FORT VERMILION, Alta. — Neil Simpson takes a break from welding a spray boom in the shop, deciding he’ll check on his horses and his small herd of cattle on nearby land.
The 26-year-old farmer has his own home and two quarters of land near his parents in Fort Vermilion, and he plans to grow at a pace that makes sense for him.
“I love the aspect that every day is something different,” he said.
“Yesterday I was in the tractor. Today I’m welding. Next week, we’ll be shipping grain and cows will go out to pasture. That’s what I love about farming so much; you’re the jack of all trades and the master of none.”
Young farmers like Simpson are a rarity in rural Canada (the average age is 55), but here in Mackenzie County, there tends to be more of them.
In fact, the average age of farm operators in the county is 46.8, according to Statistics Canada, making it the youngest farmer region in Western Canada.
“Having a younger farmer population in Mackenzie County is quite unique,” said Eric Micheels, an associate professor with the department of agricultural and resource economics at the University of Saskatchewan.
“What a younger population brings is a lot of vibrancy and a lot of new ideas. I would think it would be an innovative place to be because what all the factors point to is Mackenzie County being relatively innovative in the coming years.”
A number of factors are behind Mackenzie County’s relative youthfullness.
For one, there is a booming Mennonite population. They are young, tend to have large families and enjoy the farming lifestyle, said Josh Knelsen, reeve of the county.
“They want to be self-sufficient and it’s in their blood,” he said. “They finance everything to the hilt and make a go of it. They make that risk, working in the winter and having that determination.”
Land is generally cheaper and sometimes still forested in Mackenzie County, making it slightly easier for younger farmers to enter or expand.
Micheels said the inability of most young farmers to gain capital is partly why there aren’t many of them in Canada.
“It takes a lot of money to get started in agriculture, but if you look at Mackenzie County, land values tend (to be) below average,” he said. “Young farmers there can get off on their own sooner if that is their desire.”
Still, the majority of young farmers in the area grew up in farming households and have their parents to fall back on for help and knowledge. Like all of rural Canada, it’s fairly rare to see people with no farming backgrounds enter the profession in the county.
Daniel Wall, a 33-year-old farmer near La Crete, Alta., has started what is thought to be the first market garden in the region.
He grew up in farming, but this is his first year making a go at it. He said he has developed a passion for producing nutritious food for people and his family.
“I could a get a job making a lot more money, but I’m committed to my family and to my God,” he said. “I believe in Christianity and live my life to not only feed myself but to honour my God, serve the people and to better the planet.”
It’s been labour intensive but rewarding, he added.
“It’s been back-breaking but has made us feel good in our bodies,” he said. “I’ve been sore every day since starting the garden but that feels good. We want to get our hands in the dirt.”
Another reason behind the young population in Mackenzie County is that many parents might have already transitioned the farm to their children or have begun the transitioning phase, said Tristan Skolrud, an assistant professor with the department of agricultural and resource economics at the U of S.
He speculated it’s possible the generational change-over could have happened sooner than in other areas.
It also could be that opportunities outside the ag sector might be limited, he added, prompting younger people to return to the farm sooner than they otherwise would.
“Both of these explanations are speculation, and would need to be corroborated with more data,” he said. “But it’s very interesting, nonetheless.”
Young farmers Rodney and Danny Friesen are in the transition phase. They have their own land but also rent from their father.
Rodney said his dad always made it clear that he wanted them to farm, giving them lots of control over decision making.
He said it was his father’s easy-going attitude and drive that instilled his passion for the profession.
“It’s where we got our drive from,” Rodney said. “He was never upset when things failed, and it was always exciting when he would let us try something new.”
Simpson said he also has fond memories of growing up on the farm, believing it helped spark his passion for agriculture.
“I think a lot of young people up here like the lifestyle,” he said. “You’re seeing lots of bush being opened up, and I think that’s why there are young farmers coming up.”
Micheels suspects the average age of the overall farming population will decrease over the next while as more families transition, suspecting the average age could hover around 52.
He said more post-secondary students are interested in going back to the farm, although many older farmers generally don’t like to retire.
“With young farmers, they have different ideas and different needs for handling a risky industry. They don’t have a lot of cushion on the balance sheet,” he said.
“There should be different policy needs or programs that could benefit that younger farmer, like loan programs or policies that could help them get started in this highly capital intensive industry.”
In Canada, the youngest farming community is in the Roquemaure region of Quebec, where the average age is 44.1.
The oldest farming community is in the Kingsclear, N.B., region, which has an average age of 64.
By province, Quebec’s farmers are the youngest at 52.9, while Nova Scotia’s are the oldest at 56.5.
In British Columbia, the average is 56.3, Alberta is 55.7, Saskatchewan is 55, and Manitoba is 53.8. In Western Canada, Mackenzie County was youngest while the Brock region in Saskatchewan was oldest at 64.
Young farmers across Canada will have to grapple with numerous challenges, which include competing with larger farms that are able to expand, changing consumer diets and desires, and possibly difficult weather due to climate change.
Some farmers, like Wall, are introducing regenerative practices to negate potential impacts, but others, like the Friesens, want to see if they work on other farms before they use them.
“If the public starts demanding better management practices that essentially can’t be done with huge machinery, and if the public interest is in local food and farmers, then there is a future in small farms like mine,” Wall said.
Simpson said he’s trying out a little regenerative agriculture, but the bigger challenge will be cash flow and competing with larger farms that have it.
As well, he said he wants consumers to do their research and realize that, for example, beef production and pesticides aren’t bad.
“I really want people to do their research and not just be keyboard warriors,” he said.
“I would say 99 percent of ranchers are top-notch. Their life is to take care of cattle. Are pesticides bad inherently? No. There is a place for them but you don’t do it religiously.”
Average farmer age by province or territory:
- Newfoundland and Labrador 55.8
- Prince Edward Island 55
- Nova Scotia 56.5
- New Brunswick 55.6
- Quebec 52.9
- Ontario 55.3
- Manitoba 53.8
- Saskatchewan 55
- Alberta 55.7
- B.C. 56.3
- Yukon 53.3
- N.W.T. 57.6
Youngest farming communities in Canada by average age:
- Roquemaure, Que. 44.1
- Wellesley, Ont. 45.0
- Saint-Eugène-de-Guigues, Que. 45.9
- Saint-Omer, Que. 45.9
- Palmarolle, Que. 46.1
- Saint-Arsène, Que. 46.3
- Saint-Norbert, Que. 46.5
- Mackenzie County, Alta. 46.8
- Saint-Germaine-Boulé, Que. 46.9
- Saint-Thuribe, Que. 47
Youngest farming communities in western Canada by average age:
- Mackenzie County, Alta. 46.8
- Vancouver, B.C. 48.1
- Morris, Man. 49.4
- Northern Rockies region, B.C. 49.8
- RM of Parkdale, Sask. 50.3
- Emerson-Franklin, Man. 50.4
- Cartwright-Roblin, Man. 50.6
- De Salaberry, Man. 50.8
- RM of Hart Butte, Sask. 50.9
- Lousie, Man. 51
- RM of Scott, Sask. 51
- RM of Hillsborough, Sask. 51
- RM of Reford, Sask. 51