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The New Face of Farming

January 20th, 2012     by Emily Van Halem     Comments

Looking for a job? Check your local classifieds and you’ll find that many types of ads abound. But have you ever seen a “Farmers Wanted” ad? I haven’t. Nevertheless, the agricultural sector in Canada is in desperate need of help.

In the next ten years 75% of existing farmers are going to reach retirement age with few prospects of replacement. Pause to ponder the gravity of this situation. Who will grow our food? Will we become totally dependent on industrial farms and imported food? Are we comfortable with relying on imported labour? What do these things mean for food prices and quality? What implications do they have for the social and economic fabric of rural communities?

Leave it to young people to face these questions head on. Despite an aging farmer population and uncertain finances, there is a small but steadily growing number of young farmers who have the courage, dedication, passion and ingenuity to turn conventional farming on its head and are making a go at it in new and exciting ways. Who are they and how are they doing it?

Today’s new farmers include a diverse body of young people ranging from new immigrants, urbanites, scholars and those coming to farming from a previously established career. Of these new farmers, a growing proportion is made up of young women. Most of them are digging into their work for different reasons and in different ways than their predecessors. A survey taken by FarmStart, an Ontario-based organization dedicated to helping people pursue careers in agriculture, found that 68% of its interns grew up in the suburbs or city and 95% had at least some post-secondary education. Intention, rather than necessity, appears to drive these young people to what is still seen as an unusual career choice.

Many young farmers share a deep frustration with the current state of the agricultural system and see their own labour as a means to enact tangible, positive impact. They find that amidst so much global turmoil, being able to grow healthy, sustainable food is a deeply satisfying undertaking. For Erica Lemieux, a 26 year old urban farmer in Toronto, this was the very reason she chose to farm. “Learning how to grow food is a small thing but it’s also a huge thing,” she told me. “Young people are realizing they’ve lost this basic skill and are choosing to reclaim this knowledge. In doing so, they’re rejecting the current agricultural system and reinventing what it means to farm.”

And reinvent they do. While their motivations may be rooted in idealism, the actions of young farmers are intelligent, practical and forward-thinking. Today’s modern food system is characterized by mega-farms, mechanization and monocrops. While this system is profitable for some, we are seeing the dire ramifications of such a food system in the form of labour rights violations, ecosystem devastation, inhumane treatment of animals and a lack of transparency as to where our food comes from, who grows it and how. In many ways, the approach young farmers are taking today is bringing agriculture back to its roots – small, diverse farming operations with a human face.

It’s this approach that is making farming for young and new farmers both financially and ethically sound as they strive to make a living in a way that gives back to communities and the environment. According to Tarrah Young, a 34 year-old in her 10th year of farming, “people don’t pay for food but they will pay for the knowledge that they are doing good. Young farmers are invested in sustainability and contributing to the health of the planet and are building a loyal customer base around that.”

To truly sell that knowledge of health, sustainability and community, you have to live it. A common thread among young women farmers is their relationship-based approach to farming. This means knowing their plants, animals and soil through-and-through so that they can respond effectively when things are out of balance. This also means building relationships with the community to whom they sell and with whom they work.

These young women tend to sell their products locally – through a farmers’ market, a Community Shared Agriculture (CSA) program, or at the farm gate itself. And whether they are the lead farmer or are farming in partnership, they take a collaborative approach, bringing in friends, family, volunteers and paid or work-exchange interns into the fold. The steep financial costs of getting started at farming make this collaborative approach imperative for many.

But this collaborative and supportive spirit works both ways. Now that her farm is up and running (in its sixth year of operation), Caitlin Hall, a 30-year-old woman farming solo in Southern Ontario, explains the importance of community in agricultural contexts: “Farming by nature isn’t a solitary activity … so while on paper it’s just my place, I have a great network of people here.” She is happy being able to offer living quarters to several interns each year who have even started their own farm businesses using Caitlin’s land as an incubator space.

Since most young women entering farming aren’t coming from farming backgrounds, a hands-on education is also an essential ingredient to farming successfully. There’s a steep learning curve associated with acquiring necessary knowledge and skills. While some universities and colleges offer courses in agriculture, farm-based education programs are quickly gaining in popularity across Canada. In Ontario, FarmStart offers a farm incubator program, skill-based trainings and farm business courses. THINKFarm is a similar organization in Nova Scotia. Some provinces even offer start-up grants for new farmers to help with initial capital costs.

Sexism and ageism are realities for many young woman farmers. Old-schoolers in the agriculture scene often don’t take them seriously and may be slow to recognize them as the primary farmer when working alongside male colleagues or partners. Despite such negative experiences, the women I interviewed often expressed their surprise at how readily they were accepted and supported by the older male farmers in their community. For Amy Lounder, the 31-year-old proprietor of a winter crop CSA in Nova Scotia, men in their fifties and sixties were her main source of support in her first year of farming. They had the expertise and tools to help her and to her surprise, they seemed to want to support anyone who was interested in farming, given that young people aren’t getting into it on a broad scale.

But all is not rosy for a young woman starting a career in farming. There are many challenges to test your resolve along the way. Making a living at it is tough, especially in the first few years. Personal affinities for hard work, the outdoors and multi-tasking are definitely important. But don’t forget passion! For many young farmers, a real love of farming is what helps them weather the job’s many challenges. Farmers tend to be a resilient bunch, and often see the silver lining behind every cloud. As Caitlin Hall notes, “it’s not the easiest way to make a living, but it’s entirely possible. The bonus is that you get a great place to live and great food to eat. Plus you work for yourself.”

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