Despite optimism in the industry and anecdotal evidence about a growing interest by younger people in coming back to the farm, the average farmer age has actually been rising sharply.
The average age of a farmer rose two years to 54 between 2006 and 2011, when the most recent Census of Agriculture was conducted.
For the first time, farmers older than 55 represented the largest share of farmers — more than 48 percent compared to less than 41 percent in 2006.
By contrast, the portion of operators younger than 35 was just 8.2 percent, less than half the proportion in 1991.
“This is really concerning,” said Gwen Paddock, Royal Bank of Canada’s national agriculture manager.
“The industry should be attracting new blood but in fact, the numbers are falling.”
She said a report for the Ontario Agriculture College in Guelph indicated that the number of agriculture graduates is just one-third of the numbers that the industry needs.
“That’s worrisome because there is talk of optimism in the industry, but possibly it is just too early to be picked up,” said Paddock.
In fact, farm leaders say the number of younger farmers appearing at farm meetings and on the farm is noticeable.
“I don’t know if this is typical, but in my own area, I see three, four, five young people coming back to get into the cattle business,” said Canadian Cattlemen’s Association president Martin Unrau of southern Manitoba.
“But I also see a problem and cringe when I see how much money they have to get together to get back in. Land prices in this area have gone insane: $1,900 an acre in a recent sale.”
However, there are other possible explanations for the aging of the farm population.
Erik Dorff of Statistics Canada’s agriculture division said the census picked up a new trend: people in their 50s who have finished their careers in other sectors and then deciding to retire back to the farm because it is profitable.
“They are new entrants but they are older new entrants,” he said.
“It makes sense. Folks finish their careers, maybe have a pension and then they decide to return to farming where perhaps they were raised.”
They are new entrants to farming but they do not lower the average age.
Canadian Federation of Agriculture president Ron Bonnett figures that explanation makes some sense.
His son, Terry, who has worked for years in the oil industry in Azerbaijan, dreams of returning to the northwestern Ontario cattle operation when he retires in a few years.
“I can imagine him coming back and adding some cows here,” said Bonnett. “But that won’t be until he is 50 or more so that won’t have much impact on the average age.”
At the George Morris Centre in Guelph, Ont., analyst Al Mussell said the lure of better times on the farm for younger people must be tempered by the reality that higher commodity prices usually are capitalized into land prices, which means getting into the farming sector becomes more expensive in good times.
“The challenge is that good prices also pull up farm asset values and that is a real barrier to new entrants,” he said. “It is a sobering reality of the business.”
Rose Olfert of the University of Saskatchewan said that like most other industries, the farm sector has the baby boomer generation working through the system, not yet ready to retire.
“And with good prices, there is no longer the pressure to retire,” she said. “With prices good, there are a lot of pressures to consolidate and it is hard now for a young person to buy in.”