As chair of the Canadian Young Farmers’ Forum (CYFF), and as a millennial herself, Danielle Lee has heard all the stereotypes about millennial farmers, and she knows the challenges millennials face.
Lee’s job is to speak out on behalf of young farmers, and to ensure they grow into a positive force in these trying times for agriculture.
So what can she point to that millennial farmers are doing well at? Should we be worried about the “participation ribbon” generation that has their faces always glued to their phones?
CG: What kind of farm do you have, Danielle? Is it just you there on a daily basis?
Lee: I farm with my mom, my grandpa, and my younger brother. Mom and I primarily do all the farm work. We used to be a dairy farm but now we do beef cattle, and sheep, and we put up our own hay as well. We farm west of Calgary, in the area known as Spring Banks, so we are quite close to the city limits.
CG: What’s that like, farming so close to Calgary?
Lee: A lot of the farms around us are disappearing and a lot of the land isn’t being sold for agriculture purposes anymore. But our farm has been here for 105 years and I’m proud to be the fourth generation on this farm. I love being close to the city and having those amenities. Living close to a big urban centre, our family is also big on helping educate people about where their food comes from. I think that’s important, especially when you live this close to an urban centre.
CG: Sounds like the best of both worlds. Does it change how you farm compared to the average farm in Alberta?
Lee: In terms of farms in Alberta, we are probably pretty small. We don’t put up any grain, so all of our land is either in pasture or hay for our beef cattle and sheep. And we sell some hay to the equine market.
CG: That will keep you busy in the summers! Why did you decide to squeeze in the CYFF too?
Lee: Especially in our area, there are not very many other young farmers around. So, I started going to Alberta Young Farmers and Ranchers events, and that gave me the opportunity to go to the Canadian Young Farmer Forum conference. You were learning, but you were also building a network of young farmers across Canada. It was a different learning experience from university, but much more practical I think.
CG: Oh, so you fall right in with those statistics that say millennials are the most highly educated generation yet! With a university education, why would you or any other millennial choose a career in agriculture?
Lee: There are so many other opportunities out there, but the agriculture industry itself has so many great opportunities too. I think showcasing those opportunities is something we really have to do. We focus so much on the negatives that we sometimes forget to focus on the positives.
CG: Do you think that’s something millennial farmers in particular should be doing?
Lee: Showcasing the opportunities in agriculture is a challenge for all of us, but I think that since millennials are the future of the industry, it’s going to impact us even more.
Whether or not we can use certain products on crops, or medications for animals, and withdrawal periods, and things like that. I really think it’s going to impact our generation, and the next generation coming down more so.
CG: Do you think this is because this generation truly evaluates their own success that much differently, or is this a way out of competing with those bigger farmers? Millennials are the “participation ribbon” generation after all.
Lee: I look at a lot of young farmers out there, and they are busting their butts to get where they are. They are not the ones sitting on the couch! Even though there are challenges, those unknowns, and machinery breaks, and things happen, they still get up the next day and are working their butts off.
Young farmers are dedicated and they love what they do. They know that it’s not always easy, it’s not a 9-5 job, there are going to be long hours and frustrations, but they’re willing to take that risk and go for it.
And all farmers love to brag “I’m getting this many bushels,” or “this much for that calf,” or “this cow is producing this much milk.” With social media we can give people a virtual pat on the back, with just a “like” on a Facebook picture of their wonderful crop. I think sometimes they need to get that validation… but it’s not a ribbon. I wouldn’t say you purposely think that’s what you’re doing when you “like” somebody’s picture. It makes them feel good; it makes them want to strive to get better.
As young farmers, everybody posts all the good things that they’re doing. They’re proud of what they are doing and I think it’s important to have that pride in what you’re doing.
CG: So, is that all young farmers are really using social media for? Bragging?
Lee: Because there is less agriculture, there is maybe less community than there used to be when my mom was growing up. During all my schooling in Calgary, typically, I was the only farm kid. There were so few 4-H clubs. It’s sometimes hard to have that social life balance as a farmer and it doesn’t matter what farm they are from, young farmers are all facing the same issues. I have friends I might not see as often as I’d like in person, but I keep in touch through texting or online. So, I think we are more connected nowadays than even 20 years ago.
It’s easy to send out a message or a tweet or a text on what the weather is doing, or how crops are, and learn about all different sorts of crops and how they’re grown, by being friends with people on social media.
I think that it’s a challenge for our industry too, being so much more social. So many of our customers, being that much more removed from farming, we need to show the great things we are doing and showcase the agriculture in a positive light. I think people, in a lot of cases, maybe undervalue what farmers do. I guess that’s our culture because food is always there, we are never wanting for food, and always have that choice to go to the grocery store and have fresh food on the shelf.
So I don’t really see it as just doing it to, you know, promote myself. You’re doing it for the betterment of the agriculture industry as a whole, is how I see it.
With more social media stories on farming, hopefully people start to, maybe, give a little bit more credit to all the hard work that farmers do put in.
CG: What other differences do you see between our generation and the ones before us?
Lee: The first CYFF conference I went to was in 2010 and there weren’t many women. I mean there were, but comparatively, it was probably 25 per cent women, much less than the guys. And now at our conferences I’m going to say it’s almost 50/50. Even our board this year is half women and half men. I guess there were a few years where I was the only girl, or only female, on our board of eight. Maybe two or three of the guys that were on the board did have families with kids. But mostly, the female farmers were at home looking after the kids.
CG: That does seem to be in line with a growing female demographic among farmers in general. Are there other things you notice about this generation of farmers?
Lee: Farmers nowadays, seeing what their grandparents went through… the struggles and the sacrifices that they made… when I look at young farmers today, I think that some of them aren’t prepared to make those sacrifices. They take time to look after themselves a little better than maybe the previous generations did. Mental health is something that we’ve focused on the last couple of conferences because we’ve noticed that there are so many things young farmers have going on and, if we don’t take care of ourselves, it’s really going to affect us in the future.
I think sometimes our generation has done a bit better job of time management and realizing what they’re good at and, if they’re not good at something, hiring that out instead.
Also, I think that sometimes our younger farmers are more willing to try growing different crops that we didn’t care about 20 years ago, growing that different crop to hopefully find that niche in the market because they can’t compete with a huge grain farm. And because they can’t maybe be the biggest farmer, instead of “how many acres” you’re farming, which used to be the measure of your farm, it’s “what are you growing,” “how are you growing it” nowadays. I think that’s a big difference.