A few years ago (in 2014), I had the great privilege to head to British Colombia in March (winter here in Nova Scotia/spring there) and hang out with this group of amazing young farmers from all over Canada for 3 days.
We talked about our farms, our successes, our challenges, who we were and what we needed to succeed.
We were all totally inspired by the U.S.-based National Young Farmers Coalition and the amazing work they had been doing down in the States to help young farmers and advocate for changes to agricultural policy towards ones that would help young farmers succeed. They had created a really awesome report called Building a Future with Farmers and we thought Canada needed something similar.
So, we started the National NEW Farmer Coalition for Canada. We changed the Young to New because we realized that the stage of farmer, rather than age of farmer, really impacted the similarity of challenges farmers were experiencing in Canada.
We wanted it to be an initiative led by new farmers for new farmers but we also recognized that Canada has a lot of great organizations who were already doing work on new farmer issues. We wanted to pool those great efforts with each other and with our own efforts as farmers.
So, the National New Farmer Coalition is not a stand-alone organization, but a partnership with new farmers and a bunch of organizational members (currently: Young Agrarians, Food Secure Canada, National Farmers Union, Farmstart, and ACORN, with more to come).
The first thing we did was create a new farmer survey. That is also what the U.S-based National Young Farmer Coalition did and they had 1000 respondents.
We ended up getting 1374 full survey respondents (but over 1500 who at least started to respond). So, we beat the group in the States…yay!
To create the survey and to understand the responses, we had the great fortune to partner with PhD student at the University of Manitoba Julia LaForge.
We did a lot of work to make sure the survey wasn’t only filled out by people who read newsletters from those organizations mentioned above. We had a long list of organizations and people we contacted that included the provincial and national organizations of all the commodity groups, marketing boards, and other farm organizations. As responses were coming in, we would find gaps where we weren’t getting as many responses as we hoped (for example, low numbers in Saskatchewan or the Northwest Territories, low numbers in the pork or beef sectors, low numbers of respondents identifying as Indigenous farmers) and we would seek out ways to reach out more strongly to those sectors to get a well-rounded set of responses.
So, what are some of the results of the survey?
This is the National percentage. Atlantic Canada was higher in new farmers who didn’t grow up on a farm (around 74%).
This seems obvious to people like Bryan and I who didn’t grow up on a farm and the majority of new farmers we know claim the same.
But this stat is actually shocking to a lot of people. And has huge policy implications! A few years ago, I attended a presentation by an employee from Farm Credit Canada who said there is no problem with finding new (or young) farmers. They come from where they always came from…..farm families. I remember being shocked that he thought that.
And if most new farmers are not inheriting a family farm AND they didn’t grow up learning how to farm from their family members, they need to be able to access land, equipment, and knowledge some other way.
Here’s another stat:
That means the MAJORITY of new farmers are female. This one is also not a shocker to us. But I heard a stat from the last census (which was back in 2011) that 22% of farm operators were female. And that seemed very low to me.
However, there is still a cultural tendency to think of farmers as men. When children draw farmers, they usually draw a man. I know we’ve experienced this first hand, whether when purchasing a tractor or applying for a loan, people have first started talking to Bryan as the farmer and slowly realized during the conversation that they need to face and speak to both of us.
This one makes my heart sing! A very large percentage of new farmers are farming ecologically. This gives me so much hope for the future.
Now, for the next few survey results, these are specific to Atlantic Canada. Because I gave a presentation on this topic to new farmers in the Maritimes and I wanted them to really see themselves in it.
But the National New Farmer Coalition is right now working on a report for the country so keep your eyes wide open for that!
These are the top 5 obstacles mentioned by Atlantic Canadian new farmers. I remember how challenging it was for us to figure out how to access capital for our farm since the bank and credit union we use don’t offer farm loans. And Farm Credit Canada told us they’d only consider us if one of us got a full-time, off-farm job. Luckily the NS Farm Loan Board gave us one based on our years of experience and detailed business plan.
#2, the low profitability of farming relates both to the perception and the reality. A lot of farmers are scared to enter the sector because of the perception that they won’t make enough money to survive. And a lot of farmers start farming and find they’re struggling to make a living on it.
This next one is about what’s working for new farmers now. As you can see, it’s really educational opportunities that are currently working for new farmers.
These were the top 5 recommendations from new farmers on what they would like to see (or see more of) in Atlantic Canada. Two of these (farmer to farmer mentorship programs and on-farm training including apprenticeships) were also on the list above about what’s working, but clearly new farmers want to see more of these opportunities and more supported by the government.
What’s the next step for the National New Farmer Coalition? Well, the report I mentioned before, which will have recommendations for government in addition to case studies of new farmers across the country. It will be a reader-friendly report that I think any person even slightly interested in the topic of new farmers will find interesting.
Last year, I went to Parliament with a bunch of other new farmers from across the country and sat down with 5 MPs. We showed them some preliminary stats from the survey and they were surprised and also very supportive. It made me feel really empowered to be able to say my story and feel listened to. We definitely need to cultivate within new farmers the confidence to speak up and tell their stories to policy makers!
If this is the kind of thing you want to stay up-to-date about, join the National New Farmer Coalition facebook group.
Once the Canadian New Farmer report comes out, the Facebook group will definitely be the first place you can hear about it. I’ll also share it here on our blog as well as on our facebook page and twitter account. I think (and hope) it will have a great impact on the success of current and future new farmers across our country!
If you know of any members of parliament, organizations that work with new farmers, or new, aspiring, or experienced farmers that might be interested in these preliminary stats, please share this post with them and get them pumped to read the whole report!