By: Sarah Smellie
The Telegram –  July 3, 2012

Plan needed to transition to the next generation, group chairman says

Newfoundland farmers are the oldest they’ve ever been, according to Canada’s 2011 census of agriculture.

The average age of Newfoundland farmers is 55 years old.

That’s up from an average of 52.3 in 2006.

The trend is mirrored across the country — this is the first census year in which the highest percentage of Canada’s farmers are 55 and older. But here in Newfoundland, where agriculture isn’t quite as developed as in other provinces — we have the smallest number of farms of all the provinces — new and young farmers face unique challenges.

Tough to afford land

Colin Hirtle, a 26-year-old originally from Breakwater, N.S., was almost a Newfoundland dairy farmer this year. He and his wife were accepted into the Dairy Farmers of Newfoundland and Labrador’s new entrants program last year.

“They don’t give us any financing, but they lease us a quota for a certain amount of time and then accept payments for it over a 10-year program,” he says. “It’s a very good program.”

But they hit a snag in securing farming land and basic startup equipment.

Rather than buy out a working farm, Hirtle was negotiating with a retired farmer to buy his land and equipment. They couldn’t come to an agreement in time.

“It’d be much harder to buy out a working farmer,” says Hirtle. “It’s prosperous times here for dairy farmers, and farmers are staying in longer. They don’t want to get out. So buying them out is really tough. It’s really expensive. The quota, too, is based on demand, and demand is high, so it’s expensive.”

Both Hirtle and his wife have degrees from the Nova Scotia Agricultural College in Truro, and have been working on farms all their lives. Hirtle’s wife now works on a farm in the Goulds, and Hirtle is a feed sales representative.

They have the know-how and the passion, but not the land.

“The two big hindering factors for new entrants,” says Hirtle, “are definitely access to land and access to equity. My wife and I invested a lot in our education and, between the two of us, we’ve worked on 11 or 12 farms. We have a lot of knowledge through our experience, but the bank won’t consider that as equity for a loan.”

Chan Wiseman, chairman of the Newfoundland and Labrador Young Farmers, says Hirtle’s story is pretty common for dairy farming entrants.

“There are a lot of people in the dairy industry, and the chicken and the egg industry, doing very well,” Wiseman says. “Most of the folks on these farms are 60 or older. So we need to figure out how to transition to the next generation of farmers. The land issue is probably the biggest obstacle: unless you come from a farm and your parents own land, it’s hard to get access to a piece of land. Farmers want a fair return on that land, you could be talking half a million dollars just to get a small parcel of land with some basic infrastructure. It’s hard to get the financing in place to do that.”

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