Statistics Canada found the average age of Canadian farmers had reached 55 as of 2016, and 92 per cent of farmers have no written succession plan. There were also more farmers over the age of 70 than there were under 35.

For farmers in this region approaching retirement, this combination of factors means planning for the future of their business can no longer be delayed if they want to ensure they have some say in what happens to their industry. 

The cost of agricultural land has increased an average of nearly 40 per cent per acre in five years, meaning farmers have to sell it for full market value in order to retire — effectively putting the price out of reach for many young farmers who may be interested.

Instead, large agricultural corporations swoop in to consolidate the land, or property developers purchase it for malls or subdivisions.

There are positive signs, though.

Statistics Canada also found that the number of farmers in the under-35 demographic rose to almost 25,000 between 2011 and 2016, representing the first increase in that category in nearly three decades. There are also a significant number of farms being operated by young women.

The increasing interest among younger people in organic and local food movements is spurring this growth, but it likely won’t be enough to rescue the small-scale farms that pepper the Atlantic provinces.

It also doesn’t do much to improve the cost of startup farms or a younger person’s ability to purchase one from a retiring farmer.

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada recently said it provides funding support to some young farmers, including loans for transitions that allow deferred payments and interest-only payments.

It’s a good start, but there needs to be more government intervention with young farmers themselves, rather than government propping up the industry as a whole. That strategy will only lead to more large-scale land consolidation, instead of keeping family or community owned and operated farms.

Cash could be funnelled into local networks that promote aging farmers working alongside their younger counterparts, including internships. There may be many a young professional in the corporate world longing to leave the office and try something new. They may only need to be shown avenues to get there.

There are even agricultural matchmaking services that pair older farmers with younger ones. More funding for entrepreneurial initiatives like these could help improve the overall farming picture, while driving local economies from the tech startup front.

We can look at agriculture in the region in terms of what we make and export, and how that contributes to the bottom line.

But do we want to be known for our products, or for our people? Or, better yet, a sustainable combination of the two?

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