Young farmers waiting in the wings

Sarah Smellie
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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.”


Finding a market

In addition to the high cost of acquiring land, the crops, beef and pork sector have their own problems. If small vegetable and meat farmers want to sell their products, they have very few options outside of the large grocery store system, save for a local farmers’ market.

Collette Urban, owner of Full Tilt organic farm in McIvers, grows salad greens, herbs, kale, beets, garlic and tomatoes. In operation since 2006, she has been selling most of her crops at the Corner Brook farmers’ market. But the market isn’t opening this year, partly because of a lack of funding.

“It's very unfortunate because it was my main venue,” says Urban. “That's going to cripple things for me this year.”


Finding equipment

In Cormack, Byron Parsons has

set up a roadside market beside his farm where he sells his crops.

“This is a high-profile piece of property, right at the gateway to the Northern Peninsula,” he says. He grows crops on about 20 acres of land, and that produces just enough to keep up with the demand.

His could have gotten cheaper land, he says, but then he would have had to find some other way to sell his vegetables.

He’s more than 50 years old, and he started his farm four years ago, because his grandchildren were interested in having a farm someday.

His biggest problem is equipment. The rocky soil tends to wear out machinery quickly.

“You can’t pick up second-hand equipment here,” he says. “Last year, we dug 500 sacks of potatoes by hand. This year, we’re putting in enough for 1,200 sacks, and we still can’t find a second-hand potato digger. A new one is about $20,000.”

He says that new farmers need more help covering equipment costs.

“(The government) has got to give more help for buying equipment,” he says. “There’s no help for vegetable farmers to buy farm tractors, or anything like that.”


Urban encroachment

Closer to St. John’s, the denser population works for and against new farmers. There are more opportunities to sell your product, but there’s more competition for potential farmland.

Next to the Country Gardens estates, in St. Philip’s, Maureen Peters owns a patch of land with her husband that used to be zoned for agriculture. When they wanted to set up a community shared agriculture farm there, where people would pay the Peters a yearly amount in exchange for a steady stream of vegetables during harvest season, they applied to have the land zoned back to agriculture. But the town of St. Philip’s wouldn’t go for it.

“We had all of our go-aheads from the provincial government, and we had already invested a lot of money into it,” says Peters. “It ought to have been a no-brainer, what with everybody trying to increase farming in Newfoundland. It’s even part of the St. Philip’s town plan to encourage farming and agriculture. But we live in a small farmhouse among big mansions who pay more taxes than we do.”

Chan Wiseman says that urban encroachment on farmland is a big issue and that it’s making things tough for young and new vegetable and meat farmers.

“Look at the Kelsey drive area,” he says. “That used to be a farmland, and it was purchased to build box stores. Blackmarsh Road, there’s no farming out there anymore, Lester’s Farm is getting surrounded by development. Developers are coming in and offering farmers a lot of money, so you get a developer with money and a young farmer who’d love to farm that land, but they’re up against a cheque for two or three million dollars.

“There’s not a lot of arable land here to begin with,” he adds. “There are different numbers out there on this, but they say that only two or three per cent of the land is suitable for growing and we’re only using 10 or 15 per cent of that land. So we have an opportunity to get a lot of land into production for meat and vegetables on the island.”


Fertile future

Some farmers say that opportunity hasn’t been entirely wasted. The provincial government just released its Agriculture Strategy which, if followed through, could help out new farmers. Wiseman is impressed with the document, though he still would like to see a provincial agricultural loan guarantee program, which many other provinces have in place.

Colin Hirtle also sees promise in the strategy.

“I’m pretty optimistic about it, actually,” he says. “It’s been sitting here on the kitchen table and I’ve been reading through it for the last week, especially the new entrants stuff. I’m pretty interested to see what will happen.”

The new strategy doesn’t outline any concrete plans, but it does suggest developing an interest rebate program for new entrants, which Hirtle says could help. It also suggests reimbursing new entrants for land survey costs.

“That’s not a huge cost,” he says, “but it’s something.”

Though he does feel there is room for improvement — a guaranteed agricultural loan program, he says, would really help out new and young farmers — he believes that farming in Newfoundland is only going to get better.

“Other provinces are way ahead in terms of things like guaranteed loan programs, but I think Newfoundland is the place to be right now for farming,” he says. “Just from talking to people at home, I guess they envy some of these programs.”

“A lot of people talk here about how much easier it is to just get a trade certificate and go be a welder or go to Alberta and make tons of money,” he adds. “They talk about needing to make farming sexy to attract more young people. I just want to stand up and say, ‘Here I am! Help me out!’ Farming is sexy enough, I want to get in.”

