Pilot program entices new farmers

“Studies show the consumer grocery dollar that’s being spent on organics increases by between 15 to 20 per cent every year and in recent years it has been as high as up to 26 per cent of grocery sales is organic.”

– Sharon Taylor

A pilot program is being launched for wanna-be farmers to get on-the-job training.

The Manitoba chapter of the Organic Food Council in partnership with Heifer International Canada, Harvest Moon Society and the Farmer’s Markets Association of Manitoba have developed the Manitoba Farm Mentorship Program, which will be rolled out early in the new year.

The program is designed to promote farming and sustainable farm practices while providing an opportunity to connect new farmers with land.

Project co-ordinator Sharon Taylor said queries have already started to come in but applications won’t be taken until January, 2009. “One of the inquiries came from as far as Kuwait,” she said.

The program will have a strong focus on organics and sustainable family farms.

Organic focus

It targets “aspiring producers with little or no farming background, as well as new or experienced producers with a farming background and access to land that might currently be farming, but they’re interested in transitioning their production (to organic).”

With a shift to locally grown and organic production from consumers, there are potential opportunities for farmers in these niche markets.

“Studies show the consumer grocery dollar that’s being spent on organics increases by between 15 to 20 per cent every year; in recent years it has been as high as up to 26 per cent of grocery sales,” she said.

Generally, grocery spending is increasing between one and three per cent each year.

“The demand is there. The supply in Canada is just not enough to meet demand,” Taylor said.

She said Canada is importing many organic food products.

Local buying

With the recent interest in “local” diets, there is a huge market to tap. There are no stats to support the theory that more people are buying locally, but there seems to be an anecdotal trend.

Manitoba Food Charter executive director Kreesta Doucette said her organization has been encouraging this movement. According to a survey conducted by Ipsos Reid, locally produced is the third factor considered by consumers when making purchasing decisions.

Taylor said the province through Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives has been actively

promoting the “buy local” trend. On Oct. 30, Science, Technology, Energy and Mines Minister Jim Rondeau also announced funding of $17,000 to the Manitoba Food Charter for the Manitoba Food Miles Program. Funding will be used to increase public awareness of the benefits of eating locally grown food, reducing the distance Manitoba food has to travel, and the potential for decreasing greenhouse gas emissions.

Repopulating rural areas

It is hoped that programs such as this one will help address concerns that family farms and rural populations are decreasing across the province.

Taylor said more than 50 per cent of farmers are over the age of 55. Plenty of these farmers will be looking toward retirement, but there is not always someone ready to take over.

“If there is nobody new coming in, you can’t get out,” said Wian Prinsloo, a 21-year-old immigrant farmer.

Prinsloo has been very fortunate. With no formal mentorship programs, he managed to find many people ready to help him achieve his dream.

“My mentors have been really key to my success,” he said.

Prinsloo wanted to farm as long as he can remember. Without being a landowner, he has established a business in Sundown, Manitoba raising pastured chickens.

“Getting into agriculture is extremely hard for a young person like myself if you don’t have access to a lot of capital or land.”

He is also benefiting from consumer trends toward local food.

“I receive more and more calls every week. People want to opt out of eating industrially.”

Word of mouth is the biggest way he has grown his customer base.

Under the new program, aspiring young farmers like Prinsloo can spend a full summer on a mentor’s farm. That will include visits to other farms as well as business development programs and financial planning workshops.

Land link

Once they finish with the program, they will be helped with goal setting and accessing resources to get them started.

A resource guide is being developed.

A “land link” listing will be produced to put potential new farmers in touch with people who have land to sell or rent.

And that’s not all. The program will provide a chance for existing farmers to teach their “hands-on” experience to others.

“We want to get people to look at more sustainable ways to farm,” Taylor said.

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