As farming changes, education about farming practices should grow in order to reduce the gap between the consumer and their food.
The dirt smelled like wet clay and mud stuck to my fingers as I helped my parents pluck rocks from between truckloads of muddy potatoes. I was surrounded by the rhythmic sound of conveyor belts and machinery driving loads of potatoes back and forth across the farmyard.
I hopped between the machinery holding my two braids tightly in my hands. Dust filled the hot summer air, creating a thick grey blanket over our dog lying below the belts on those long, late harvest days.
My family has been farming just north west of Linden, Alta., for many generations, and my brothers and I grew up right in the middle of it. Our grandfathers and uncles were usually on the farm working alongside our dad, helping to seed, plow, harvest and do anything that needed to be done. They took us kids along throughout their work from the time we could barely walk, and that’s how we learned about how farming worked. They taught us the value of hard work, and for that I am proud to be a farmer’s daughter.
Looking back, I don’t know if I ever wanted to be a farmer, but I couldn’t ever have imagined another type of childhood. Today I’m studying journalism, something completely different than farming, while my brothers are all studying to become mechanics. Nobody in my extended family of my generation is planning to continue on the farming path. They’ve all gone off to colleges and universities pursuing different professions.
What is happening to farming in my family isn’t much different than the trends happening across Canada. The population of farmers is getting older, with less young people willing to pick up the tools needed to work the land.
According to Stats Canada, the median age of farm operators is 54, In 2011, almost half of Alberta’s farmers were over the age of 55, which is a record high in Canada, while only 8.2 per cent of farmers are below age 35.
Vern Crawford is one of the broiler-breeder poultry farmers in the 49.6 per cent that’s above the age of 55, and he won’t be passing his farm on to his children.
Photo by Masha Scheele
“I’m a fourth generation farmer, he says. “There’s a bit of sentiment to let go of the farm, but in my case we give our sons support in what they love to do and what they’re good at. That’s the most important. So we won’t be passing on the farm to our sons, we will have to sell it,”
Crawford had to sell part of his quota — which is a right to produce a particular product to a certain limit under official control — when he shut down his farm in southern Alberta because he couldn’t find people to operate it. A larger farm in northern Alberta bought his quota, because they had enough workers and could afford to hire more people who studied specialized sectors of poultry farming.
“In the last 30 years, there’s a lot more corporate style farming,” Crawford says. “As equipment gets bigger and better, acres are covered faster. We don’t need as many people. The fact that there are less people in agriculture doesn’t mean that production is going to stop or is at risk. But big corporate farms will just swallow up small family farms.”
This is mirrored in the fact that over the past five years the number of farms in Canada has decreased by 10 per cent, although the average size of a farm has grown by seven per cent. Farms generating millions of dollars in annual sales and nearly half of Canada’s food production have become the nation’s fastest growing agriculture sector although they still only make up five per cent of the country’s entire farming population.
“The kid who gets to buy into a big family farm is set for life, but if it’s a little farm then it’s hard slugging. There won’t be enough for the child to make a living,” says Crawford.
Ron Bonnett, president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture (CFA), agrees it would be difficult for a small farm to succeed —‚even though some still do.
Photo by Masha Scheele “They need to hit high markets, so if their choice is to become a larger farm they have to link with another larger farm. It’s not easy. Farming used to be less business than lifestyle, but now if you don’t have the business side perfected, it’s difficult.”
Things were very different for my mom and dad Cora and Arjan Scheele. Dad bought his first cattle when he was 18 and going to school to study agriculture. He started his own farm when he was just 22. This almost seems impossible for a 22-year-old in today’s massive agriculture industry because it’s too expensive to start a farm without having a connection to the equity needed to a run a successful operation.
Ashley Rietveld studied at the University of Alberta to get her Bachelor of Science in agriculture and animal sciences, and now at 33, owns a broiler-breeder farm (a broiler-breeder farm is one that produces fertilized eggs that are not for human consumption.) in Alberta with her husband Ryan Rietveld..
She says there are young people at the universities that “are interested in farming but they don’t know how to get in and obtain equity in an operation. It’s hard for them to buy a farm, there’s nothing out there connecting these young people to well-established producers.”
Speaking as a 20-year-old in the next generation, it doesn’t appeal to me to start a small farm just to barely scrape by in the shadows of expanding multi-million dollar agribusinesses. Nor am I alone.
So what will happen if big farm corporations replace the 49.6 per cent of farmers in Alberta that could be seeking retirement within the next 10 years or so?
Bonnett, from the CFA, believes there isn’t, nor will there be, enough knowledge about farming for the consumer. He says society needs to start educating people about farming on the public school level.
“We’re starting to see many people who are many generations removed from the farm lifestyle, so there’s not as much direct knowledge of what the farmers do on the farm and how they do it. It’s a challenge for the farmers to let the consumer know what exactly they’re doing.”
Photo by Masha Scheele
To try and meet that challenge, agriculture commissions, boards, and the industry host events such as Aggie Days, a free educational experience for schoolchildren held at the BMO Centre at Stampede Park each year. Aggie Days, designed to help students learn about Alberta’s agricultural and historical legacy, is hosted by the Agriculture Education Committee, industry organizations and volunteers. It was held this past April.
But, as the gap between the source of our food and the consumer keeps growing, such events won’t be enough. Unless agriculture education improves, misconceptions about agriculture will increase.
It is important for people to find out what is happening “out on the farm” and how agriculture impacts our daily lives starting at a young age. Without education there will be more and more questions and misconceptions about agriculture.
While I’m sad that not as many people will have the same childhood that I did, the real problem is that they won’t know the things I have learned about where my food comes from.