Do you remember what you wanted to be when you grew up? Did you want to be “The Farmer in the Dell”? While the average age of the Canadian farmer is 55 years old and most farmers are 55 to 59 years old (2017 Statistics Canada report), the portrait of the typical Canadian farmer is changing and the produce in your fridge may not be grown by who you think.
The same report shows a rising trend in the percentage of young farmers. Farm operators under the age of 35 increased by three per cent from 2011 to 2016. And with the COIVD-19 pandemic forcing changes in young Canadians’ career paths, farming could become a viable occupation for young people in this country.
Young people working in agriculture face many challenges
While many young adults want to enter the industry, it’s not an easy career path to follow.
Take Andrew Lovell, for example. He is now the owner of River View Orchards, a fruit farm in Keswick Ridge, NB, where he grows apples, as well as strawberries, raspberries, pumpkins, plums and pears. While Lovell didn’t grow up on a farm, he knew from an early age it was what he wanted to do.
“When I was five, I used to go out and watch the farmer next door. I remember he was plowing a field, and I said, ‘I’m going to farm someday.’”
Lovell started working for his neighbour’s farm when he was 12, building cattle fences in the pastures. He attended agricultural college at 18 and then started a landscaping business. He bought his farm in 2012.
Lovell warns that young people interested in a career in agriculture should be realistic about the outcomes. The upfront costs of farming are high, because farmers need to rent or buy land and equipment.
“Financing is rough and there are so many upfront costs that lenders don’t understand,” said Lovell.
Lovell has learned not to put his eggs all in one basket. He has several side businesses to help reduce the risks he faces as a farmer, such as deer damage and drought.
Like Lovell, Jordan McKay knows the challenges and joys of farming. McKay is a part owner of Willowtree Farm, a family-run farm in Port Perry, ON. He grew up on the farm and then left to attend university and travel. McKay returned to the farm when he realized there were more opportunities as the farm business began to expand. The farm now grows 200 acres of fruits and vegetables, and raises lamb and beef.
For McKay, farming is a family affair. He runs the farm alongside his wife, brother and sister-in-law. He works mainly on the retail side of the operation, where they run a butcher shop as well as a farm store.
“The neat thing that we do is that we retail most of our products,” said McKay. “So we control the production, the packing, our logistics and retail.”
McKay said that one of the challenges faced by young farmers who work on their family farms is the power struggle that can exist between older and younger generations.
“Sometimes the older generation has trouble letting go,” said McKay, “There’s a bit of a challenge with that older generation not letting the responsibility be passed down.”
Access to knowledge: one of the most important factors for agricultural workers
Hands-on experience is the best way to gain valuable knowledge about farming. McKay noted that while there are university and college programs that offer courses on how to farm, it can be hard for many young people to learn that way.
“We’ve got one growing season in Canada,” said McKay. “So to learn from your mistakes is a lot harder and can take years and years.”
Sarah Dolamore agreed, “Nothing compares to being on the job, on the land, and mentorship from people who have 30 years of experience of how to do things most efficiently.”
Dolamore is the farm manager at Mount Wolfe Farm, a 70-acre CSA farm in Caledon, ON, that grows over 35 types of vegetables. She learned to farm mostly through trial and error.
Dolamore did not grow up on a farm, but came from a family that deeply valued nature and being outside. She attended the University of Guelph for studio art, but realized after graduating that she wanted to pursue a different career. Dolamore was interested in environmental issues around sustainable living and the ecological relationship with our environment, which led her to farming.
Inspired by her cousin who was completing an internship at the New Farm in Creemore, ON, Dolamore began working at an organic farm near Guelph. Unlike most people who choose to get a degree in agriculture before starting work, Dolamore learned exclusively from working on a farm.
In 2015, Dolamore’s family converted a 90-acre property near Caledon into a working farm. The land was originally bought to serve as a retirement property for her grandparents. But faced with high property upkeep costs, the only option for their family was to sell or to change how the land was used. The family decided to convert their acreage into Mount Wolfe Farm.
Agriculture, sustainability, community and environmental connection
Dolamore considers Mount Wolfe a centre for her community.
“We wanted to make an impact, not just for our family but also for the local community and perhaps a wider impact as well,” said Dolamore.
“Millennials are interested in how things grow and sustainable food systems,” said Dolamore. “They’re … interested in the environment. And what we can do through agriculture and farming goes hand-in-hand [with] how we can protect the environment.”
Dolamore wants more young people to feel connected to their environment.
“Aside from growing food, one of my main goals is to give people an opportunity to form a relationship with land so that it becomes a part of their identity and story,” said Dolamore.
While farming might not be for everyone, you can support young Canadian farmers by buying directly from their retail shops, going to farmers’ markets and researching online local farms near you that might offer other services such as pick-your-own food and seasonal festivals.
For anyone interested in pursuing agriculture as a career, young farmers suggest researching different agricultural programs such as WWOOF, Fair Finance Fund and Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario.
Cover photo credit: Andrew Lovell
Farmwork to Feed Canada (F2FC) is a national volunteer not-for-profit initiative by Canadian communication professionals, students, and recent graduates in communications. F2FC collaborates with farmers, and agri-businesses amid COVID-19 pandemic-related challenges to Canada’s food supply and food security, to engage Canadians, pro bono, with compelling stories about their food system and build support for Canada’s farmers, food producers, and their essential skilled workers.