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Editorial: The changing faces of agriculture

Roaming the hallways and meeting rooms of this week’s CropConnect conference in Winnipeg offered an interesting snapshot of the state of farming in this province.

Kudos to the organizers: the two-day conference put on by a consortium of nine commodity groups has proven itself a success on numerous fronts. With all the commodity groups out there vying for farmers’ attention, there are only so many meetings one can handle, especially with many farmers also engaged in off-farm work.

By pooling their resources, these groups are able to bring in a better lineup of guest speakers and get more people to their annual business sessions where different perspectives on important topics, such as the Seed Synergy project and paying for new varieties, can be aired.

Plus, anyone working as a professional agronomist in this industry must demonstrate that they are continuously learning in order to maintain their credentials. They can attend sessions at an event like this and pick up “certified crop adviser” credits.

The first thing that confronted me walking in the door was the sea of young faces at the sold-out event. Granted, in agriculture, “young” is a relative term. The average age of a farmer in Canada is 55.

But the 2016 Census of Agriculture captured some subtle shifts in the farm demographics that suggest the pace of intergenerational transfer is starting to pick up. Farmers under the age of 35 now make up 9.1 per cent of the farm operators in Canada, up from 8.2 per cent in 2011. As well as the increase in proportion, their absolute numbers increased by about three per cent, the first increase since 1991.

It’s clear that many of them find an event like this, with its mix of intel and entertainment, a good way to spend a couple of days during the cold winter months.

While there are more women than ever before working in the sector, it’s still pretty much a man’s game, judging from the turnout at this event.

Precision and digital farming topics are getting lots of traction as farmers begin to grasp the vast potential. However, it’s also a wake-up call. A number of speakers pointed out that some of the technology that seems just now on a tipping point for farmer uptake has been around for nearly two decades. While some technologies, such as genetically modified crops, were rapidly embraced, it has taken a generation for farmers to start seriously harnessing the power of data.

However, a couple of sessions during the jam-packed agenda at the conference strayed from the usual banquet of upbeat, how-to and take-charge presentations.

One was a session on mental health, a topic that has loomed large on conference agendas since a group formed the non-profit Do More Ag Foundation to raise awareness about mental health issues among farmers.

As with the rest of society, mental health can lurk below the radar of those surrounding a person who is suffering. What makes it more problematic in rural communities is that people are often isolated geographically and socially. Farming culture tends to play up the notion of strong and independent types — which makes those feeling depression less willing to risk being seen as weak.

The other was a session with a lawyer spelling out what rural property owners can and cannot do when it comes to protecting themselves from trespassers and thieves.

The much-publicized confrontation in a Saskatchewan farmyard in 2016 that left one person dead and a farmer charged with second-degree murder left a deep imprint in the minds of people on both sides of the incident.

In that case, a jury acquitted the farmer.

But those attending this session were cautioned against using force to deter invaders unless they feel their lives are in danger. “I think there are a lot of misconceptions out there when it comes to protecting property,” lawyer Lisa LaBossiere told the packed meeting room. She blames American television.

Using weapons to defend property isn’t supported under law, unless there is a clear threat of personal harm.

There’s no question farmers feel vulnerable, again, because they often live isolated from support services. Managing the farm’s day-to-day operations involves huge investments in ‘stuff’ such as tools, implements and vehicles that thieves like to target. Keeping their things secure is secondary only to protecting their families from criminal elements who are increasingly brash.

It seems the trends of consolidation and growth that have made farming an attractive business for young people to consider have also made the farm a lonelier place to be.

Social media is no substitute for social gatherings, such as the bonspiel weekends and other community events that defined rural culture in the past.

It gives new meaning to the notion of tough times on the farm.

About the author

Editorial Director

Laura Rance is the Editorial Director for Glacier FarmMedia. She is an award-winning journalist who has covered agriculture and rural issues for more than 30 years.

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