The nation took notice recently when an alarming new report said that by 2033, 40 per cent of Canadian farm operators will retire. That, it says, places agriculture on the cusp of one of the biggest labour and leadership transitions in the country’s history.
This trend has been happening for decades. But nowhere near enough has been done, or is being done, to address it. Federal census after census warns that farmers are getting older, raising questions about who would replace them.
The results? Well, based on the numbers, it’s fair to say the census hasn’t caught the public’s attention, nor moved governments to take meaningful action to help fill the gap.
That doesn’t mean there hasn’t been government investment in agriculture, both provincially and federally. But fixing this situation is programmatic. It’s not a ribbon-cutting event or a news release, and like it or not, that’s a feature of government investment.
Traditionally, it’s the sons and daughters of farm families who took over the operation. But as farms have grown, and other issues such as mounting labour shortages and sky-high prices for land, equipment and inputs such as seed and fertilizer took hold, that transition has become more complicated and costly.
And now, a perfect storm is upon us.
The report, from RBC and the University of Guelph’s Arrell Food Institute, is really about food insecurity. It quantifies the labour shortage, noting that that while farmers are retiring, a shortfall of 24,000 general farm, nursery and greenhouse workers is expected.
In fact, it says Canada’s agricultural skills crisis is already one of the world’s worst. The country has one of the highest skills shortages in food production compared to other major food exporting nations.
The report authors point to a three-part plan to try to address this problem.
First, they say that to offset a short-term skills crisis, Canada needs to accept 30,000 permanent immigrants over the next decade to establish their own farms and greenhouses or take over existing ones. That’s on top of the thousands needed just to run existing operations.
It also urges support for reforming agricultural education at colleges and universities, and for accelerating the adoption of autonomous and mechanized technology on farms.
The report authors note education “doesn’t stop at the school gate.” Producers have historically been among the first adopters of new technology, it says, noting that to put even more digital skills to work, farmers need access to advisory services that can educate them on the best solutions, the most effective production practices, and the best ways to reduce costs and promote sustainability on their farms. Advisory services help farmers design those solutions.
“Advisory services, similar to those provided to farmers in the United States, ought to be made more publicly available to new Canadian farmers,” it contends.
But not just new farmers… existing farmers too. A vital step forward is better support for those from families already on the land, those who are now taking over their parents’ operation. Don’t forget about them.