Tech-savvy younger people and new Canadians could be key to the legacy of the family farm

agriculture farming

As a generation of farmers looks toward retirement, officials in Eastern Ontario are working together to support farmers and help them build succession plans.

Eastern Ontario is home to an estimated 13,861 agri-food operations, according to data from the province, more than 5,000 of which are considered primary agriculture and 2,541 crop production. The industry and its diverse operations, from crop production to dairy and meat, have sustained Eastern Ontario for centuries. 

Now, that industry is evolving faster than ever and some local experts are looking to guide it into the future.

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Tracey Snow is the first to hold the role of manager of rural economic and community development in the City of Kingston. She said she’s seen the need for change for “years and years and years.”

“We have such a varied range of farms with 138 farms just within the City of Kingston,” she explained. “Many are anywhere from large dairy farms to nursery farms to greenhouses, so there’s also a massive range of farmers who are very diverse in terms of both what they offer and what they need.”

The challenges facing these farmers are plentiful — “farming has never been an easy livelihood,” Snow acknowledged — between economic pressures, a changing climate and ongoing labour shortages. But top of mind for Snow and other agricultural resources is the topic of succession.

“The average age of a local farmer is 61 and 85 per cent do not have a succession plan,” said Snow. “It’s not because they don’t want to and it’s not because of a lack of skills or knowledge. They just don’t have options.

“Kids are doing other things, many also have full-time jobs in addition to farming and there isn’t a lot of interest in taking over the family farm anymore,” she continued. “It’s becoming a challenge to help support farmers in finding employees, neighbours or even new Canadians who might then want to take over.”

In December, RBC announced its new RBC Agriculture Team, headed by commercial vice-president and longtime banker Andrew Staniforth, to support the industry throughout Eastern Ontario.

Staniforth, who has worked with farmers in Ontario for more than 25 years, said succession planning is a top priority. 

“Across Canada, only one out of every 12 farms has a succession plan in place,” Staniforth told EOBJ in May, after nearly six months in his new role. “When you look at farm succession planning, you have to double down, because the assets and legacy and land are all family-oriented.

“A succession decision made today will have an impact on the next several generations.”

Farming, for all of its practical demands, is often an emotional and personal livelihood, Staniforth explained. Many farm operations have been passed down through generations and planning for a future that might not involve family members can be “bittersweet.”

“It used to be a constant that son and daughter would take over. But not anymore,” said Staniforth. “We’re working with a farm right now with two brothers on a six-generation farm.

“Their biggest concern is that there are multiple siblings who don’t know what they want to do and, after six generations of farming, they don’t want to be the ones that don’t pass it on,” he explained. “There’s such an emotional tie-in, which is so unique for us as agriculture bankers to be able to see that, sit down with our clients and understand their feelings about it.”

But along with a changing landscape for agriculture, Snow and Staniforth said the options for succession are changing, too.

Agricultural education and training isn’t what it used to be and interest from high school students has dwindled in recent decades. This has resulted in fewer young workers who are trained and ready to take on a farm operation. 

“In the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, local communities had agricultural schools and now we don’t have that resource,” said Staniforth. “A few colleges are trying to bring it back, which is exciting. But ultimately, the younger generation has more avenues to look towards.”

To that end, Snow and her team in Kingston have been working directly with high school boards and offering training programs to encourage more young people to consider agriculture.

“Many (students) aren’t necessarily going straight to post-secondary institutions, so we’re letting them know there are options for a successful, solid future in agriculture,” said Snow. “And in many situations, our farmers in Eastern Ontario would even like to be involved in training a new person with the baseline of skills.” 

But beyond young people and family members, there is another group of people that Snow said is an untapped gold mine of opportunity: new Canadians.

Her team has been working to support newcomers to Canada who have farming experience and are interested in continuing in the field — literally.

A pilot program run by the City of Kingston for the past two years brought interested individuals, including many new Canadians, into an urban community farm. With provincial funding, the program taught training and soft skills and introduced participants to local farms. The program was “very successful” with more than 30 participants each year, many of whom have now found placements in local farms.

Now, Snow said she’s looking to “build it up” into a more extensive training program. Using city-owned land, she’s hoping to build a permanent farm to offer training in everything from maintenance and equipment operations to artificial intelligence, crop production, employee support and drone piloting to cover all the bases, both old and new, involved in farming.

She hopes that local farms will take an active role in the training and that many might also find a potential successor in the process, she added.

“It’s very personal. They want to really know and trust the person taking over,” she explained. “So I’m hoping they’ll trust me and be hands-on.

“It takes time to build relationships with farmers,” she laughed. “They’re passionate about what they do … and they’re tight-knit with their families and communities.”

Staniforth agrees that farmers should look to new options for succession.

“We’re seeing increases in the value of land, some of these operations are between $20 and $25 million, and a transition from mom and dad did not have that same value,” Staniforth explained. “That operation needs to look a bit different.

“The majority of farms are still family-owned and about 75 per cent are either sole proprietors or partnerships,” he said. “The goal for the majority of farms is to keep the legacy in the family. When that’s not an option, they look outside the door.”

As younger generations begin to take over, whether from family members or as part of an “outside-the-door” succession plan, Staniforth said they are bringing an understanding of technology that is significantly increasing productivity.

“We’re having a lot of discussions about climate and working to see how farms can become more sustainable. But the younger generation is very involved already,” he explained. “They have so much more comfort with technology.”

Some new farmers are using GPS in tractors to “understand their land and technology,” while others are using robotic milkers. 

“Sometimes they’re just slight changes and it’s nothing against mom and dad, because when they started their operation, there was a way it was done,” Staniforth explained. “But technology has come up so much, especially in agriculture, and it’s amazing to see them implement it.”

Vertical farming is also gaining momentum in the region, said Snow, especially in urban settings. But for rural farms, it’s greenhouses that are adopting the new method, along with practices like local food awareness and regenerative farming. 

Outside of the one-on-one conversations, which Staniforth said usually occur around farmhouse kitchen tables, both he and Snow say they are aiming to increase awareness and appreciation for agriculture.

In particular, Snow is working to introduce local food in the community, encouraging restaurants to sell local products and cultivating the “farm to production to table” connection.

“Not every farmer has to do the same thing. Not at all. There are so many right ways to make food,” she said. “It’s about food supply, local food awareness, food connections, integration into communities …

“It doesn’t matter if you’re regenerative farming, livestock, greenhouse, crops. Farmers were the first businessmen. You’re making food for yourself, for your community, making a living and running a business,” she continued. “And we have to protect that.”

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