Young farmers: Leading Canadian agriculture to a better future

Canada’s young farmers are looking to a bright future in agriculture, despite the general trend of an aging industry. They often count among the country’s most successful producers and lead the charge to innovate and capitalize on new opportunities.

Sobering farm demographics

Between 1941 and 2011 (the last Census data available), Canadian operations declined from more than 700,000 farms to just over 200,000 farms. Between 2006 and 2011, 23,643 operations (10.3%) disappeared. We also see fewer producers entering the industry for each five-year census period than the one preceding it.

Canada’s farm population is aging, with the average farmer now 54. Here’s some interesting history:

  • In 2001, the average age for a Canadian farmer was 49.9
  • In 2011, there were more producers 55+ than other age groups (48.8% of the total population), for the first time in Census history
  • The proportion of young producers has shrunk since 1991 by more than half. In 1991, producers under 35 comprised 19.9% of the total population. In 2011, they made up 8.2% of the population.

Canadian ag attracts new, young producers

  • In 2006, 30% of entrants were under 40 
  • In 2011, 15% of new entrants were under 35

These figures may reflect the well-known barriers to entry for young producers, but it’s also the case that of all entrants in 2006, more were under 40. There’s cause for more optimism in this figure as well, although it may not be obvious at first glance.

Not a simple story

The 2006 Census showed just as many producers under 40 exited the industry as did producers who counted in the older age categories. As well, fewer young producers stayed in the industry for more than five years (71% compared to 81% of all established producers). 

This high rate of ‘churn’ among young farmers – lots of entries and lots of exits in one five-year period – con-trasts especially with producers over 60 who experience the least churn (a high exit rate from the industry but low entry rate).

What are we to make of this? The high turnover of Canadian young farmers could indicate internal turmoil and instability. It may however indicate something else altogether.

Young established producers find real success

In an industry that continues to attract young producers, a number will exit quickly after entry as the majority establish themselves on successful operations. If the young established producers were struggling, it would be a different story - but they often out-perform the rest of the industry. In 2006 and 2011, they were both more likely to appear in the producer class with the highest revenues and least likely to appear in the class with the lowest revenues (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Producers under 40 among those with highest revenues (2006)

The churn of young producers entering and exiting agriculture may be a residual of experimentation and inno-vative entrepreneurship. It’s this kind of entrepreneurship that sustains a complex industry as it responds to new and varied consumer preferences and opportunities in technological innovation. It can signal necessary structural change within sectors and spur industry innovation as older, established operators adopt new ideas to compete with those newly arrived.

Competing in a challenging environment, young producers can help to change the game and inspire vitality and growth in Canadian agriculture.