The Next Generation

Farm kids are returning to their roots.

September 11, 2014 | | Farming

“How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?” That musical question, first posed in 1918 as a generation of American farm boys came home from war in Europe, has remained stubbornly relevant for a century of massive upheaval and transition in the business of farming.

Over the decades, the exodus of kids from the family farm to urban jobs has been so relentless for so many reasons – including industrialization, monopolization, urbanization, and the otherwise too often grim economic reality of trying to make a living on the farm – that according to the Canadian census, the only age group of farmers that is growing are those over 55. In other words, the same farmers are just getting older.

In Caledon, for example, the number of young farmers (under 35) dropped from 30 to 20 between the 2006 and 2011 census, while the number over 55 rose from 260 to 285.

But the numbers may not tell the whole story. Janet Horner, executive director of the Golden Horseshoe Food and Farming Alliance, insists there are “lots of young people farming, but their name is not on the deed, so they aren’t being counted.” (The Alliance is currently preparing an agricultural profile study of the GTA, expected to be released this fall.) Further, according to a 2013 report published by the University of Guelph’s Ontario Agricultural College, “During the past five years, we have increased enrollment across our undergraduate and diploma programs by over 30 per cent.”

And, at least locally, anecdotal evidence seems to confirm the younger cohort is beginning to swell. Sean Davis, one of the new generation of farmers in Caledon, says that of all the customers who come into Davis Feed & Farm Supply, his family’s business in Caledon East, “I’d say 80 per cent have a new generation coming on. It’s great.”

So why are the kids staying down on the farm? The reasons are as complex as the industry itself, but one of them is almost certainly the burgeoning local food movement with its emphasis on reforging the long-broken links between the food we eat and the people who produce it – with one not insignificant result that for the first time in decades in the ethos of popular culture, it’s cool to be a farmer.

But cool, of course, doesn’t pay the bills. Farming remains physically and mentally demanding work, and this new generation who grew up on farms are no starry-eyed back-to-the-landers with a few seeds in their pockets. They know what they’re getting into, and they are coming home armed with degrees in agriculture, business or finance, plenty of marketing savvy, and the latest technological tools at their disposal.

And the results are showing. The government response to a 2010 report by the federal Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-food, called “Young Farmers: The Future of Agriculture,” noted that young farmer enterprises “perform better than other farms in Canada.” And that they “earned higher gross revenues from their farm assets and had relatively higher profit margins than did other farms. They also reported higher farm employment income.”

To put things into a local perspective, we spoke with several members of the new generation on four family farms in the Headwaters region. See the links below for their stories.

About the Author More by Yevgenia Casale

Yevgenia Casale is a Caledon-based freelance writer and passionate community organizer. Her writing often highlights the humanity behind the things we tend to take for granted every day.

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Sean and Amy Davis with baby Nora amid sunflowers they grow for birdseed at Davis Feed & Farm Supply. Photo by Pete Paterson.

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Their crops include oats they sell themselves and a 30-acre field of sunflowers they harvest and sell for birdseed.

Sisters Emily and Marianne den Haan (left) with their parents John and Bonnie and dog Megs at Sheldon Creek Dairy, one of the first three dairies in Ontario since the 1960s licensed to sell their own whole milk direct from their farm. Photo by Pete Paterson.

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Sheldon Creek’s whole milk is sold in traditional glass bottles with a plug of cream on top. They also sell chocolate milk, strawberry milk and eggnog seasonally, and yogurt.

The Landman clan: (left to right) Grandparents George and Sytske, father Eric, Rebecca, Ashleigh, Josh, and twins Carter and Jesse. While Eric still “runs the show,” he is putting more and more trust and responsibility for day-to-day operations in the hands of his children. Photo by Pete Paterson.

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We did it for the love of farming. The kids do it because they love it too, and see a future in it.


1 Comment

  1. Ms Casale does an excellent job in her article ‘The next generation, farm kids are returning to their roots’. She captures that sense of the fundamental rightness of producing our food from the land on which we all live, and, by implication, the foolishness implicit in the current Ontario Government’s penchant for building on the most farmable land. I found myself wondering what it was about the stories of the four families she profiles that had gripped me as I read. Perhaps it is that long years ago my wife and I came here from Great Britain with a strong feel for the farming life. This was based on the relatively unusual circumstance in a country where the Industrial Revolution first began, that both of us had relatives in agriculture with whom we spent time in the summers. I had as a first job taught physiology and pest zoology at an agricultural college. My subsequent career in Canada, while mostly focused on human health, on occasion took me into the realm of farm animal productivity, most recently into the genetics of improving milk production in dairy cows.

    My observation of farming practice across much of our vast country is that it works best where strong family cohesion coincides with savvy business skills and a sound sense of what to take from the smorgasbord of modern technology. The four families profiled exemplify those qualities ‘in spades’!

    Ian Keith Anderson from Caledon on Sep 25, 2014 at 12:24 pm | Reply

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