Land access the No. 1 obstacle to starting or continuing farming
Young farmers’ motivations to farm despite the obstacles they face are striking and important, says an author of a new study from the University of Manitoba.
Researcher Annette Desmarais said she was glad, perhaps a bit surprised to see young farmers wanted to farm so they could spend time with family, be closer to nature, and feel pride in their work, among other things.
“Those kinds of motivations I thought were really, really important,” said Desmarais. “If you were to ask people, ‘why are you a professor? Like, what motivates you to be a professor?’ I don’t know how many of the reasons would be similar to these kinds of fundamental, human reasons.”
The insights come as part of an international study on young people’s pathways into farming, spanning China, India, Indonesia and Canada. In Manitoba, the study included interviews with 48 young farmers.
“There is a growing crisis of generational renewal on farms in numerous countries,” Desmarais and co-author Hannah Bihun write in the report. “The average age of farmers is rising, many do not have succession plans, and some studies suggest that young people are leaving the countryside in droves.”
This issue is similar in many northern countries where agriculture is characterized by increasing farm size, debt economies and concentration of capital and land, they write.
Canada has lost one-third of farms since the mid-’80s, the report says. The number of farmers younger than 34 had declined by 70 per cent.
“We don’t know what the future of farmers or farming in Canada will look like if we do not, or if we are unwilling to replace those who are leaving farming with a younger generation of farmers,” Desmarais told the Co-operator.
There’s also a social and economic crisis looming in the countryside, said Desmarais. Farms face tightening margins. Many farmers feel pressure to get bigger, leaning on economies of scale to make a bit more profit.
The study looked at the farmers who are “bucking this trend” to become farmers — whether by taking over a family farm, or by moving from the city to start a new operation.
Why these young people wanted to farm was striking, said Desmarais.
The most commonly mentioned motivation was family, specifically the ability to work near parents, children and other family members. Some also wanted to raise children on the farm and instil in them the value of hard work.
“Part of it is raising our kids on the farm,” said one young farmer. “That’s probably one of the reasons why we do what we do.”
The second-most-common motivator was a quiet life in close proximity to nature. Young farmers spoke about the value of privacy, working with animals, and connecting with nature.
Young farmers also valued the diverse set of skills and tasks required each day and liked the sense of pride their work gave them.
“You go from one thing to the next — you’re a veterinarian, engineer, welder, accountant, business person, marketing,” said one farmer. “And then growing food for people.”
Other identified motivators included a sense of social responsibility, support from parents and family, rural culture, viability or profitability, and autonomy.
Despite these motivators, young farmers face many barriers in entering and continuing to farm, the report says.
Eighty-five per cent of farmers surveyed mentioned access to land as a barrier, whether because of rising prices or competing for the land with other farmers or large corporate farms. The most common obstacle was inability to access capital to purchase the land.
While she expected access to land to come up, she didn’t expect it to be so universal an obstacle, said Desmarais. Conventional, organic and direct-marketing farmers all mentioned access to land as a barrier.
Conventional farmers felt they needed to get bigger to survive. Some small-scale direct marketers farmed that way because they had no other option — they could not get more land.
This will not come as a surprise to many. At its February AGM, Keystone Agricultural Producers passed two resolutions related to increasing land access. One called on KAP to lobby for tax breaks for landowners who rent or sell to young farmers.
“Young farmers just are having a very difficult time,” said District 6 director Rauri Qually, who brought the resolution forward. “Basically buying land is out of the question for us, but even to rent it is getting more and more out of the question.”
The second resolution was to request a review of the province’s Farmland Ownership Act to “ensure that Manitoba agricultural producers’ best interests are preserved.” KAP was investigating fears that foreign money and conservation groups were driving up prices, the organization said during an advisory council meeting in July.
Land access is also an issue for small-scale farmers, said Phil Veldhuis, president of Direct Farm Manitoba.
“We have also had lots of direct marketers rely on rented land close to the city that eventually was developed and they lost their business or had to re-establish,” Veldhuis said. “Direct marketing needs a large population base of customers, so people wanting small acreages have to compete with suburban sprawl.”
Farmers who are very confined by their land base can’t diversify into more crops or animals, and so can’t take advantage of the clientele they’ve built up, said Veldhuis.
Smaller properties are often priced even higher per acre than open farmland, Veldhuis said.
“That makes the ag lenders reluctant to get involved. Rural municipalities are often reluctant to subdivide farmland to make smaller pieces available to small farm operations,” he said.
Constrained by their small land base, many of these small-scale farmers — vegetable farmers in particular — intensify their operations to produce more income per acre.
“You might generate $4,000/ac. with a horticulture enterprise, instead of $400/ac. growing wheat,” Veldhuis said. Some intensive farmers can generate a lot more — up to $40,000 per acre, one direct-marketing farmer told the Co-operator last year.
Accessing credit and managing finances was the second-most-common barrier young farmers mentioned. For instance, one young dairy farmer explained there would be more young dairy farmers if it were easier to build equity to buy quota.
“There’s a lot of great herdsmen out there who would be great farmers. But they just don’t have the equity to actually do it,” he said.
He added that the Manitoba New Entrant program helps, but it still takes a lot of money to get started.
Policy and government regulation was the third-most-common barrier young farmers identified, which included concerns about supply management. Risk and weather came in fourth followed by social and physical isolation, succession planning and public perception of agriculture.