Organizations: Nova Scotia Agricultural College, Newfoundland and Labrador Young Farmers, Country Gardens

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada, Truro Goulds McIvers Corner Brook Northern Peninsula Blackmarsh Road Alberta

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Recent comments

  • Juanita & Austin Langdon
    April 05, 2014 - 16:26

    wanting to purchase land for organic farming.

  • JB
    July 03, 2012 - 21:58

    Thanks for covering farming on the west coast as well as east! As for you milk debaters, I think Canada has more stringent guidelines than the US. (ie less or no added hormones). Something to think about, and perhaps another story to investigate for our intrepid reporter? I've lived both in Halifax and St. John's, and I love the fact that we don't have the screw cap on the 2 liter cartons here. For some reason the addition of the screw cap meant it could no longer be recycled in Halifax, which is a pity.

  • M
    July 03, 2012 - 11:15

    Clearly many of you have a lot to learn about the quality us Canadian Dairy Farmers provide for our consumers. We have very high standards that must be met in order to ship our milk to Canadian Dairies. The United States do not have as stringent standards that need to be met to sell their milk. Do you know how much work and money is put into producing quality milk? Clearly many do not, as this is always a common compliant. Milk is too expensive, we want to pay what Americans pay for their milk.....I think everyone should step back and stop jumping to conculsions and be a little more informed before making these under researched speculations. Another note is Farmers do not receive the price for their products that you pay for at the grocery store. On average, about 0.76 cents per litre. You don't see anyone complaining about forking over money for pop which is sugar and water.

    • tom
      October 07, 2014 - 10:06

      Its actually closer to .81 cents a litre if it is good enough to be drinkable white milk and pop retails for under a buck most days. Thats why people are pissed.

  • Jack
    July 03, 2012 - 10:49

    Ever Wonder, not only are Americans getting cheaper milk, other Canadians also get milk in 4 litre jugs or bags, but not in Newfoundland and Labrador despite the fact that two main dairy sellers, Central Dairies/Farmer's Dairy Cooperative and Scotsburn Dairies, are Nova Scotian companies based in Halifax and Scotsburn respectfully. For example, while Scotsburn and Farmer's Dairy Cooperative sell milk in 4 litre jugs, bags, or even twist cap 2 litre cartons in Nova Scotia, they only sell milk in outdated 2 litre cartons with no twist cap in Newfoundland and Labrador. With Nova Scotian based dairy distributors selling milk in 4 litre jugs in Nova Scotia, but not in Newfoundland and Labrador, some people start to wonder why the Newfoundland and Labrador Government are allowing Farmer's Dairy and Scotsburn to discriminate against us and get away with it. Time for Newfoundland and Labrador dairy consumers to stand up to Farmer's Dairy/Central Dairies and Scotsburn Dairy to bring milk in 4 litre jugs, bags, and twistable 2 litre jugs to this province so that we are treated fairly with Nova Scotians. Something to think about. When I visited my home town, Halifax, for vacation last summer, I was happy to see the 4 litre jug of milk again.

    • Ever Wonder
      July 03, 2012 - 12:36

      I agree, NL does have high prices for milk but not the highest. Average price of a 2 litre (2%) carton of milk in St. John's in 2011 = $3.79. Average price of a 2 litre (2%) carton of milk in Halifax (your hometown) = $3.94. We also had high prices before supply management and we'll have the highest prices when supply management is gone. Anyone old enough to remember will recall how bad the quality of milk was before supply management. We could do like the Americans and subsidize the farmers or go with our system and let the consumers do that instead.

    • Jack
      July 03, 2012 - 19:51

      Ever Wonder, in Halifax, while 2 litre cartons of milk are more expensive than St. John's due to the added cost of the twistable cap, 4 litre jugs of milk are usually much cheaper per litre. In fact, when I shopped at the Spryfield "No Frills" during my Halifax visit last summer, their 4 litre jugs of Farmer's Dairy Milk sold for well under $6.00 or just under $1.50 per litre. Some stores even sell similar jugs of milk as low as $5.20 due to tight competition with Sobey's, Atlantic Superstore, No Frills, Walmart, Irving, and even Costco Wholesale. However, that's still well above the average price for a 4 litre jug of milk in Ontario, which is usually less than $4.00, even in convenience stores like Mac's. Imagine the amount of money Newfoundlanders and Labradorians will save if Central Dairies and Scotsburn sold milk in 4 litre jugs as opposed to outdated 2 litre cartons.

