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Land use policies challenge new farmers

New farmers face many challenges as they attempt to get established in the business of farming.

Last week we examined the issues of farm size and financial risk from the perspective of starting farmers. This week we will look at land use policy relating to new farmers. This issue was brought to our attention by an organization helping new farmers called FarmStart.

Christie Young, the executive director and founder of FarmStart, spoke at our March provincial council meeting. She shared stories of how her organization has been able to help many new farmers get started into farming. FarmStart works with a diverse group including recent immigrants, some of whom have farming experience from before they came to Canada. Often they know how to grow foods from their home country and find an eager market in the greater Toronto area and beyond.

Other new farmers are young and may be fairly new to farming. FarmStart helps farmers through incubator farms, training programs, and through its FarmLink program. FarmLink connects new farmers with established farmers and farmland owners, helping them to access farmland once they are ready to get established on their own.

Land use policy is important for helping new farmers get access to land. With the average age of farmers going up, and significant farming acreage set to change hands in the next decade, helping new farmers get established is more important than ever.

Young challenged us to consider the impact of land use policies that allow consolidation of farms, and severances of farmhouses with no acreage attached. She pointed out that as farms get bigger, and houses in the countryside are either severed or torn down, there are fewer and fewer opportunities for new farmers to find parcels of farmland at a size and price they can afford. This has a negative impact on the overall health of agriculture and the future of farming.

Despite the challenges, Young had many success stories of farm entrepreneurs who have worked with FarmStart and who are now making a living farming. Farm operations she described ranged from market gardeners, to a mushroom operation, to rotationally grazed beef. Among them she talked about a couple who has a market garden operation on 1.5 acres. They have been able to net $70,000 a year, have paid their mortgage, and have a lifestyle they enjoy on their farm, including vacation in the winter.

Her examples illustrated that successful farm businesses don’t all look alike, and that diversity within farming, of size as well as commodities, is valuable for a vibrant sector.

Young left the CFFO provincial council with some challenges in terms of farm policy to support new farmers. FarmStart began in Guelph, and most of its work is focused within the broader Toronto and Guelph areas. There is a need for greater support for new farmers in all areas of the province, and in other provinces across Canada as well. Young pointed out that other jurisdictions (such as Quebec) have grants for new farmers that have proved very effective.

Suzanne Armstrong is the director of research at the Christian Farmers’ Federation of Ontario

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