Generation Ag: Young people are turning back to agriculture
But can they make it in the industry?
by Alexandria Eldridge
When she was in high school, Chelsea Geiger, 24, resented her family farm near Tawatinaw, an hour north of Edmonton. She couldn’t wait to move to the city, away from country chores like picking up rocks or driving the tractor. She had good grades and was planning to pursue medicine. In her eyes, agriculture wasn’t an industry that intelligent people chose. So it was off to Edmonton and the University of Alberta, where she launched into a degree in the sciences. But a funny thing happened to Geiger during a second year animal science class: she discovered a newfound – perhaps long-buried – passion for farming. “Agriculture is so exciting,” she says.
“There’s so much new technology.” Now, five years after she left the family farm – armed with a bachelor of science degree – she’s back with plans to farm with her father and sister. She’s returned not only with new enthusiasm, but with some new ideas, too. The family has already installed two new feeders for calves, called creep feeders, which bring increased efficiency to the operation, and Geiger has lots of other ideas, too, to make the farm both more sustainable and more profitable. She now sees the farm as a place of opportunity rather than toil.
Geiger’s story – or at least the first half of it – is a familiar one to many farmers and ranchers in Alberta. In recent years the number of young people choosing to work in agriculture has been declining, as more of them move to cities. They’re leaving behind parents and grandparents faced with tough questions about succession on their farms. In Alberta, the proportion of youth aged 15 to 24 working in agriculture fell from 13.2 per cent in 2001 to 11.2 per cent in 2011, while the proportion of those 55 or older grew from 27.5 per cent to 38.2 per cent. On the surface, it doesn’t look like there will be enough young people to take the reins of Alberta’s second-largest industry when the baby boomers begin to retire and, yes, die.
But the second half of Geiger’s story is also beginning to sound increasingly familiar. She has seen many young people follow a path similar to her own. As a program coordinator for Green Hectares, an organization that provides resources to agricultural entrepreneurs, Geiger has observed increased interest in the industry from other young people. “Young people are so passionate and excited and they’re willing to accept any opportunity that comes their way,” she says. “They have such a thirst for being connected to the land again.”
Although Green Hectares is not directly targeted at youth, similar organizations are. FarmOn was started in 2008 by six young Alberta farmers, and delivers resources including online workshops and articles on everything from business planning to production specifically for beginning farmers. At a national level, the Canadian Young Farmers’ Forum hosts conferences and provides educational and networking opportunities for young people in agriculture. Activity in these types of organizations points to an increased interest in agriculture, and the statistics are starting to reflect that. While the overall number of young people working in agriculture has fallen since 2003, the number of youth aged 15 to 24 hit a low point of 4,100 in 2010, and has since risen to 5,700 (see graph).
Travis Toews, the past-president of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association and a mentor in the association’s Cattlemen’s Young Leaders program, has noticed that young people are turning back to agriculture. “I’ve seen more interest in the past two years than I saw in the previous 10,” he says. He attributes the increased interest to a stronger industry that is finally recovering after difficult years of drought and BSE.
That recovery is making the industry a more attractive place to be. Agriculture Canada predicted that the net cash income for the sector will hit a record $13.1 billion in 2012, and as the industry starts to regain steam so too does the interest on the part of young people. “There’s no government program that will ever bring [young people] back,” says Toews. “We simply have to ensure that this industry can offer them the hope of a good future, and I think we’ve really been rounding the corner in the cattle industry in the last few years.”
The industry’s recovery coincides with an effort on the part of farmers and ranchers to tell their own story. Initiatives like Ag More Than Ever, which aims to communicate the importance of agriculture to consumers, is just one example of a growing push by farmers and ranchers to stimulate pride in the industry. This is trickling down to young people, who want to get involved. “Agriculture is the only industry that’s absolutely essential to us as human beings,” Geiger says, “and young people are slowly starting to realize that again.”
But Sarah Wray, one of the founders of FarmOn and a young farmer near Bashaw, northeast of Red Deer, stresses that just because young people want to be involved in agriculture doesn’t mean there aren’t challenges. The high cost of land and high input costs are barriers to entry. According to a 2009 analysis by Statistics Canada, the net worth of farms with young operators was $900,000, compared to an average of $1.4 million for all farms. Wray has never seen the shortage of young people in agriculture as a problem of interest but instead as one of viability. “They’re leaving because there’s not the opportunity necessarily, because the economics don’t make sense, but there’s nothing they want more,” she says. “Young people have a burning desire to get back to farming.”
Another major problem is the number of young farmers that also have to work off the farm to make ends meet. Statistics Canada’s 2011 agricultural census showed that 32.8 per cent of farmers under the age of 35 worked off-farm for more than 40 hours a week. Wray thinks the true number is even higher. Part of fixing that problem, she says, is creating awareness among consumers. “Right now, the disconnect between the people who produce food and who eat food is so huge […] essentially what’s happening now with the young farmers is they’re feeding your family and then taking a second job to feed their own,” she says.
Heather Watson, the executive director of Farm Management Canada, a national organization providing resources on farm business management, agrees that there are still too many barriers to entry. “There’s going to be a huge shift in farm assets in the next 10 to 15 years and I don’t think there are enough young farmers to fill the need,” she says. Part of the problem is the decrease in medium-sized operators. In Canada, between 2006 and 2011, the number of farms in total decreased by 10.3 per cent, while the percentage of farms that grossed more than $1 million in farm receipts increased by 31 per cent. This leaves a shrinking space in the industry for young farmers trying to start out with a smaller enterprise.
Still, Geiger sees the industry both recognizing and addressing its challenges. She’s part of the provincial Next Generation Advisory Council, a group of young farmers that meet to discuss how to support and encourage young people in agriculture. Despite the barriers that exist, she says young people can use their innovation and drive to transform the agriculture industry for the better. “There’s such a support behind young farmers because everyone recognizes how difficult it is,” she says. “And there’s such a passion behind the people that are in agriculture now.”
On the Upswing
Tough times in agriculture meant the number of people working in the industry fell in all age groups. For young people in particular, the number employed hit a low point in 2010, of 4,100. But things are looking up for the industry, and for young people – the number employed between ages 15 and 24 increased to 5,800 in 2012. There are signs that number could continue to climb as baby boomers begin to retire and youth see more opportunities
for careers in agriculture.