  • Jack
    July 03, 2012 - 10:37

    Don't forget that Newfoundland and Labrador dairy consumers are not being treated fairly in comparison to other provinces despite the fact that most of them are Nova Scotian based, mainly based on Halifax and Scotsburn. For example, while Central Dairies, a subsidiary of Halifax based Farmer's Dairy Cooperative, and Scotsburn Dairy, both Nova Scotian based dairy companies, sell milk in 4 litre jugs and bags to their Nova Scotian customers, they don't sell it in Newfoundland and Labrador. Their actions raises questions whether or not Farmer's Dairy and Scotsburn are discriminating against Newfoundlanders and Labradorians. If Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are treated the same, Farmer's Dairy and Scotsburn should sell milk in 4 litre jugs to us like they do to Nova Scotians. Another case for discrimination against us is that Farmer's Dairy and Scotsburn sell their milk in 2 litre cartons with twistable caps in Nova Scotia, but not in Newfoundland and Labrador. Time for Nova Scotian based dairy producers to treat Newfoundlanders the same way as Nova Scotians.

  • Jack
    July 03, 2012 - 10:28

    Can't wait for the Harper Government to get rid of supply management so that dairy farmers will not be subjected to quotas or be forced to purchase them. That way, Canadians will be able to purchase dairy products at American Level prices.

  • Don II
    July 03, 2012 - 09:38

    For some reason the Government of Newfoundland continues to hold total control of millions of acres of Crown land that could be used for other purposes than just growing trees. Unless the policy has been changed recently, a farmer could only obtain a lease for a maximum of 40 hectares or about 88 acres of Crown land for agriculture purposes. The first problem is that 88 acres is not enough land to operate a successful farm. The second problem is that no Commercial bank will lend money to a farmer who does not own his/her land outright. The banks don't like leased land as an asset. Why doesn't the Government of Newfoundland identify areas of Crown land which is proven suitable for farming and sell 100 acre Grants of that Crown land to farmers for a reasonable price payable over time? How much Crown land can an individual farmer own in Newfoundland? If it can be justified as economically feasible, perhaps a maximum of 500 acres is possible. Why not? It appears that the Government of Newfoundland sold off 2000 acres of prime Crown land around Mount Pearl to a single buyer and is still selling more. Land use rules in Newfoundland and Labrador are draconian and arbitrary. Nobody in Government asks the private land owners what they plan to develop their land for and Municipal Government zones it as rural to the financial detriment of the private land owner. Land which can be used for residential purposes is zoned as rural. I know a man who has 10 acres of land that is not large enough for a successful commercial farm but it is ideal for residential development. The Municipal Government zoned his land as rural suitable only for farming. The Council just drew a line around the Town when making their development plans and his land fell just outside what THEY considered would be good land for residential development so THEY just zoned it as rural. What kind of land use planning is that? There are farms where houses should be and houses where farms should be in Newfoundland and Labrador. Meanwhile, thousands of acres of Crown land suitable for farming goes undeveloped. What a joke!

  • J
    July 03, 2012 - 07:32

    They are better off waiting until Supply Side Management is negotiated by Stephen Harper in the Trans Pacific Pact trade agreement. That should see farms/land comes down in price. The sooner the better too as we as consumers should not be paying $4 for 2 litres of milk. I could buy a gallon of milk (3.78litres) for $2.99 in Houston. A gallon of organic milk was $5.99. We are being gouged. Don't let anyone fear monger either. Milk in the USA is no different than here, maybe a few different things in the cows but all in all just as healthy. Chinese milk would be a different story and I wouldn't touch it with a ten foot pole. So hopefully we can see country of origin on labelling Mr. Harper!!

    • Ever wonder
      July 03, 2012 - 09:33

      Ever wonder why that milk in the US is so cheap?

  • J
    July 03, 2012 - 07:31

    They are better off waiting until Supply Side Management is negotiated by Stephen Harper in the Trans Pacific Pact trade agreement. That should see farms/land comes down in price. The sooner the better too as we as consumers should not be paying $4 for 2 litres of milk. I could buy a gallon of milk (3.78litres) for $2.99 in Houston. A gallon of organic milk was $5.99. We are being gouged. Don't let anyone fear monger either. Milk in the USA is no different than here, maybe a few different things in the cows but all in all just as healthy. Chinese milk would be a different story and I wouldn't touch it with a ten foot pole. So hopefully we can see country of origin on labelling Mr. Harper!!