It was never going to be easy. Gwen Donohoe knew that, the same way that every farm kid knows that taking over the family farm is going to demand total commitment.
Yet it isn t the hard work that has convinced Donohoe she needs to keep a least one foot in the city. She wasn t even put off by the tough economics. Instead, what is tainting the dream for Donohoe is the very thing that is supposed to be one of farming s great advantages.
It s lifestyle. It s really hard for young people who come to the city and then return to the farm, says Donohoe, whose family farms at The Pas.
Seven hours north of Winnipeg, The Pas can feel even more remote than most other farm communities, but in Donohoe s view, it s only a difference of degree. The same trends are sending signals to farm kids all across the country that it s time to leave.
Maybe 20 or 30 years ago, all towns had curling and hockey rinks and large community centres, Donohoe says. You also had a sense of community and social life in the towns. But today it s pretty tough. You go home and there aren t other young people to farm with or any kind of community.
It used to be more fun to live on a farm, she says wistfully.
But this isn t simple nostalgia on her part. The kinds of pleasures you can get from farming are changing too, Donohoe believes. Indeed, those pleasures have to be different and they have to become more focussed on
financial management and strategic planning if young farmers are going to succeed.
As farming gets more and more concentrated on business issues, Donohoe says, why wouldn t you just stay in the city and manage a business there?
Don t get me wrong, says Donohoe, talking of her generation. We re very hard workers& but, we know we can work a 9-5 job in a town or city and we want to have that kind of lifestyle on a farm which is completely impossible.
You might love your farm and land, but it s tough to give up all those urban opportunities.
At 28, Donohoe knows a lot about both the city and the country sides of agriculture. Today, she is working on her doctorate at the University of Manitoba, looking at how different management practices can influence the environmental implications of over-wintering beef cattle.
Donohoe also sits on the Manitoba Rural Adaptation Council board, a federally funded council that works to build up farm innovation in rural communities. On the board she s joined by other farmers, but also by individuals who represent consumers, producers and food processors.
Donohoe s specific assignment on the council s board is to work as its youth director, and it becomes obvious in talking to her that the connections she makes through the organization are important for her own definition of what makes a good lifestyle. It s an exciting group of people to work with, she says, real leaders in agriculture and food in Manitoba.
It isn t her first experience with farm organizations. Donohoe s parents were dairy through her early years until in 1995 they sold their quota and started what has grown to a 300 cow-calf operation plus 1,000 acres of grains and oilseeds. The farm s weaned calves are sold to buyers in Alberta and Quebec, while their grains are marketed in Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
In 2005, after earning her undergraduate degree in agriculture at the University of Saskatchewan, Donohoe returned home to the farm. In fact, Donohoe is still very involved there. The farm is her parents , but Donohoe owns her own herd of cattle that stay with her parents cattle. She rents the land and feed from them, so it all gets managed together, and she and her parents work the farm on their own without any hired help.
When she returned, though, Donohoe also brought many of the perspectives she had learned both at school and in the city. At first, that meant she was eager to start organic farming, although she soon came to change her mind and to decide that what is really at the core of her beliefs is sustainability, which she now believes is quite a different thing than organics. To me, she explains, organic is just a label, a certification and not necessarily a sustainable operation.
Being one who loves teaching and helping others, Donohoe is also interested in demonstrating good management skills to other producers or in being involved in like-minded organizations.
We can teach producers to be even more sustainable than some of the organic operations out there simply by using good management practices, she says.
This line of thinking is what led Donohoe to get involved in The Pas local conservation district board. The board is funded by the province and rural municipalities, and is directed by landowners, with projects geared toward activities that promote sustainable soil and water quality management to help producers adopt good practices.
Through the conservation district board, Donohoe has been involved in many producer field trials, one of which was the nitrogen ramp trial, helping producers determine a good nitrogen rate to apply to their crops. It s especially important to not over-apply nitrogen, so the nitrogen won t start leaking into the waterways, she says.
The board also organizes many guest speaker events geared toward producers. Through Donohoe taking her master s degree (in soil science in 2010), she was able to tie in some of the university professors and people who like to do extension work getting them to come up to The Pas and talk to producers.
Still, Donohoe recognizes that the reality of family farming is that when the children come home, Dad and Mom still call the shots. She recognizes too that this is how it has always been. And while there were a few bumps ( I learned pretty quickly with my own parents not to go tell them, We need to do this, because you re doing it wrong. ) she also discovered that both generations share the same core values, especially their belief in sustainability, and she feels it is likely the same on most farms.
When I first came home from school, I really wanted to put one of our fields into alfalfa for a few years, she remembers as an example. It was really hard to convince my dad to do this& then he saw it as a great idea, making our own fertilizer.
We all have the same goals wanting to be sustainable economically and environmentally, she says, although it s clear there can still be differences. We have different perspectives about how to get there, she admits.
Still, Donohoe does believe there s an even more fundamental difference between the generations, because her generation is facing an even starker choice between life in the city and life on the farm.
She would like to see farm groups accept this as a challenge and develop strategies to tackle it.
Our agriculture community doesn t have a framework set out for a social network for young people. Maybe we need to have more of that more get togethers in towns and cities where young farmers can meet up and have a satisfying social life and communication.
On top of that, agriculture can focus on rural development too, Donohoe suggests. Get rural populations back up by integrating industry back into the towns and small cities, or by finding a way to make smaller farms more sustainable in the long run.
Then, recognize that the coming generation is impatient, for good reason. They can achieve their lifestyle goals in the city, with more time for family life and more opportunities for vacations and social interaction.
It s not that earlier generations didn t want that, but they didn t have the same kind of opportunities, Donohoe says. Today, she says simply, young farmers want to do more of what regular people do. CG