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Schools need Farm 101, says report

Students should take some Farm 101 along with the usual math, science and English courses in school to help young farmers make a living, says a recent report.

Students should take some Farm 101 along with the usual math, science and English courses in school to help young farmers make a living, says a recent report.

The federal standing committee on agriculture and agri-food published a report last week on the future of young farmers in agriculture after extensive public hearings. The report was finished in November, but not released to the public until Feb. 15.

Canada's farmers are getting old, the report notes, and there aren't many young ones moving in to replace them. That puts the future viability of the farm, hardware, slaughter, milling and transport industries at risk.

The committee made 13 recommendations to help young farmers (generally defined as anyone under 40) stay in business. One of them called on the government to work with the provinces to get more agriculture-specific courses into schools.

Today's kids aren't growing up on the farm and don't know where their food comes from, says Brian Storseth, member of Parliament for Westlock-St. Paul and member of the agriculture committee. "If you're going to talk about things like Product of Canada labelling … you have to have that consumer knowledge as a basis of it all."

Tough times for youth

Cash is a major problem for most young farmers, the report found. New farmers need land and equipment, but can't get loans as they have nothing to use as collateral.

A quarter-section (about 65 hectares) of land can cost up to $1 million, notes Robert Tappauf, a 33-year-old farmer who works west of St. Albert, and you'll need hundreds of thousands more for tractors, fertilizer and seed. "It's probably the worst investment you could ever make in your life."

Those prices are great for retirees, he says, but a major obstacle to farmers just starting out. "As a young farmer, you either have to have a family that's established, win the lottery or have deep pockets to go out and start a farm."

It's part of a shift in farms from self-sufficiency to agri-business, says Rod Scarlett, the former general manager of the Canadian Young Farmers' Forum who testified before the committee. Young farmers want a cheap investment, while old ones want retirement money. He and the committee called on the government to look at new ways to transfer farms between generations as a result.

The report also recommends a review of farm loan and support programs. Most of those are aimed at the average farmer, Scarlett says, and don't account for the pressures faced by new ones. He and the report called for in-depth statistical research on young farmers to better target their support.

Education and energy

Many witnesses cited a disconnect between farmers and urbanites, the report found. "There are still people in the city and in the urban areas who do believe that we can't produce chocolate milk because our cows are all white," one farmer told the committee.

Young farmers need informed consumers, says Brent Andressen, education specialist with Alberta Agriculture and St. Albert resident. "They can't care about what they don't know."

Initiatives like Earthbox Kids, a program that brings portable gardens to schools, can pique children's interest in farming and affect their future careers.

The report calls on government to make agriculture "a major provider of energy by 2020," citing renewable power such as biogas, wind and solar as effective ways for young farmers to balance the books.

Biofuels help raise demand for lower-quality grains, notes Tappauf, who recently sold a load of frost-damaged wheat to an ethanol plant. "If that didn't exist, we would have basically got nothing for the crop."

The government will issue a response to the report within 60 days, Storseth says.

Email [email protected] for a copy of the report.

Kevin Ma

About the Author: Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.
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