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Young farmers talk about their future

We find out what these university students are thinking as they prepare to head home to the farm. They know their opportunities are great, but their challenges are humbling too

A gaggle in ball caps, T-shirts, jeans and flannel politely stumbled off the bus. They’re third-year students in the University of McGill’s farm management and technology program, and they were on a tour of Ontario farms. They stopped at mine to discuss business structure, succession and the future of agriculture.

On closer look and listen, the differences start to shine. They range from 18 to 32 years old. Long hair and short, beards and braids, darker and pale, all shapes and sizes, and — about half of the group of 40 are female.

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As in most student discussions, their talk reflects everything from fiery passion to empathy to teenage disdain and shyness, including some moments of brilliance, all spoken in impeccable English.

I try to coax out their underlying motivations, their fears, their cockiness and their pearls of wisdom and honesty. I tell them I’m recording their comments, but no names will be used, so they can be completely candid.

This is a smart, ambitious, passionate lot. The majority of them says they’re planning to farm, many to take over the family farm. Of those, quite a few have siblings involved already, and about a third are from dairy farms.

In Quebec, they are called “la relève agricole” — the next generation taking over the farm, working in the agricultural industry, potentially leading the province, the country.

Predictably, they’re cautiously optimistic, and more than a little worried.

This generation knows that the business realities of farm size will be a challenge for them, and that the outlook for scientific advances is in a precarious balance with consumer attitudes. They also know they’ll need to grapple with shrinking margins, trade scares, and farm succession.

But in the midst of all this, they are also grateful.

“My parents gave me this passion and the family values around this way of living,” said one young man.

“I already love my farm and want to continue our family farm tradition,” said another. “My parents are looking forward to seeing what the future holds for the family farm.”

The succession quandary

All these students know that regardless of sector, entry costs for young farmers today are intimidating.

“Many farmers are over 50 years old and their children do not want the farm,” one told me. “In 10, 15, or 20 years there may not be many farms left without a manager, because young people do not want to get into it.”

Making it worse, another told me, is that many family farms are selling out because the families can’t make a succession deal work. “Family farms are the very heart of agriculture, and without the continuation of this tradition, the future of agriculture will be bleak.”

I expected the students to feel overwhelmed by the challenges they face. Instead, they’re thoughtful, practical, and determined to tackle their toughest challenges head on.

I expected the students to feel overwhelmed by the challenges they face. Instead, they’re thoughtful, practical, and determined to tackle their toughest challenges head on.
photo: Deb Deville

So, I asked, what must the Canadian family farm do to survive? Students shouted out answers like “diversify,” “specialize production” and “grow in size to maintain margins.”

“The current tendency curves more towards specialization and expansion with farm sizes increasing and farm numbers decreasing,” said one deep-thinking individual.

Some even predicted what family farms will look like: “… it will need a lot of employees and probably a herd manager. It will be industrial farms with all the same production at a lower production cost.”

The students said value adding will help some smaller farms survive, and a lot more farms will start trying new things to attract customers to their farms. Otherwise, the outlook is tough, unless there’s enough off-farm income to meet family needs.

Their generation accepts this as a reality. “If families on farms want to be self-sufficient, then they need to get larger. This may involve buying out a smaller neighbouring property or creating a new business entirely,” said one young woman. “The face of the Canadian family farm will definitely be a fast-changing one.”

Eventually most of these students hope to farm. For some it will take years to build enough equity, while others have a clear understanding with their family about the ownership they will be eligible to acquire over specific time frames.

Some also plan to work on other farms or for agribusiness and to pursue further education. They say the job market looks good.

However, most will graduate in their early 20s and head directly home to the family farm. In fact, many are already integrated into its management and ownership. “I already bring new ideas to the farm,” said one student. “Some are well taken; others don’t get approval.”

Many of the students feel obligated to their parents to continue the legacy, and not surprisingly, this creates a sense of tension for some of these young people. “The most difficult part of not knowing what I am going to do after I graduate is the possibility of letting my family down,” confessed one student. “I do want a farm later on, just not right away, and not necessarily my family farm.”

Several of those planning to go home also expressed concern about the burdens they will have to shoulder once their parents retire, and the challenge of figuring out a fair deal that will be fair to the parents but also be affordable for the next generation.

According to many of these young successors, most of their parents are tired, and they’re ready to retire after years of struggling to make the farm strong enough to succeed to the next generation.

But there is still a chasm to cross before they get there. Many of these students expect it will be difficult to work with siblings, and they expect they will feel their parents aren’t listening to them. “As the new manager you want to improve the business, but you don’t want to offend your parents,” one young farmer explained. “We all have different ideas sometimes on where we want to take the farm.”

The biggest question

It’s clear this is a generation that is divided on supply management and on international trade, raising doubts about how long things can continue without some sort of resolution.

The class is divided between those who think international trade is good for Canadian farmers and those who are concerned about protecting supply management. It’s divided too about whether smaller farmers will be able to compete internationally.

Consumer activism, climate change, the outlook for supply management... they’re all factoring into the business plans that McGill students believe will guide them through a successful career.

Consumer activism, climate change, the outlook for supply management… they’re all factoring into the business plans that McGill students believe will guide them through a successful career.
photo: Deb Deville

A student put the issue in perspective: “Canadian agriculture is already heavily dependent on the international trade market; around half of all agricultural revenue comes from exports.”

