The Keystone Agricultural Producers is hoping to make the future of farming a higher priority in the run-up to the provincial election.
KAP released its pre-election priorities document last week and it was full of items that emphasized the need to support and encourage young producers and new entrants to agriculture.
“We talk lots about succession and making sure our wills are in place and all that kind of stuff, but really what is in it for the folks who are just starting out?” said Dan Mazier, president of KAP. “How can we support them now? I think that’s why we really need to focus on this. We need to look at how we get new people in.”
And there are several specific policies that Mazier believes the next government can implement to facilitate that outcome.
One is to waive AgriStability fees for the first five years a new farmer is enrolled in the program, he said. Another is for government to provide an unmatched “kick-start” deposit of 3.25 per cent of allowable net sales over the first five years of enrolment in AgriInvest.
“I think any farmer, but especially a young farmer or a beginning farmer, needs to have a solid backing and we want to make sure that is there,” Mazier said. “It’s one of those things where you just don’t need another expense.”
He went on to note the cost of farmland in Manitoba has increased by as much as $2,000 per acre over the last several years, bringing the cost of purchasing an average-size farm operation to about $3 million — more than three times as expensive as it was 30 years ago.
Operating costs have also risen dramatically over the same period. In 1986, Mazier said the average farm required an operating investment of $149,933 per year, compared to $500,000 today.
“That is huge,” he said. “How do you introduce someone to that?”
KAP is also calling on political parties to commit to financial assistance for rural youth who want to attend post-secondary school to pursue agriculture, but who face an added cost of relocating to the city to do so.
“That could help a lot,” said Mazier, stressing the importance of having youth return to the farm after completing their education.
The average farm operator in Manitoba is 55 years old, he added, noting that between 1991 and 2011 the number of farmers under the age of 35 decreased by a whopping 73 per cent.
“So the bigger question is, who is going to own our land at the end of the day? Who is going to own agriculture at the end of the day? Is society comfortable having someone else own our land? Someone has to buy it and own it and operate it,” he said.
A 2015 Probe Research survey commissioned by KAP, found 82 per cent of Manitobans wanted the provincial government to do more to support young farmers, while 89 per cent of respondents said they preferred to purchase food grown in the province.
“So if the declining number of farmers continues, they could have difficulty accessing locally produced food,” Mazier said.
But young farmers aren’t the only declining resource KAP wants to see politicians address as people head to the polls. In stark contrast to provinces like Saskatchewan, the organization said the Manitoba government has dramatically reduced spending on strategic policy, research and innovation in agriculture over the last nine years.
In the 2007 provincial budget $24.6 million was allocated for such initiatives. Currently, Manitoba is only investing $10.1 million, according to KAP.
“So what does that do to our competitiveness?” asked Mazier.
He added that the closure of some extension offices and the government’s reluctance to fill vacant production specialist positions have also been detrimental.
Like many sectors of Manitoba’s economy, agriculture is also seeking a commitment to improve the roads and bridges that service rural areas.
“But it is more than just roads, when we say infrastructure we are also talking digital,” said Mazier.
A KAP survey of so-called high-speed Internet in rural Manitoba found the average download speed was only 8.62 Mbps, less than one-third the speed experienced by most urban Canadians.
“New technology allows me to farm smarter and more efficiently, but without high-speed Internet access, I can’t take advantage of all the tools that are becoming available,” said KAP’s District 7 representative Simon Ellis, who farms near Wawanesa.
To that end, the organization is asking political parties to commit to bringing all Manitoba households a minimum of 25 Mbps broadband Internet service by 2020, as well as working with municipalities and the federal government to build additional cellular towers.
Mazier said they haven’t heard from Manitoba’s parties on these issues yet, but hopes this will get people talking about issues important to the province’s producers.
“We want to get a discussion going, there are a lot of important issues out there,” he said.