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Young farmers getting a head start

Among supply management’s successes are its programs to help young farmers get established

Supply management gives income certainty to Blake Jennings.

“We’ve got a lot of young people coming in,” says Tim Lambert, CEO of the Egg Farmers of Canada. Like others, he credits board programs that give young farmers preferential access not only to quota, but to training in business leadership, and management. Yet underpinning it all, says Lambert, is income security. “They earn a reasonable living doing it.”

Blake Jennings is the fifth generation on his family’s egg farm overlooking Cobequid Bay, a branch of the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia. The view from his kitchen window is enough to make anyone envious, with the bay gleaming behind the old egg-laying barns that still stand on the farm.

Walking into those barns is like walking into a time warp, Blake says. The old barns never had glass in their windows, for example, so Blake’s grandfather, Cecil Jennings, had to be slow and gentle whenever he opened a door. If he scared the hens, off they’d fly out the windows and he’d have to round them up all over again.

All that has changed, of course.

“My grandfather, when he walks in the barn, he looks at the computer and just shakes his head. He wouldn’t have a clue in the world how to run that thing,” says Blake.

The owner’s manual for the climate controls is three inches thick, Blake says. Hen feeders are on timers. Windmills power the layer barns. Those windmills have worked well since the Jennings family installed them in 2007, but Blake says they’re already becoming outmoded technology now, and he can’t buy parts for them anymore.

Blake’s pet project is a new barn, which he plans to build in the next five years. He thinks it will be solar powered, but the technology changes so rapidly there’s little point in researching it until you’re about to break ground, he explains.

Farming will continue to be a marriage of technology and the human touch, Blake believes.
Farming will continue to be a marriage of technology and the human touch, Blake believes. photo: Light & Lens Photography

Technology is only part of what’s changing on this and other supply management farms, however. The newest generation of farmers must also be financially astute, politically savvy, and socially conscious.

And they must obtain quota.

But young farmers like Blake, and like Gilbert and Stacy Matheson on the other side of the Bay of Fundy, aren’t deterred, largely because of what the supply management sector is doing to help its young farmers, and what those farmers see in their futures.

Getting started

It’s not easy to start farming in any sector. It requires a significant capital investment to line up land, buildings, and equipment. And of course, if it’s supply management, you must have quota.

The Mathesons farm near Kars, New Brunswick. In between raising six kids, they run a dairy as well as flocks of chickens that produce table eggs and hatching eggs.

Hatching eggs come from layer breeders, in this case Bovans. Their chicks become commercial layers.

The Matheson farm sounds as picturesque as the Jennings homestead, with views of nearby Belleisle Bay. Gilbert, now in his 30s, took over the farm from his grandparents years ago. At that time, it included beef cattle.

For Gilbert and Stacy Matheson, young-farmer programs helped make it feasible to shift their New Brunswick farm from beef into dairy.
For Gilbert and Stacy Matheson, young-farmer programs helped make it feasible to shift their New Brunswick farm from beef into dairy. photo: Light & Lens Photography

“But after BSE, prices were always kind of poor,” Gilbert says. The birds were making money, but he was paying for the cattle most years. He has a saying that he doesn’t mind working for nothing, but he does have a problem paying to work.

Stacy grew up on a dairy farm, and the Mathesons were always interested in having their own herd. The Dairy Farmers of New Brunswick were loaning quota to new entrants, so Stacy and Gilbert ran the numbers and applied for the program in December 2007.

Within a year they’d obtained their quota, built a 46-cow, free-stall barn, and started milking. In 2009 they bought more quota, and today they produce 36 kg of butterfat per day.

Under the new entrant program, the Mathesons purchased 12 kg of quota, and the board loaned them another 12 kg. Five years after lending the quota, the board starts removing quota in small increments — a tenth of a kilogram per month in the first 10 months of the year. The farmer can either buy quota to replace it, or let it go, Gilbert explains.

Gilbert says the program, which he compares to an interest-free loan, has worked well for them. “It gives you that initial cash flow to get things going.”

A provincial new entrant program for egg producers has similar benefits. In 2011, the Mathesons applied and were granted quota as a licence for 3,200 birds. After 10 years, that licence becomes quota just like any other quota, Gilbert says.

Both programs have helped the young couple build a viable business for themselves and their family. If any of the kids want to farm someday, Gilbert says, “there should be a decent little living for them at some point.”

While some heap criticism on supply management, both Gilbert and Blake are quick to defend the system and its benefits to their businesses. It gives farmers a predictable market and guaranteed payback, Blake says.

