Young farmers waiting in the wings

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

Published on July 3, 2012

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.”