Young, smart & stubborn

Trend Setters: Katelyn Duncan says new farmers must face the core challenge

Fortunately, statistical trends don’t capture stubbornness, optimism and enthusiasm, necessary ingredients for farmers. Because the trends that the statistics do capture don’t make easy reading. Here we bring you two inspiring stories of young people meeting the challenge head on. But first, here are those statistics below, starting with some numbers from the 2011 Census of Agriculture.

distributions of farms by age

(click image for larger view)

In a mere 20 years, the average age of a Canadian farmer has risen from 47.4 to 54 years old.

It isn’t only in Canada. In many developing countries, the average age of farmers is over 60. The USDA 2012 Census of Agriculture found that only six per cent of principal operators were under 35, while a third were over 65.

Our farm youth have run away from farming.

Here’s an even more frightening way of looking at the numbers. In 1991, nearly 78,000 Canadian farmers were under 35 years old. Two decades later, this number had decreased to only 24,120, nearly a 70 per cent drop.

If it keeps decreasing at a similar rate, by 2031 we will have only 7,500 young farmers in the whole damn country.

principal operators by age group

(click image for larger view)

On only one out of 10 farms was the oldest operator under 40 years old in 2011, despite all the different types and sizes of farms in all our provinces. In 1991, it was about one in four. Fewer young operators were taking over from the burgeoning cohort of older operators approaching retirement, and today that cohort is five years closer to retirement age.

It’s also true, however, that the spike in prices, first for grains and oilseeds and then for cattle and hogs has spurred on the younger generation. As well, clusters of New Age farmers have begun to dot the countryside as more beginning farmers entered the fast-growing local fresh and organic markets.

Suddenly, farmers feel that being a farmer is sexy. Calendars of farmers rival those published with firefighters. According to country singer Kenny Chesney, even tractors can be sexy.

Maybe things weren’t as bad as the numbers seemed. After all, changes in the structure of farms weren’t reflected in those declining statistics of 2011. Farms were getting bigger and more family farms were incorporated. Today, multi-generational or sibling farms dominate the rural Canadian landscape and the younger farmers involved in these operations are often not considered the main operators.

In the province of big skies and even bigger farms, 11.8 per cent of farmers were under 40 years old in the 2011 census, the highest percentage in the country. One of those young farmers is 25-year-old Katelyn Duncan who farms with her dad John, sister Mary Jane and brother Landon, just south of Regina. Together they grow about 7,500 acres of grain and oilseed, specialty crops. Katelyn is also general manager of Saskatchewan Young Ag-Entrepreneurs, a networking group of about 200 18 to 40 year olds.

Duncan has been going to farm meetings for seven years and has noticed a lot less grey hair in the crowds lately.

She also says improved grain and oilseed prices have encouraged many young people to come home to the farm. Additionally, she says provincial and federal government programs have also helped reverse the trend. She points to all sorts of learning opportunities — mentorship, leadership training, and green funding — and she says the federal GF2, and FCC’s young farmer loan at prime plus 0.9 per cent is good for her age group.

Katelyn Duncan

Katelyn Duncan
photo: Carey Shaw

“Our government has done a fantastic job of making funding and programs available for young farmers,” Duncan says. “However, those opportunities are under-utilized. Maybe the young farmers don’t know about the programs, or maybe they just don’t want to do the paperwork.”

Governments south of the border have been targeting support for beginning farmers and ranchers since 1992 and have much deeper pockets. The 2014 Farm Act reduces the premiums on buy-up level coverage by half for new farmers, and it also waives the application fee for the non- insured Crop Disaster Assistance Program and increases the per cent of crop covered for natural disasters. The U.S. now ponies up $25 million more for education and programming for young farmers, it has loosened the terms for beginning loans and grants, and it financially encourages the transition of Conservation Reserve Pro- gram land to beginning farmers.

Despite the recent pullback in grain prices and the staggering increase in land and rent prices, optimism abounds around Duncan. “The farms are getting larger, there are fewer players in the game. When you enter farming you have to start small, and work on a succession plan with family,” she says. “But someone still has to run the seeder.”

It’s not necessarily just the number of farmers that helps keep farming and rural living vibrant, she says. It’s whether the young people living and working in rural areas step up to the plate, initiate growth, and fill leadership roles. “We need someone to carry on,” says Duncan. “As long as there’s young people within the ag industry, whether they are involved in a farm or not, they will continue to contribute to the future of agriculture.”

Raised in a web-based world and weaned on social media, this generation wants to access ideas and knowledge immediately. “We need a network to support each other, for people our age to communicate ideas,” says Duncan. “Many people my age want to talk about the same issues, such as land prices and water drainage, and those issues are different than for someone twice our age.”

Companies are competing with farms for bright, young graduates from ag colleges. When Duncan graduated from the University of Saskatchewan with her ag business degree a few years ago, she had job offers from companies she hadn’t even applied to. Most of these jobs had consistent paycheques with less risk and the weekends off. These enticements drew many of her classmates away from farming, especially if they didn’t have an established family farm to go home to.

For many young farmers, one of the main threats to the success of their farms today is debt and equity management. The older generations have been unwilling to exit the industry so land is simply not available to buy or rent. Since farming requires such massive amounts of capital investment, it’s very difficult for young farmers to keep their heads above water, especially competing in an industry dominated by old money and inherited land.

Land is simply not as available and attainable as it was a decade ago, with non-farm investment and aggressive buyers pushing the market. The shift toward renting has been amplified. “It’s a competitive industry,” says Duncan. “And money talks.”

The dramatic change in land prices and owner- ship, rental rates and the price of quota has definitely dampened the ability to start from nothing. The shift has been toward consolidation and growth of larger family farms with fewer commercial farms starting up independently.

“I don’t know how it’s possible to start a brand new farm now. I don’t know any here,” says Duncan matter-of-factly.

According to the USDA’s paper Beginning Farmers and Ranchers at a Glance 2013, the number of new farmers who have been on their current operation less then 10 years, regardless of age, dropped 20 per cent in five years.

But within those numbers, the youth situation seems to be swinging back upwards. In 1982, 16 per cent of all principal operators of beginning farms were under 35 years old; by 2007 it had dropped to only five per cent but four years later 14 per cent of principal operators were under 35 years old.

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