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Re-thinking the future of labour in Canadian agriculture

  • 6 min read

What do farmers have in common with high-tech solutions, software and data-driven results? Everything, according to a recent RBC report, Farmer 4.0: How the coming skills revolution can transform agriculture.

The report highlights how Canada needs to grab hold of “the internet of farming.” It points out that Canada’s agricultural sector could be valued at $11 billion by 2030. To achieve this, the report recommends a complete re-think to ag education and focus more on both young people and a growing pool of new Canadians.

It says there could be as many as a 123,000-worker shortage by 2030, which comes on the heels of a looming retirement explosion from baby boomers.

The report was written before the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak in March, which upended food production and processing, supply chains and consumer demands. The fluid situation continues to impact agriculture, especially the workforce, where temporary foreign workers face self-isolation protocols when entering the country prior to starting work.

Innovation ahead

A worker shortage in agriculture is good news to people like Heather Watson. The executive director of Farm Management Canada sees the report filled with opportunities for the industry.

If we could put as much energy into the labour shortage in agriculture as we do to yield and growth rates, imagine what we could accomplish.

“Scarcity breeds creativity, and problems lead to innovative thinking,” Watson says. “It’s important to remember our agricultural sector is founded in innovation and problem-solving. If we could put as much energy into the labour shortage as we do to yield and growth rates, imagine what we could accomplish.”

A key area to stem the tide of an agricultural exodus is the hallways of Canada’s grade schools, according to Watson. She believes there are good programs available now such as Ag in the Classroom, 4-H, Canadian Agricultural Literacy Month and Ag More Than Ever, but it’s simply not enough.

“Much like science, arithmetic and literature have their place in our educational curriculum, we should insist agriculture, that is, sustainability at its core, is recognized as a topic of equal importance,” Watson says, adding everyone has a role to play but no group is more important than guidance counsellors. “We need these influencers to understand the opportunity and possibility and help us attract young people to agriculture.”

Spreading the message

Mike von Massow, an ag economist and associate professor at the University of Guelph, agrees. He believes young people simply need to be told about the agricultural opportunities and they will be hooked.

“We need to articulate that this is a vocation that you can make money in, be challenged in, that you can have an interesting career in,” von Massow says. “These jobs aren’t just about sitting in a tractor and going up and down a field.”

He is seeing an increasing number of city kids join agriculture programs because they think there’s something unique beyond stereotypes of long hours and hard labour.

The changing skillset highlighted in the report confirms agriculture has less to do with overalls and dirty hands and more to do with soft skills such as human resources, individualized coaching and a growing subset of data management.

“We are getting increasingly more technology to collect unbelievable volumes of data,” says von Massow. “Where we are lagging behind is the ability to process and deliver insights from that data. That’s going to become more and more critical at the farm level.”

Recognizing business management

To receive and leverage key data-driven takeaways, a new breed of on-farm worker is needed and, as Watson says, “do your best, hire the rest.”

“The farmer of tomorrow need not necessarily have just as many computer skills as agronomic skills, but rather ensure this important element of farm management is covered, either by investing in themselves, in other members of the farm team, or by relying on outside experts,” Watson says. “The successful farm manager will be one who recognizes the business management needs of the farm and puts measures in place to make sure these needs are met.”

Some of those needs that must be met now relate to COVID-19 and required safety protocols at the farm level. Certain sectors, such as fruit and vegetable production, are in dire straits with a lack of foreign labour due to borders shutting down across the world. von Massow believes the pandemic will hasten automation, something he’s already seen industry-wide, just at a relaxed pace.

“Farm managers will realize their susceptibility and I think it will accelerate the rate of automation and the degree to which we can do that,” von Massow says.

Avoiding disruption

He believes supply chain diversification will prove more critical moving forward and points to the COVID-19 outbreak at the Cargill beef processing operation near Calgary - the single-largest in Canada - and its subsequent shutdown, as evidence of what happens when one key cog in the system is suddenly shuttered.

“Having some diversification in your marketing channels will protect you against these disruptions, whether its COVID or something else,” von Massow says.

Part of that circles back to the foundations of Canada’s future agricultural managers and leaders—education. Where many colleges and universities were once geared toward students on a fast track straight back to the farm, programs now offer many focuses, including the digitization of farm data, advanced robotics, journalism and electronics, according to Watson.

She doesn’t think the traditional farmer will be going away any time soon, either, even with a growing emphasis on a broader farm acumen.

“One thing is certain, despite all the mechanization and changes to production processes, the farm manager can never be replaced by a machine and will continue to need support in applying the business skills necessary to make informed decisions to drive success,” Watson says.

Bottom line

A recent report predicts Canada’s agricultural sector could be facing a 123,000-workers shortage by 2030. Ag industry experts say just like science and literature are key in educational curriculum, agriculture and sustainability should be as well, laying the foundation to grow interest and work options in the sector. Jobs such as data analyst, business or personal coach, farm manager and product developer are expected to be key roles on the farm by 2030.

Heather Watson of Farm Management Canada and Mike von Massow at the University of Guelph share their predictions for the top three jobs in greatest demand within agriculture by 2030. While there’s a consensus that a shift to higher-tech solutions will be a key driver for the Canadian agricultural economy, other skillsets will also likely be deemed just as essential.

Watson:

  • Farm manager
    “Not necessarily the same person as the owner or operator, but someone put in charge to ensure the business management requirements of the farm are fulfilled. This may be someone the owner or operator hires.”
  • Data analyst
    “[This includes] production, financial, labour efficiency, etc., to help the farm manager make management decisions.”
  • Business or personal coach
    “[This will] give farmers a sounding board for their personal and professional challenges and opportunities.”

von Massow: 

  • Farmer
    “We need bright, strategic managers working in ag and food production. We need people who are good at it and do things differently, that’s critically important.”
  • Product developer
    “People who look at the types of things that we can produce and work them into opportunities that are meaningful for consumers... that’s the combination of marketing and food science skills I think that has a huge opportunity.”
  • Data analyst
    “People who are able to take data and not only analyze, but articulate, what it means; that combination is critically important. The ability to take data, make it meaningful and actionable, will allow managers in different stages of the value chain to leverage insights that we get.”

Article by: Trevor Bacque