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The young are on board, literally

In Ontario’s Northumberland County, young farmers make up the majority on many commodity and farm boards. Here’s how we do it

There’s nothing like an unexpected dinner invitation to get the attention of a person who is normally responsible for daily meal preparation. The invitation arrived by text, and it didn’t take long to figure out whether to accept. Accept first, I said. Ask questions later.

When I did ask the question, I was right to think there might be a reason. “Be ready to explain why our executive is so young,” was basically how the next text read in response.

It was time to switch to voice. “Well, someone told the provincial association we have a lot of really young directors on our board, and now they want to meet with us,” explained Ian Laver, president of Northumberland’s Soil and Crop Improvement Association (NSCIA).

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I wasn’t really free that week but yes, I promised, I would be there anyway. Not that I had any idea how to explain youth engagement in Northumberland County. But anyone willing to make a rare trip from the hub of Ontario agriculture through the city of Toronto deserved as many brains to pick as we could offer.

Northumberland is an hour and a half east of Toronto on the north shore of Lake Ontario. Although agriculture is a significant industry here, Northumberland itself is pretty insignificant in national or even provincial terms. Located in the east end of central Ontario, our relatively large county wasn’t home to even 1,000 farms in the last census of agriculture, and two-thirds of these farms reported less than $50,000 in gross farm receipts.

Break things down further and you get 221 cash crop operations, 179 beef farms, 83 dairy farms, and the rest are mostly listed as “other.” Less than two per cent of Ontario farmers reside here, and those who do aren’t exactly young, being, respectively, 2.3 and 1.8 years older than the average Canadian and Ontario farm averages.

With only 75 farmers under the age of 35 in Northumberland, youth representation in the general farm population is well below the eight per cent provincial average.

Yet, 30 per cent of the directors currently serving on the NSCIA are under the age of 35, including the entire executive falls into that class. On the Beef Farmers’ board of directors, about 40 per cent are around or under the age of 35 and half of the Northumberland Holstein Association’s directors would be under 35, with 85 per cent certainly less than 40. Then there’s also Northumberland’s Dairy Producer Committee, with 70 per cent of its executive all young farmers.

In other words, the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association hadn’t noticed a fluke or some sort of coincidence, but a real trend that seems to be unique.

It might have been a little ambitious to attempt to identify the root cause of a regional trend like this in just one dinner meeting, but as the evening progressed, some concepts emerged clearly. We, as young directors, take our initial cues from the family. Parents, grandparents, or other family members that we respect and admire have been directly responsible for initiating our involvement in farm organizations here.

Many young directors recalled having little choice in attending their first annual general meeting. Some had been living at home at the time but the rest of us were well into building our own independent lives. Yet when families encourage or expect industry involvement here, in general, we seem to oblige by attending as requested. As a result, almost all young directors serving NSCIA are now second-, or even third-generation directors.

But if directors attend their first meeting “just to keep Dad happy,” the consensus is that they keep coming back on the encouragement of their peers. You can test it for yourself in your own area by looking at where people choose to sit.

When I think back to a number of local meetings held here last winter, new attendees tended not to stray far from the family, while the more veteran young participants often clustered around friendships.

It seems I’m not the only one trying to make the most of every precious minute off the farm and if there’s no “fun factor” in it for me, apparently I’m not alone in being more inclined to stay home. Maybe it’s because of the second jobs, or because non-farming spouses need more help with household chores and childcare, or because of the over-scheduled children, but whatever the reason, the entertainment value of farm associations is now a big consideration for my generation.

When the social value is there, and our time constraints are respected, we’re there too.

If there’s also an educational opportunity, however, we’re far more willing to commit our time. Active directors are some of the first farmers to insist that local research is important, and many of them don’t wait for someone else to suggest an on-farm trial; they just set up their own.

Spontaneous crop tours are common. Farm association meetings are an opportunity to share results or interim observations, and many people will say they don’t want to miss these meetings in case something important is shared.

I always thought this was the same everywhere until I recently learned about the master’s research that Jeff Brick conducted while obtaining a degree from the University of Western Ontario. Jeff wanted to look at what motivates farmers to adopt good land stewardship practices, and through the course of his study, he has discovered that the value of education appears to be diminishing among young male farmers in parts of southwestern Ontario.

“The people in the landscape appear to be very well educated but when you break it down by farm and non-farm, you start to see the trend emerge that farmers have a much lower formal education level,” he explained to me. “There are a shockingly high number of young males, running farms, who haven’t finished high school.”

Jeff says he only measured formal education in his survey, so there’s no way to know what practical or informal supplementation these young men have pursued, and he certainly doesn’t believe his findings indicate farmers aren’t very good at what they do. He’s more interested in why these young men are forgoing formal education, and he hopes further work being conducted by other ongoing studies might reveal whether the phenomena is related to increased employment opportunities for farm youth. If that’s the case, it may explain why my peers are far more likely to be college or university educated.

It’s only natural for a teen doing hard labour for little more than minimum wage to explore their options. Couple little competition for local scholarship money with relatively lower family farm incomes, and now pursuing a post-secondary education doesn’t look half-bad. Anyone who comes home to the farm after that brings new ideas with them and maybe even a new appreciation for learning opportunities.

Ellen Hondl, an Alberta beef farmer with the Agricultural Youth Engagement Foundation, pointed out to me that when these people sit down together at a table, they will feed off one another.

“Passion is contagious,” Ellen says simply.

And she’s right. As we swap stories of the challenges we’ve overcome or are working through in planning farm succession, and as we talk about the isolation that can come with being a young farmer, we begin to feel driven to share our experiences with others for the betterment of the community, and no matter what the personal inconveniences, the conversation does become more passionate.

When we meet, we leave the conversation more animated than when we started. It’s refreshing. It’s exciting. It’s exactly why Northumberland County is embracing young directors.

Let’s face it, the directors who are exiting their positions to make room for “the young upstarts” are not being entirely altruistic. They are coming to the end of careers that were challenged by peak interest rates, extended droughts, depressingly low commodity prices, the BSE crisis, high debt loads, and increasingly volatile markets.

They’re tired. But not tired enough to become retired, so they’ve mostly stayed on as members and mentors for the young people they are nominating to leadership roles.

It turns out, being exposed to so much youthful enthusiasm and contagious passion is good for these veterans too. They get up and say with big smiles on their faces, “It’s great to see so many young people here at this meeting.”

I’m never sure whether they say it as much to encourage us to keep coming back or to congratulate one another for getting us there in the first place. But if they keep speaking up so positively, this phenomenon is just going to continue to grow, and we might have to start warning new directors to be ready for more surprise dinner invitations.

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Amy Petherick

Amy Petherick is a Contributing Editor for Country Guide.

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