Agricultural lenders understand supply management too, says Gilbert. “They know what you’re going to get paid. They know what your market is and it’s guaranteed. And you never have to chase money. It just arrives in your account each month.”

Quotas and markets aside, farmers in supply-managed industries still need sharp business skills to stay viable. The biggest thing today is “to know where your money is going to and where it’s coming from,” Gilbert says.

Managing costs is key, just as in other sectors. Gilbert and other dairy farmers have formed a management group to compare expenses and see what the averages are and where the top and bottom farms sit. Gilbert keeps a close eye on his variable costs.

“It’s all the little things that add up over the course of a year that really make the biggest difference,” Gilbert says.

One of the biggest risks Gilbert faces is the weather, which will certainly be familiar to other farmers. Too much rain affects forage quality, which has been a problem in the last few years.

“If you don’t get good-quality forage, you don’t make as much milk,” he says.

Blake meanwhile faces risks of his own. Disease is the big threat. Avian influenza can wipe out a flock in a single day, he says.

The Jennings have strict biosecurity measures to manage that risk. If Blake has been off farm, he changes his clothes before entering barns. He has a pair of boots that stays on the farm, and a different pair that never leaves the barn. Boots are disinfected before entering the barn. Any off-farm visitors sign in and wear full Tyvek suits when going into the barn.

Signs of sickness show up in behaviour and egg quality, so the Jennings do three thorough checks each day, plus additional walk-throughs, Blake says. The birds get used to the people contact, and inspectors tell them they have the calmest birds around.

The Jennings usually have about 21,000 birds on the farm, and that means a lot of cleaning. Mondays and Thursdays they haul manure and also sweep and blow down barns.

They also raise their own pullets from day-old chicks, which means cleaning the barns whenever they bring in a new flock. That’s a day of blowing down and sweeping the barns, followed by about three days of pressure-washing and disinfecting.

“It’s a full-time job.”

An ‘A to Z’ education

It’s one thing to master the daily labour that goes into running a farm. Blake has grown into that role, learning to run equipment and complex technology. He also still appreciates the hands-on work — he likes to manually place eggs in trays, even though that can be automated, and he is willing to do it at six in the morning.

But the industry also needs young farmers who understand the business, politics, and social implications of farming. And for that, they need to get off the farm. Blake, for instance, jetted to the Canadian Young Farmers’ Forum in Vancouver this winter. It’s an annual conference that draws young farmers from every sector and every part of the country.

Blake has been a regular at these forums since 2014, when he enrolled in a young farmers’ program created by the Egg Farmers’ of Canada. In a way, it’s Blake’s vacation, his chance to get off the farm. It’s a sentiment that might seem strange to some Canadians, but is likely familiar to many farmers.

According to Tim Lambert, CEO of the Egg Farmers of Canada, their young farmers range in age from 18 to 40 and typically the program pulls them in to three events each year — the Young Farmers’ Forum, an Egg Farmers’ of Canada summer board meeting, and the groups’ AGM.

They’ll usually do a day of educational sessions as well, Lambert says. For example, they did a recent session on how to make the most of meetings with politicians before bringing the young farmers to a “Breakfast on the Hill” event with the federal ag minister and other parliamentarians.

Blake counts the Breakfast on the Hill as one of the program’s highlights. “They even convinced me to put an apron on and cook some eggs.”

Typically it takes a young farmer two years to go through the program. It’s taken Blake a little longer because he frequently has to hold down the fort while his father, Glen, is gone. Glen is on the Egg Farmers of Canada board and is gone 30 to 40 per cent of the time for related work, Blake says.

But Blake has already been building networks and learning about the business side of supply management. The program has also opened his eyes to how farming works in different sectors and different parts of Canada. He’s had media training, and seems at ease throughout the interview.

The Young Farmers’ Program also presented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity when Prince Charles visited Nova Scotia in the spring of 2014. The prince wanted to talk to a young Canadian farmer, and his royal tour organizers found Blake through the program.

Blake talked to the Prince of Wales about how his family cares for their birds, and learned about agriculture on the other side of the pond. He credits the Young Farmers’ Program for giving him the knowledge and confidence to speak about Canadian agriculture in a broader sense.

“I guess I was a shy guy before,” Blake now says.

Lambert says the program is creating a pool of young leaders. Young farmers not only get an “A to Z” education, they also rapidly build networks. They come in with fresh ideas, and the industry veterans are learning as much as they teach.

