WEB ONLY: New program could help change face of farming – literally

Picture a farmer and one im­age that might come to mind is of someone who is middle aged, dressed in overalls and rubber boots.

The new generation of farm­ers however could be young, urban-bred and multi­cultural.

Ontario is facing some tough challenges in the coming years as the number of farmers under 35 has declined by more than 50 per cent over the last 10 years. The average age of cur­rent farmers is 52, and, accord­ing to a 2002 study by Agri­culture and Agri-Food Canada, more than three quarters (80 per cent) are planning to sell or transfer their farms in the next decade.

That is not good News, es­pe­ci­ally in light of Ontario’s grow­ing population and in­creas­ing demand for locally grown, ecologically produced, and culturally appropriate fresh produce in regions like south­ern Ontario. 

One solution may be Farm­Start, a Guelph-based organiza­tion that is working with future farmers such as urban and rural youth, new Canadians, and other individuals who want to start a second career on the land.

“We encourage new farmers to be entrepreneurs, to cre­ativ­ely turn challenges into oppor­tunities,” said Mike Shook, FarmStart’s program manager. “Our projects focus on devel­oping different types of farms including cooperatives. We also encourage our farmers to explore new market opportu­nities, ecological production methods, innovative business mod­els, and value-added pro­ducts.”

Early in the program Farm­Start identified the lack of farm business management training courses geared to new, small-scale farmers and Canadians wishing to start agricultural en­terprises. So in 2007, with $40,000 in funding support from the Agricultural Manage­ment Institute (AMI), Farm­Start implemented a farm busi­ness planning and management training pilot project. The ini­tial course was offered in Tor­onto and Guelph and attracted 17 prospective farmers.

The Guelph group was made up primarily of Canadian farm interns who examined is­sues such as cooperative pro­duction and marketing ap­proach­es.  The majority of the Tor­onto group included new Canadians from Africa who focused on the Canadian farm­ing and food distribution sys­tem.

Participants learned how to identify goals, develop produc­tion, marketing, and financial plans, and build a business plan to apply to the FarmStart incu­bator farms program. That valu­able theory was rounded out with workshops and farm tours to provide the students with practical tips on planning and running a farm.

“Eventually we hope to offer the course with groups of potential FarmStart applicants, as well as through community colleges, agricultural organiza­tions, and youth groups,” Shook said. “We would also like to make the course modul­es available to all farmers through our web site.”  

Although business manage­ment skills are important for all farmers, the needs of new farm­ers and new Canadians wishing to farm are unique.  Peter Van­der Zaag, chairman of the AMI, explained.

“Not only are the course par­ticipants coming in with little to no knowledge of our agriculture and food system, but the programs must be delivered by facilitators famili­ar with cross-cultural commu­ni­cations. FarmStart has done a remarkable job of developing and promoting this program.” 

To learn more, visit www.farmstart.ca.

from the Ontario Federation of Agriculture