Young farmers face “strict realities,” said speaker Phil Veldhuis, who teaches value-added agriculture at the University of Manitoba. They also have some opportunities in value-added production and direct marketing.
Veldhuis heads Direct Farm Manitoba, which represents mainly small-scale farmers who sell direct to the public, grocery stores and restaurants.
Many farmer members of the group are young, startup farmers, said Veldhuis. They wanted to farm but “have no other opportunity and kind of barged their way into it with whatever they can do.”
With small land bases to work with, many of these farms have turned to intensive horticulture, said Veldhuis. These farms can make a solid living, sometimes grossing $40,000 per acre, but it’s hard work — sometimes requiring planting and replanting or cycling crops in and out.
Other farmers turned to smaller animals like sheep, goats and poultry. The livestock often have shorter maturity cycles and multiple births so they can be sold quicker and numbers can be increased quicker.
Beekeeping is another way to add a value stream without much land. “That’s certainly what brought me into agriculture,” said Veldhuis.
It also doesn’t take much land to start processing something the farm already produces — grinding cereals into food products or butchering cattle.
However, this will likely require far more marketing than conventional commodities would, he said. Supply chains often focus on suppliers who can produce year round — i.e. a semi of lettuce every week. This is why smaller farmers often sell directly to customers through roadside stands, farmers’ markets, and websites.
Direct marketers have also devised solutions — like U-picks for strawberries, which address both the labour to pick the crop, and the sales.
Others, primarily vegetable growers, sell through the CSA (community-supported agriculture) model which allows customers to buy a subscription in spring and receive fresh produce throughout the season.
E-commerce increased throughout 2020 as producers found ways to adapt to pandemic restrictions.
Regulation can also be quite challenging for small food producers. This includes food safety regulations, and supply management laws, which affect chicken, turkey, eggs and milk. In Manitoba, vegetable production is also limited by regulation, unless selling through Peak of the Market.
“There are important restrictions, both for food safety and for the way policy works in agriculture,” said Veldhuis. “I encourage you to find out before you get too deep in how those systems work and what those limits would be.”
As a direct marketer, the producer is going against the grain, Veldhuis added. Conventional agriculture is about market efficiency. Crops are standardized and thus interchangeable. By grading, they know exactly what it is. Everyone knows what the price of each crop is.
Direct marketers don’t want that, he said. You want to find niche markets where people are emotionally prepared to pay more for a premium product.