The Alberta farming industry is trying to interest more young people in pursuing a career in agriculture as the average age of farmers continues to rise. While some of the younger generation have started to head back to the farm, challenges with trade regulations and labour issues are also putting Alberta’s agriculture industry at risk.  

“We’ve been hit with so many things in the past couple years with the minimum wage going up, with WCB (Workers Compensation Board of Alberta), the labour laws changing … and the carbon tax, just so many things have been dumped on us and there’s a lot of people saying they’re having hard time making a go of it,” said Conny Kappler, the executive director for the Alberta Farm Fresh Producers Association (AFFPA).

AFFPA works with farmers as an advocate for the farm-direct industry — which focuses on connecting farmers to selling directly to the public — and Kappler has noticed the drop in memberships and young farmers.

“Sometimes, I want to say there’s not enough people who want to do this work, because it is hard work, and we can’t always pay the highest wages…otherwise the food prices will go up. Then there’s push back on that because people will go to the big box stores for their food instead of local.”

Oneil Carlier, the minister of agriculture and forestry, spoke on the rising-age issue. “This isn’t new, this has been going on for probably for decades, maybe even generations, not just in Alberta but around the world,” he said in an interview with The Journal.

The average age overall for farmers across Canada is 55, with only nine per cent of the farming community being under the age of 35 according to Statistics Canada.

The 2016 census for the cattle industry confirmed that more than half of the beef cattle farm operators are 55 and older, predominately male, and sole operators. However, a small base of younger operators and women are starting to account for a larger share of producers than previously.

The younger members of the family join in on branding. Photo by Casey Richardson.

“What we have [are] some points of sunshine on that horizon … [what] we’ve seen from the Canadian census in 2016 is actually an increase in young farmers returning to the farm, which we haven’t seen in 40 years,” said Carlier.

Among many organizations advocating for farmers, the Alberta Beef Producers (ABP) works on behalf of over 18,000 beef and cattle producers.

Their executive director, Rich Smith, spoke on seeing an increase in younger cattle farmers and he thinks it will impact the average age the next time the census is done.

“We are seeing more younger producers coming into our industry which is really good news for us, because some of the older people are selling their herds and not buying more cattle,” he said.

The ABP focuses on the area of policy, working with the province to make sure what “the government does helps our industry and it doesn’t create problems for our industry,” explained Smith.

“[We’re] trying to make sure producers can keep access to the water and land resources of the province and the legislation policies, [so] what the government does doesn’t hurt our competitiveness,” said Smith. “We’re part of a global industry, so we need to be competitive.”

The big changes are with larger farms taking over medium- and small-sized ones. Kappler lives in Rolling Hills and has noticed the drop.

“This is just a personal observation, is that you know they’ll be the farm-direct industry and then there’ll be big agriculture. It’s almost like that medium-size is shrinking.”

Enjoying a cold brew alongside the workday is common during big events like branding. Photo by Casey Richardson.

According to StatsCan, while there were 280,043 farms in 1991, by 2011, that number had declined to 205,730. Along with this, the average farm area increased from 598 to 778 acres.

But alongside these growing farms, there is a need for workers and families to take over the large responsibilities.

“Well, we’re not going to get enough from the rural population, so it’s gotta come from the cities. I think there is kids from the city getting into agriculture, but there needs to more of that education at the high school level,” Kappler said.

Considering agriculture is Alberta’s second largest industry, Kappler asserts farming should be taught throughout schools.

“We have written a resolution to Alberta Education regarding getting more agriculture programming in schools, because that’s what feeds people. It’s pretty darn important,” said Kappler.

Smith spoke on ABP’s 2018 strategic plan, highlighting their interest in increasing the level of knowledge of agriculture for young consumers and students.

“We’re looking at revising our education programs in terms of working to try and get more engaged with the curriculum in the schools so that students in our schools gain a better understanding of agriculture and really learn more about where their food comes from.”

Carlier said that the programs in place are beneficial and give kids the chance to study everything from animal husbandry to crop rotation, but more can be done.

“We’ve had the opportunity now with the minister of education to do round-tables with the industry to see what more we can do. As we write the curriculum, I would absolutely like to see more agriculture education incorporation.”  

Knowledge of Alberta’s agricultural industry is crucial for consumers and the public to be aware of as well. Smith stated that both are important when addressing farming issues.

“We also need public support for our ability to continue using the land, using the water of the province, and also using our knowledge and technology to produce beef efficiently,” said Smith.

Given the drop in cattle population from 2003-2006, Smith would like to see the opportunity to increase in the number of cows in Alberta, along with the support to be able to achieve that.

“Our production is still strong, and we’d like to see some more cows in Alberta… we haven’t seen that yet but we’re still hopeful that will happen.”

But the high dependence on export markets in the beef industry means that “any trade disruptions are of great concern to our producers.”Bringing up the cattle from the pasture take coordination and teamwork to keep the cows together. Photo by Casey Richardson.

According to the ABP, Canada exports 45 per cent of the beef it produces, while 84 to 86 per cent of Alberta beef production leaves the province. Although a large amount of Alberta beef is sold in Canada, access to foreign markets is a real critical issue.

“When we start seeing issues with the United States, [and] our biggest market is the United States… that certainly concerns producers,” said executive director Smith.

The new discussions around trade tariffs between Canada and the United States are the biggest concern for the minister as well.

“The federal government has my support and my wishes to do the best they can as a federal issue. We’ve heard some concerns now with the United States with some things that I would characterize as not particularly logical. I have the opportunity to talk with the American politicians who are involved in the agriculture industry and they know and we know how important for instance NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement)  is to agriculture,” Carlier said.

With President Donald Trump’s focus on increasing Americans’ prosperity by imposing the tariffs, the dissatisfaction comes from the 270 per cent increase placed on U.S. dairy products coming into Canada. While that number is high, it’s been put in place to look after Canada’s dairy industry.  

Carlier remains “somewhat optimistic” that negotiations will focus on benefiting the farmers.  

“I want to know and make sure that we have the Alberta perspective that agriculture is important, obviously to the economy of this province, and the economy due to the culture of who we are, and that we continue negotiations and that we stay firm.”   

The best bet for Alberta farming for the moment is to continue supporting local food and agriculture, which includes the Local Food Sector Act, which the legislature passed May 30.

“I think that we’re really proud of that piece of legislation that our government passed. I think it really shows the real commitment that we have, not just for agriculture and the province, but for local foods as well,” said Carlier.

“Companies can source local produce, in their restaurants and their stores. There’s more and more of that happening. Especially some of the craft breweries — they’re local, using local stuff as much as they can. You know, local grains, that kind of thing. It’s just keeping the money circulating around within the communities,” said Kappler, executive director for the Alberta Farm Fresh Producers Association (AFFPA).

crichardson@cjournal.ca

Editor: Ian Tennant | itennant@cjournal.ca