Historically, most traditional farms were a family affair. Passed on through generations of descendants, children would typically take the reins once their parents or grandparents were no longer able to complete the demanding, difficult work.
However, as time goes on, traditions change. As more people flock to urban centers and further away from traditional farmlands, less land and knowledge is being passed down through generations.
More concerning is that the average age of farmers in New Brunswick is increasing, and fewer farmers in the province have a succession plan in place for when they step down.
In 2016, Statistics Canada found that the average age of farmers in New Brunswick had reached 55.6, and that only seven per cent of all farms in the province had a transition plan ready for when the operator retires.
“Farms are larger now and there’s fewer of them in the province… so finding successors to take over the farm has become a greater challenge,” Claire May, member of the National Farmers Union and Coordinator at Hayes Farm, told the CBC in 2017.
“Kids taking over their parents’ farm is more of a thing of the past. The people looking for the successors are not sitting at the dinner table with them anymore.”
While the average age of farmers is increasing, so is the number of young people taking an interest in agriculture. Just because farms aren’t being passed down through families like they once were in the past, doesn’t mean that young people aren’t interested in growing food.
The number of young people interested in growing food and becoming farmers is increasing. In 2017, Stats Canada found that the fastest growing age group of farmers in Canada was 55 years and older, but the number of farm operators under the age of 35 had risen from 24,120 in 2011 to 24,840 in 2016.
This was the first “absolute increase” in the 35-and-under category of operators since 1991.
The rise in the average age of farmers in Canada strongly suggests that engaging the next generation in agriculture is important. Without farmers – and without sustainable farm operations – food security and food sovereignty in New Brunswick won’t see significant improvement.
Hayes Farm is working to redefine the future of growing food and sharing knowledge in New Brunswick. Originally a 200-acre dairy farm on Fredericton’s Northside, the property at Hayes Farm had been unused for a number of years – until 2015, when Edee Klee, Co-Chair of NB Community Harvest Gardens, met Ian Robertson, a member of the Hayes family, and a seed was planted.
Klee played a major role in revitalizing and establishing Hayes Farm as the beautiful and bountiful teaching farm it is today.
The urban teaching farm now offers an 18-week Regenerative Farming Certificate (RFC) program that teaches students how to grow sustainably on a small-scale, using regenerative and climate-smart agricultural methods. It also offers ‘informal learning’ drop-in sessions, as well as a Holistic Farm Business Planner course.
The RFC program at Hayes provides students with the knowledge and skills they need to become more self-sufficient, even if they decide not to pursue farming as a career. Many students enter the program with minimal experience – that’s why Hayes offers a space for students to learn, share and explore.
The program also supports students to build stronger connections with the food they eat, their community and the environment.
Knowing how to grow food is a priceless skill. Much of this knowledge is less frequently passed down through families, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be shared with and learned by family and friends.
“It’s about relationships… That’s really what we’re teaching. Certainly our relationship with Mother Earth, but also relationships with each other, and then ultimately that relationship with ourselves. We are addressing our own personal poverty and purpose to try and find out who we are,” said Klee.
Farming and food production is an enticing career for many passionate growers but major barriers can exist, especially for those who have not inherited farmland, capital, and most importantly, knowledge.
“Folks that gravitate towards this are not the individuals looking to make millions of dollars. They are looking for meaningful, purposeful work,” said Klee.
She believes that an annual basic income would help anyone interested in farming to learn without having to worry about their needs being met.
“If we knew that everybody was well-supported in terms of their living expenses, they could come to us and have the luxury of taking that 18-week full-time course.”
She recalled that the provincial Department of Agriculture survey in 2016 on agricultural land policy revealed that 116,000 acres of farmland were dormant in New Brunswick.
With certain parameters, Klee suggested “land matching,” an idea that would help provide new farmers with land by gifting dormant farmland to growers who are ready to take the next step.
Once they are ready to go off on their own, gifting a piece of – otherwise unused – land would allow new farmers to work the soil, grow, and create a community co-operative where they can collectively market, strategize, and share tools.
As for equipment, Klee suggested that the government should help supply growers with the tools they need.
Since COVID-19, New Brunswick’s provincial government has made it clear that growing food is an essential service.
“It [growing food] should be no different from being a paramedic, or a nurse or anyone else,” Klee said, suggesting that the government should be doing more to support sustainable food production.
Programs like the one offered at Hayes are crucial for engaging, encouraging and supporting new growers in our communities, who otherwise may not have access to sufficient land, experience or knowledge.
Much more can be done to help support new growers, and it should be a priority for the provincial government. Ensuring that new farmers have the knowledge, tools and support they need is essential for future food sovereignty in New Brunswick.
Hannah Moore is a recent graduate from St. Thomas University, currently working as a Food Security and Regenerative Farming Reporter for the RAVEN project at the University of New Brunswick.