Since the program began in 2014, 10 farmers have finished it and 18 are enrolled for 2016. Each province puts forward one name, and the Egg Farmers of Canada picks up the cost. But some provinces nominate two farmers, and share the cost of sending the second person. Lambert says husband-and-wife teams are now participating too.

The Egg Farmers of Canada originally intended to educate the next generation on how supply management worked and the history behind it, Lambert says. But the program found its own life, he says, and has exceeded expectations. After starting the program, they thought they should have done it years ago.

“Any commodity that isn’t doing it really needs to think hard about the value in it, because it truly is an important thing.”

Lambert is also vice-chair of the International Egg Commission. That organization is starting a young leaders’ program for the entire egg value chain. The Egg Farmers of Canada is sponsoring a young farmer to be part of that group, so they can gain an understanding of global issues, he says.

The future

Blake is looking forward to buying more quota, building that new barn, and expanding in the future.

Thinking about how much farming has changed since his grandfather started, it’s hard to know what farming will be like by the time he’s ready to retire. “I don’t know what to expect for the future because the technology is coming out faster than I can find it, really.”

As for Lambert, he says young farmers are coming into a growing industry. The volume of eggs sold in Canada has grown about 22 per cent in the last nine years, he says. Part of that is due to the cholesterol myth being debunked, and consumer preferences shifting to protein over carbs.

Consumers want more choice these days, and Lambert sees more opportunities in specialty egg production in the future. The Trans-Pacific Partnership deal will create stability in the industry, he also believes, so overall, it’s a good industry to be in, with a fair return for farmers, stable prices, and growth.

But it will take excellent farmers. Technology skills must be strong, as must their business management, and it will also mean adjusting to social expectations, Lambert believes. The next big opportunity and challenge throughout the food chain is “maintaining and enhancing our social licence and public trust,” he says. Young farmers “will need to understand that environment and make sure that they’re doing the right things the right way and for the right reasons.”

Tim Lambert on supply management myths

Tim Lambert, CEO of the Egg Farmers of Canada, worked 10 years in the pork sector and eight years in beef. He’s now got 12 years in the egg sector, giving him a wide perspective on both supply-managed and open-market sectors.

Lambert in particular is anxious to debunk what he calls the three big myths about supply-managed eggs.

1. The idea that supply management inflates egg prices is “simply not true,” says Lambert. Consumers in Australia and the European Union, which don’t have supply-managed eggs, pay more than Canadians, he says.

“People will often say, yeah but it’s cheaper in the U.S. Well sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t.” Besides, he says, that’s true of everything from cars to clothes because of American economies of scale.

2. The charge that supply management blocks Canada from signing trade deals is also unfounded, Lambert says. He points out Canada has managed to sign dozens of trade deals with minimal impact on supply management, including TPP. “And they still are able to get additional access for pork, beef and grain producers.”

3. As well, there’s the argument that being part of supply management means farmers must cede their freedom as business people. Lambert says this is “not true at all.” Farmers in most other commodities are price-takers, he says, because they have few buyers. Supply management gives farmers a “fair share of the consumer dollar. It doesn’t set the consumer price but it sets the wholesale price.”

Things that drive young farmers crazy

Gilbert Matheson
Gilbert Matheson photo: Light & Lens Photography
Blake Jennings
Blake Jennings photo: Light & Lens Photography

Country Guide asked both Gilbert Matheson and Blake Jennings what they wish older farmers knew about young farmers. Both had pet peeves that young farmers in other sectors can probably relate to.

Gilbert despises comments from older farmers such as: “Well, you can’t afford to do that. I couldn’t do what you’re doing, so you can’t afford it.” Sometimes the critic assumes someone, such as a father, has given the younger farmer money, when it really comes down to management, he says.

Such farmers have the mindset that they can judge new farmers based on how they’ve been operating for decades. Their criticisms can include any kind of on-farm investment — even young farmers buying quota or building a barn.

Such criticism isn’t helpful to people starting out, Gilbert says. He adds he knows forward-thinking older farmers who don’t take part.

As for Blake, he’s tired of the perception that his generation just sits around. At one conference, a speaker told young people to get off their phones and do some hard work. Blake and a couple of other young guys “had quite a talk with him afterwards,” says Blake.

“You can’t farm nowadays unless you have the technology,” he says.

I guess I was a shy guy before,” says Blake Jennings. But young farmers can’t afford to sit on the sidelines, he now believes, and he sees the board’s leadership training as central to his future.

About the author

Field Editor

Lisa Guenther

Lisa Guenther is a field editor for Country Guide.

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