By Kate Proctor
Change is one of the constants in life. For farmers, this may be even more so. No two years are ever the same – weather, markets, world politics, technology, genetics, diseases, pests – the list of changing aspects of the job is endless.
I was reminded recently of one thing that does not seem to change, however, as it seems like all the radio stations were blaring the same headline… “THIS STUDY JUST OUT – FARMERS ARE RETIRING IN DROVES WITH NO SUCCESSORS AND NO SUCCESSION PLAN!!!”
I checked the date, wondering if I had fallen asleep and time travelled back 25 years. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems as if we have been hearing this message forever. OK, I’ll bite. I decided to look up the actual report and get past the headlines.
You can read the report for yourself – I tracked it down on the Royal Bank’s website. https://thought leadership.rbc.com/farmers-wanted-the-labour-renewal-canada-needs-to-build-the-next-green-revolution. The statistic that was generating the biggest concern is that “By 2033, 40 per cent of Canadian farm operators will retire, placing agriculture on the cusp of one of the biggest labour and leadership transitions in the country’s history.” Also, 66 per cent of farmers do not have a succession plan and a shortfall of 24,000 workers on farms, nurseries, and greenhouses is expected to emerge.
When I graduated from the University of Guelph in 1993, there were similar concerns. A quick look at Stats Canada numbers shows this trend is definitely getting more pronounced. In 1991, 37.7 per cent of farm operators were over 55 years of age. In 2021, this number has risen to 60.5 per cent. In addition, the number of young farmers is decreasing. In 1991, 26.5 per cent of farmers fell into the “young” category, while in 2021, only 8.6 per cent were in this category – being defined as an operator less than 40 years old. Sometimes, through our years of working together, my Dad and I will look at each other and one will say. “What we are doing isn’t working.” We try to approach the problem in a different way to address it. This seems like one of those problems.
I am happy to note that I have just barely squeaked under the “old farmer” threshold line. But I have also transitioned from being the person looking forward to being the person looking back when it comes to farm succession. I don’t really know how that happened so quickly. Now it is my turn to look at the farm, my kids, and figure out what is fair, and right. Then, as they say at every farm succession seminar – have everyone sit down to Christmas dinner together when it is all over.
With farm land values increasing in an astronomical way it’s definitely not getting easier. At one time, I helped deliver “Growing Your Farm Profits” workshops for the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association. These workshops helped farm families start the often difficult conversations associated with succession planning. Going through a checklist would help poeple get into real conversations.
Farm succession is so challenging because it isn’t just about business and dollars – although the big dollars can make finding a good solution feel a bit overwhelming. It is about emotions, history, personalities, expectations and hopes and dreams. One of my friends, formerly a farmer, mentioned the term “family generational expectations”. While I never hear people talk about this, I think this is also a big part of what makes succession so difficult. Most farmers have an attachment to the land, and can feel the ghosts of past generations of farmers struggling away that have brought them to where they are today. I wonder if family farms are one of the last capital-rich businesses still owned by individuals and families.
But back to the report. There are definitely interesting findings comparing Canada to other countries. “Canada’s agricultural skills crisis is already one of the world’s worst. The country has one of the highest skill shortages in food production compared to other major food exporting nations — trailing only the U.S. and the Netherlands.”
“Other nations, like Japan and New Zealand are rapidly deploying national strategies to tackle similar challenges. They are offering incentives to farm operators who become more autonomous or unlock pathways for foreign skilled workers and new farmers to enter their industries. Canada needs to act fast.”
Many of the findings in the report are not surprising, especially to those of us working in the industry. It seems like almost every business, both inside and outside agriculture, has the “help wanted” sign out almost permanently. Some businesses are even reducing their hours of operation due to lack of labour. We don’t really have that option in farming – so we look to technology as much as we can.
How do we fix this? Increase immigration, increase technology that reduces the need for human labour, and become more efficient. The report also noted Canada’s lack of investment in research and development across all levels of the agricultural sector.
I wonder if we need to think differently about how to bring young people into agriculture in an environment where current conditions mean that the proceeds of farming will never pay for the high price of land. Throw in the added complication of competition for land from urban areas. After three years of not getting out much, I know I’ve been shocked at the expansion of every urban area I drive to now. I don’t have the answers to these questions – but as with all difficult conversations, pretending they don’t need to happen is not going to help. ◊