Another student saw international trade as a great expansion opportunity that the supply-managed farms are missing out on. “It will positively impact the industry with growing markets across the world… Supply management is a fairy tale soon coming to an end.”

“Why should a country produce a product that it is not good at producing?” another asked. “A cheap product on the market doesn’t necessarily mean poor quality.”

Another said that even outside supply management, farmers will have to come up with new business plans to meet new international trade regulations. “We may need stricter production and handling rules.”

However, many of the group see the opening of our borders as a threat.

“At first, it will favour big enterprise and make the family enterprise disappear,” one student said. “However, even our big enterprises that can produce at lower cost won’t be able to compete with countries that have the cheapest labour and warmer temperatures and that can produce all year round.”

Many of the comments are very protectionist. I heard from one student: “We should be a country that is self-sufficient and limit imports so consumers will have to buy local.”

But these students are also clear eyed. “For those under supply management, we must prepare for the worst and try to diversify in case,” said one. “Trade will inevitably make prices drop and jeopardize supply management,” added another.

Yet the students from supply-managed farms also say there is nothing really new here.

They were weaned on similar fears, they pointed out, and the future dairy farmers in the group swept the concern away by saying that supply management has been threatened for decades, and that it has always survived.

Besides, they added, the banks are still loaning for quota purchases.

Said one student: “The quota/TPP situation needs a definite outcome. Right now, too many dairy farmers are scared and don’t know what will happen. The thought of losing quota affects every decision… dairy farmers are scared of dropping farm values, dropping milk prices and competition from the U.S. with its diafiltered milk.”

Looking for a high-tech answer

These students hope technology will help solve their biggest challenges, or at least help keep things in balance. “New technology will be found every day,” one student told me. “The challenge is to keep producing good-quality products and not to turn into big factory farms which populations (i.e. consumers) are afraid of.”

The students believe technology will boost their productivity and sustainability and lower their cost of production. They are also looking to technology to improve labour efficiency, hoping they can eliminate much of the hands-on labour they’ve watched their parents do.

One student confidently predicted, “In 20 years, farmers will be able to do many things that we haven’t even thought of yet.”

But these students aren’t hiding from the challenging side of technology.

They predict technology will drive more expansion and vertical integration, with more production shifting to larger and larger farms, especially as more people choose to leave the industry and as opportunity costs continue to spur size.

They also know that success hinges on their being able to reduce input costs while delivering quality products to their customers. They’ve got to be price competitive, particularly against lower-cost countries. As I heard time and again, “Consumers do not want to pay more for their food.”

Which brought us to the next big point of discussion. It’s one that shows they understand what they’re getting into. Farming to give consumers what they want can conflict with farming to feed the world.

Half of the group sees population growth as their opportunity. “Canadian agriculture will have to evolve and find new ways to produce more with the same resources,” said one student.

Another nodded agreement, and said: “The big opportunities will be to grow and potentially be able to expand in other countries.”

“And to promote high-quality Canadian agricultural products to sell to our own population, or even abroad,” added another.

The other half of the group, by contrast, feels the opportunities for Canadian farmers will be to take advantage of niche markets, and to either diversify or specialize in specific markets. They peppered out their ideas — from organic production, maple syrup, lamb, grass fed, pasture raised, and agritourism — many of which are incorporated into the business plan projects due at the end of the year.

“Top opportunities in the next 20 years are to grow unique and original products that will differentiate our produce from others,” said one student. “In my opinion, the greatest opportunity for Canadian farmers, is the growing organic market.”

A couple of students said the trend toward vegetarianism and veganism will cause disruptions for meat and dairy producers while providing opportunities in the marketplace for others. “Public beliefs, such as becoming vegetarian or vegan, are something that can destroy the meat industry as a whole because people believe the things they hear. No one knows how their food is grown anymore.”

At the same time, several predicted, they will need to deal with water quality and phosphorus problems in waterways, with more farmers using sustainable soil management practices.

And they all agreed that climate change will bring big changes.

“In 20 years farmers will have to deal with greater occurrences of extreme weather caused by climate change and depletion of agricultural land,” predicts one student.

That extreme weather will create big variations in crop prices, worried another. As well, new weeds and insects will arrive, and crop growth and development will also change.

Others see climate change as an opportunity, such as seeding two crops in the same year. “With global warming, in 20 years I’m pretty sure a lot more farmers will do this, which will increase the profitability and efficiency of the farm businesses,” said one.

Another said the warming climate opens up the possibility to expand their land base. “In 20 years, farms will be beginning to invest on land farther north.”

All of them nodded in agreement though that their generation will have to get better at communicating with consumers.

We need to help consumers understand agriculture deeper than what the media portrays, particularly about GMOs. “If we want to have the trust of the people and still be able to make their food, then we must educate the public and be more open to teaching them how we really do things.”

The solution, they said, starts with educating all non-farming public schoolchildren about how their food is produced and how to cook. “Cooking is a life skill greatly tied to agriculture. In most teenagers, this skill is not present,” said one student.

Almost all said that in their farm careers, they will need to be more transparent and they will need to organize more farm visits to show consumers how their food is produced, to convince consumers to support their farmers.

“Our challenge is going to continue to be convincing the misled public that agriculture is not a harsh industry that mistreats our livestock,” said a freckled girl in a 4-H jacket. “The blindfolded society believes what they hear.”

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Senior Business Editor

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