Manitoba stood out in 2016 census data for having the largest proportion of those younger farm operators, as well as the youngest population of farm operators in Canada outside Quebec.
But these young agriculturalists now farm a landscape more thinly populated than one their grandparents and even parents experienced.
During the 1980s and 1990s, when most of today’s young entrants were born, a third of the entire Canadian farm population dispersed and disappeared.
Yet if agriculture seems a lonelier place nowadays, that isn’t deterring next-in-line young farmers who tell a University of Manitoba research project they definitely want in.
The study, entitled Becoming a Young Farmer; Young People’s Pathways into Agriculture in Four Countries collected the views and experiences of 48 farmers between the ages of 18 and 40 in Manitoba last summer.
The research, which is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Council of Canada is also asking similar questions of new farm entrants in Ontario and much further afield — in India, Indonesia and China.
Research assistants Meghan Entz and Hannah Bihun presented their initial findings of the work during the Keystone Agricultural Producers’ convention last month.
They interviewed a wide range of farmers, from those inheriting grain and livestock farms to brand new entrants operating very small direct-marketing ventures, said Entz.
“One of the things we were interested in was what motivates people to farm,” she said.
The replies weren’t surprising — ranging from wanting to work with family, a love of the outdoor lifestyle farm life offers, a desire to engage with work that’s varied and challenging, and a sense of altruism and social responsibility.
In most cases — 86 per cent — respondents said parents or family were enabling and encouraging them to farm. These young farmers also are motivated by a belief they have good futures ahead in agriculture.
“This is a pretty important finding,” said Entz. “They weren’t talking about making money or having profit, but they were talking about seeing farming as a sustainable livelihood to go into.”
A graduate student in international affairs at University of Waterloo, Entz is working with University of Manitoba sociology professor, Annette Desmarais to conduct the field research for the study.
Her colleague, Bihun, is a young farm entrant herself, and working on a master’s degree in geography at U of M.
Bihun said access to land was the most common barrier to farming cited by the majority of young farmers interviewed.
“Forty-one out of 48 mentioned it as a barrier to them,” she told KAP delegates in her presentation.
“It’s an issue prominent across all farming categories and all farm sizes.”
Eleven per cent of the respondents — 79 per cent came from farm families — noted they had already inherited land, while 70 per cent said they were likely to inherit in future.
Access to credit and financial management were the other most common issues raised by those interviewed, said Bihun, noting that respondents raised those issues most, linking them back to their difficulties with secure land to farm.
“When a young farmer was talking about land as a barrier they were talking about land as it relates to their finances,” she said.
Bihun also said young farmers interviewed said they don’t feel any level of government nor political party grasps the issues or needs of new farm entrants.
In an interview Entz said what this research really underscores is how motivated young farmers are to farm.
“That was one of the really encouraging results of the research,” she said.
A particular insight gleaned from this work is just how much in common young farmers have, regardless of what sector in ag they’re pursuing, she said.
“From those in small-scale CSAs (community-shared agriculture) marketing, to those who inherited fairly large conventional grain or mixed farms… some of the issues they face really cut across all types of agriculture, issues of land concentration, increasing size of farms, difficulties accessing farmland,” she said.
They did ask how people will sustain social networks in agriculture, she said. Farm organizations, commodity groups and connections through college and university definitely foster a sense of community among them, but a distinct advantage young farmers know they have is access to social media.
It keeps them in contact across geographic distance in a way a previous generation never could.
“Social media is a huge enabler of farmer-to-farmer relationships,” she said. “People say it’s the new coffee shop for young farmers to keep in contact with each other.”
The research began in 2017 and will be ongoing for another four years while Ontario and overseas data is also collected and analyzed.
The research aims to challenge the idea that young people don’t want to farm and would rather leave for the city, said U of M’s Desmarais, who is one of the study’s nine researchers across multiple countries.
“The reason that we decided to do this research is that there is this really strong message out there at a global level and at many international development institutions… that people don’t want to continue to farm, that the youth who have lived in rural areas and who come from rural areas are actually completely intent on moving out and moving into cities,” she told the Manitoba Co-operator last spring.
“But what we have found, however, in the research that we’ve all been doing already, is that individually that wasn’t the case.”