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Editorial: Future non-farmers

The agriculture community spends a lot of time and energy worrying about the future of the next generation of farmers.

Succession planning has become a cottage industry, governments and agencies fall over backward creating young farmer programs, and there’s constant fretting over how we might smooth their way.

But the fact is most of your kids won’t be returning to the farm. The largest portion of them will, inevitably, move off the farm or ranch, never to return outside family occasions and periodic visits with the grandkids in tow.

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It’s all just part of a long-standing pattern throughout Western Canada. Farms get larger, the rural population gets smaller and there are fewer new entrants to the business.

I’ve been mulling all this since reading KAP’s Election Priorities document, released earlier in the provincial campaign.

There, on page 10, you will find a call for the next government to “Increase funding available for post-secondary agriculture students to help offset the costs associated with moving to urban areas to attend school.”

I don’t disagree with their diagnosis, I have a problem with their solution to the problem.

To me what KAP proposes is too narrow and doesn’t consider other problems related to moving to the city and getting the education needed to go further in life. These don’t magically disappear when the sons and daughters decide to pursue lives in other directions.

I certainly remember moving off the farm to Regina in the late 1980s as Saskatchewan struggled through the bust that followed the boom of the 1970s and early 1980s.

There were few opportunities, and I will confess to enviously watching some of the other students head home to their parents’ basements and three square meals a day. Meanwhile I wondered how I was going to pay off those student loans. My roommate of the time still recalls subsisting on stale-dated chocolate bars and my weekly meat loaf nights.

In the intervening years the bust was replaced by another boom and now another bust. Again, there are fewer opportunities. There won’t be a lot of teenagers with a high school diploma pulling down big wages in the oilpatch for a while, and education is going to be more important than ever.

More and more jobs are being automated, and sometimes in surprising ways. Financial planners, for example, see a threat from algorithm-based portfolio management. Medical workers are said to be set to become an endangered species as diagnostic robots are poised in the coming years to automate the physical examination process. Reporting ‘bots’ are adding to journalism’s ongoing woes as a viable field of employment.

Other more blue collar jobs are even grimmer. Automated trucks and taxis promise to put millions out of work in North America alone, for example.

Against this backdrop, I think the kids we should all be more worried about are the ones leaving the farm.

They’re already starting in a bit of a hole in an education-oriented society, especially one becoming increasingly technical. The reality of smaller school divisions and limited dollars leads to fewer options. A friend’s son in Winnipeg, for example, was building fully functional robots in shop class the last two years of high school. He travelled twice to national competitions and today is a well-paid engineering technologist. I doubt he’d have had the same opportunities in rural WestMan if he’d stayed there, and he’s told me as much.

It all leads up to a lot fewer academically prepared rural Manitobans, and I say that knowing a lot of smart and well-educated people from farms across the province.

It just happens to be a hard truth when you look at the overall numbers, as outlined in a report a few years back to Manitoba’s Rural Secretariat: “Not only do rural and small-town Manitobans have lower levels of education compared to individuals in urban centres, but the educational disparity between the two major regions is increasing.”

I think the kids from rural Manitoba deserve better. They don’t deserve to struggle to catch up to their urban peers or to have significantly higher unavoidable expenses. They’ll already be struggling enough with the transition from a farm to a city, and all the accompanying culture shock.

We should be working to ease this transition for all of them, not just the ones returning to farm.

About the author

Editor

Gord Gilmour

Gord Gilmour is Editor of the Manitoba Co-operator.

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