Key Considerations to Support a New Generation of Farmers
Farm policies must support smaller farms, because young farmers and new farmers usually start out on small farms. If our policies do not support viable small farms, we bar the door to new entrants.
Sustainability means long-term land tenure and stewardship. The long-term investments needed to care for our land, soil, ecosystems and local communities require secure land tenure for those who grow food, and access on affordable terms for those who want to begin. We cannot continue to let much of our best farmland be bought up by speculators and developers who are intent on converting it, permanently, to non-agricultural uses.
Farmland Trusts and public ownership can provide farmers with long-term leases and the security of tenure they need to take good care of land they don’t own. Most farm families want to own their own land; we need policies to support family-farm ownership. But not all of Canada’s farmland needs to be owned privately. Innovative arrangements of public ownership, at the provincial, regional and municipal levels can help young farmers enter agriculture; this is especially needed on the remaining quality farmland in and around the major cities.
New, debt-minimizing forms of land transfer will allow farm succession. Farmers cannot launch viable businesses if they are saddled with unmanageable debt. Over the past decade, farm debt has doubled to $64 billion. That staggering total will continue to rise in the next decade if we stick with our present model of debt-financed intergenerational transfer. We must reduce debt barriers to give a new generation of farmers a reasonable chance to succeed.
Patient capital is needed. New farmers want to do things differently and need the opportunity to learn by doing. They want to invest strategically over time, minimizing their debt. They need recognition for entrepreneurial, diversified business models. We need to foster venture and character-based lending, cost-shared savings programs, start-up and establishment grants, patient loans, and access to the appropriate scale of asset and equity financing.
New farmers need training programs in rural and urban communities. We must encourage new farmers from all backgrounds, engaging them where they live, before expecting them to take the leap and ‘buy the farm’. New farmers from non-farm backgrounds need affordable ways to explore a career in agriculture, or we risk losing prospective farmers at the outset.
Farmer-to-farmer mentoring and the transfer of knowledge and skills is critical for the next generation. Investment is required to increase the opportunities, standardization and quality of mentorship-based, hands-on farmer training needed to develop a professional cohort of new farmers.
Farmers need regionally-based extension services. Farmers need expert information about low-input agriculture, adaptation to climate change, integrated pest management, alternative fertility techniques, energy efficiency, and a range of innovative, cost-reducing practices that are not available from the companies that supply them with seeds and fertilizers.
Exiting farmers want to retire with dignity and security. We can make room for new farmers by implementing a retirement plan for farmers that enables existing farmers to leave and pass on the farm. Ensuring that farmers have adequate retirement funds means that families will not have to sell and refinance their land-base each generation.
Farm support and supply-managed sectors need to be more flexible. New farmers do not qualify for many support programs and supply-managed systems are often prohibitively expensive, effectively barring new entrants in these sectors. We must take measures to accommodate new entrants as well as supporting innovative business models, for the two go hand in hand.