Supporting New Farmers

Agricultural Renewal means supporting a new generation of farmers in Ontario.

by Christie Young, Director of FarmStart

We are facing a very real crisis of renewal in agriculture within the next 10 years. Farmers are getting older in Canada and fewer young people are entering farming.   Just 2% of the Canadian population farms. With under 30,000 young farmers in Canada today and the fastest pace of decline in our history, fewer and fewer farmers will be producing our food in the future. This loss of farmers will severely impact our food security, the capacity of our farms to provide Canadians with most of the healthy foods we need to thrive in the 21st Century.

We need young farmers, we need new farmers, we need more farmers.

Fortunately, we have begun to witness a strong resurgence of interest in healthy food and farming. Increasing numbers of young people from farm and non-farm backgrounds, new immigrants and second-career farmers are interested in pursuing a future and livelihood in agriculture. They are striving to build entrepreneurial, economically viable and ecologically sustainable farm enterprises.

There are many challenges facing these new entrants, yet there are also new opportunities. They bring skills, connections and passion that can lead to innovation and renewal.

The growth of consumer demand for certified organic and locally-grown foods has created a space for new entrants and smaller-scale farm businesses who can seize this opportunity by reconnecting with consumers, shortening the supply chain and selling more direct. They are taking advantage of the rising demand for fresh local produce and value-added artisanal products and creating new business models.

These new consumer trends are here to stay. And municipal and provincial governments are beginning to realize the potential of these new and re-strategizing farmers, both in terms of food security, economic development and community revitalization.

This is an opportune moment to encourage our new MPs to make a clear commitment to helping a new generation of farmers across Ontario create successful and sustainable businesses.

We are currently in the middle of the re-negotiation of the next Agricultural policy framework, Growing Forward 2 that provides the funding for most of our agricultural programs and servicesOur government in Ontario can take a leadership role over the next year to work with the federal government to support and implement programs and services that support the farmers who can produce the food which consumers are calling for.

Here’s what I would suggest they do to ensure the agricultural future of Ontario:

Farm policies must support smaller farms, because young farmers and new farmers usually start out on small farms. If our policies do not support viable small farms, we bar the door to new entrants.

Prime farmland must remain in the hands of farmers. We cannot continue to let much of our best farmland be bought up by speculators and developers who are intent on converting it, permanently, to non-agricultural uses.

Sustainability means long-term land tenure and stewardship. The long-term investments needed to care for our land, soil, ecosystems and local communities require secure land tenure for those who grow food, and access on affordable terms for those who want to begin.

Farmland Trusts and public ownership can provide farmers with long-term leases and the security of tenure they need to take good care of land they don’t own. Innovative arrangements of public ownership, at the provincial, regional and municipal levels can help young farmers enter agriculture; this is especially needed on the remaining quality farmland in and around the major cities.

New, debt-minimizing forms of land transfer will allow farm succession. We must reduce debt barriers to give a new generation of farmers a reasonable chance to succeed.

Patient capital is needed.   New farmers want to do things differently and need the opportunity to learn by doing. They need recognition and appropriate financing for entrepreneurial, diversified business models.

New farmers need training programs in rural and urban communities.  New farmers from non-farm backgrounds need affordable ways to explore a career in agriculture, or we risk losing prospective farmers at the outset.

Farmer-to-farmer mentoring and the transfer of knowledge and skills is critical for the next generation. Investment is required to increase the opportunities, standardization and quality of mentorship-based, hands-on farmer training needed to develop a professional cohort of new farmers.

Farmers need regionally-based extension services. Farmers need expert, unbiased information about low-input agriculture, adaptation to climate change, integrated pest management, alternative fertility techniques, energy efficiency, and a range of innovative, cost-reducing practices that are not available from the companies that supply them with seeds and fertilizers.

Exiting farmers want to retire with dignity and security.  Ensuring that farmers have adequate retirement funds means that families will not have to sell and refinance their land-base each generation.

Farm support and supply-managed sectors need to be more flexible. New farmers do not qualify for many support programs and supply-managed systems are often prohibitively expensive, effectively barring new entrants in these sectors. We must take measures to accommodate new entrants as well as supporting innovative business models.