Farming industry faces shrinking, aging numbers
COLE HOBSON TIMES & TRANSCRIPT
December 10, 2014
Much like the rest of the country, New Brunswick’s agricultural sector continues to struggle with an aging demographic, and more farmers leaving the profession than are entering it.
“The average age of farmers is 56 or 57 years – I followed it all my life,” said National Farmers Union in New Brunswick president Jean-Eudes Chiasson, who has been farming in Rogersville for more than four decades.
He wants to know who will be left when that average reaches 65 or 70 in 10 years.
Chiasson said aside from a small segment of the population, most people in the province don’t seem to be overly concerned with the situation facing the province’s farmers.
He said the solution to the issue is greater investment.
“You have to invest $10 million more in agriculture every year,” he said, noting that would amount to $10,000 per each of the roughly 1,000 farmers on the provincial registry, which is only a proportion of the total farmers across New Brunswick.
He said government budgetary support of the agriculture industry of around $27 million is significantly lacking compared to a province like Quebec, where they have a provincial agricultural budget of $1 billion for their 27,000 farmers.
“For every dollar the province of Quebec puts into agriculture, we put 27 cents and we’re asking the farmers to compete with that because those are competitors. The farmers of Quebec come down with their pork, with their beef and with their vegetables,”he said, noting excess products from out-of-province products being sold off at “dumping prices” causes a big issue for local farmers.
Chiasson said he’s also stressed “time and time again”that the province needs to invest in New Brunswick products specifically.
“Stop the Atlantic thing,”he said.
The 2011 Census of Agriculture, the most recent data, counted 2,611 census farms in New Brunswick in 2011, a 5.9 per cent decrease since 2006. This compares to a 10.3 per cent decrease at the national level.
New Brunswick reported 3,470 farm operators in 2011, 6.1 per cent lower than in 2006. The average age of a farm operator in New Brunswick in 2011 was 55.5 years compared with 52.8 years in 2006. Nationally the average age of a farm operator in 2011 was 54 years, up from 52 years in 2006.
Chiasson admits that there’s no cheap solution to helping the aging population of farmers in the province.
“It will cost a fortune to replace the old people. Whether we decide in five years, in 10 years or in 15 years to replace the farmers, the longer we wait, the more expensive it will be,” he said. “The population is going to have to pay if they want a result, they will have to pay for it. Nothing is free in this world.”
Amanda Wildeman is the executive director of the farmers union in New Brunswick, which represents roughly 150 to 200 farmers across the province.
She said while the 2011 census data showed a drop in farmers in the province, the numbers have no doubt fallen off even more since.
“Even when it came time for renewals this year, I had multiple members call to say, ‘Cancel our membership – we’ve retired’ or whatnot. It’s one of the things we’re noticing, I think, the most,” she said, noting the government is looking to tackle this issue with a document expected to be released in early 2015, targeting ways to attract new farmers.
Wildeman said their goal with the union is to “influence policies that will make and ensure the family farm is a viable business option for people.”
But it’s not an easy task.
“I think that one of the big reasons why folks aren’t getting into farming, the kids from farming families see how hard their parents work and at the end of the day see what’s left over, and they say, ‘Someone else can pay me more wages to do less work,’”she said.
Wildeman also said they face challenges with the urbanization of the province, as more people leave rural New Brunswick in search of prosperity in larger city centres.
“Ensuring that folks can make a livelihood in their community, I think, should be one of the priorities in this job strategy for this government,” she said.
Jennifer MacDonald is the president of the Agricultural Alliance of New Brunswick, which represents all sizes of farmers on issues that affect the community.
She said the dwindling number of farms has been a big concern and on their radar for the last 10 to 15 years – but now it’s“becoming a bigger crunch” in the province, with an aging population as a whole.
MacDonald has been in the industry for over 40 years and said being a farmer or agricultural producer is“one of the greatest jobs on earth”but still isn’t easy for people to get involved in.
“Agriculture is not an easy job. It’s a very rewarding and fulfilling job and it’s not an easy choice, and not everyone wants to get into it.”
MacDonald said people have “lost their connection to where their food comes from”and changing general public attitudes could also help save the farming industry.
“Farmers are also getting out there. It’s not the same as it was 20 years ago. Yes, we still have the pitchforks and overalls and rubber boots, but we also have MBAs and doctorates and degrees behind us and business sense,”she said. “These are run as businesses now, and you have to in this day and age.”
In some specific industries, MacDonald said the depleted numbers are significant.
She said in 203 there were 1,200 beef farmers in the province, and now there are only 450.
“We need to find ways to invest more in the agricultural community because that’s what New Brunswick is built on,” she said.“There could be more (government support), government programs are difficult, and there’s a lot of red tape around them and a lot of requirements…. Not that farmers want to rely on the government … but there needs to be policies in place to make agriculture a little bit easier to enter in.”
New Brunswick’s farming industry is struggling as more farmers are leaving the profession than entering it.