By: Ralph C. Martin
Published: The Guelph Mercury, July 17, 2012

There have been many corn harvests since I straightened my 19-year-old shoulders and told my father: “I’m tired of farming and will never shovel piles of brown stuff again.”

I set out with my farm boy skill set and imbibed attitude that there must be some way to get each job done. Farm kids have wonderful training for the world beyond the farm gate, too. Eventually, my path lead me to a PhD and professorial pronouncements, at which stage my father quietly suggested that I was back to shovelling.

The Statistics Canada 2011 Census of Agriculture shows that farm youth are still leaving their farms. About 20 years ago, almost 20 per cent of farmers were under 35 and by 2006, less than 10 per cent of farmers qualified for this distinction. In 2011, only 8.2 per cent of farmers were in this energetic age category of enhanced mental acuity and physical stamina.

Let’s be clear that we’re not only talking about fewer farmers as farms increase in size. The point to emphasize is that as the overall population of farmers declines, young farmers are disappearing even faster.

We know that rural communities are also struggling to attract young doctors and other health professionals. Globally, more people live in cities than in rural areas. Young farmers are part of this trend. Nevertheless, local organizations, such as FarmStart and Everdale, are incubating new farmers.

In 1998, Alex Sim, a respected sociologist and Guelph resident, published his book Land and Community, Crisis in Canada’s Countryside. He noted that as farm size increased, fewer people worked on farms, rural churches and villages tended to shrink and the folks left in rural areas felt isolated. The youth who want to farm may have trouble convincing a partner to join the venture.

A recent BMO survey on the migration of young people from rural to urban areas indicates that 62 per cent of respondents saw “a negative impact on the family farm” as young farm operators leave farms, and 61 per cent believe the migration impacts the ability of farmers to transfer knowledge to the next generation.

The gospel according to Martin is to “keep your soil covered.” Researchers in Maritime Canada found that cover crops and other erosion control practices tended to increase with farmers mostly on the farm and when the farms were organized as family units. It’s interesting that soil tends to stay on farms, when farm families stay there, too.

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