Kitchener-Waterloo

Dormant farmland's a growing issue — so farmers are matchmaking

Farmers are getting older. Most don't have succession plans in place. The industry is looking for solutions for the farmland. So some are betting on matchmaking.

Hope to solve vacancy problem by pairing landowners with land seekers

Vegetable farmer Rosemary Crick takes a walk on her 20 hectare farm in Neustadt, Ont. She's looking to share her land, part of the larger farm matchmaking movement. (Haydn Watters/CBC)

Farmer Wail Alfarra can't see any farmland from his front porch, just rows and rows of houses.

It's a stark difference from his home in Syria, where he farmed corn and wheat for two decades. He just moved to Ontario with his family seven months ago, fleeing the long years of war that made life dangerous.

He's hoping to start farming again here, but finds himself farmless in suburban Mississauga, Ont.

Farmer Wail Alfarra, far right, just moved to Canada from Syria with his wife Hala Koshaji and his four kids, including Alma, left, and Kareem. He's hoping to have a mentor farmer teach him how to farm in Canadian weather. (Haydn Watters/CBC)

"I feel now Canada is my home. So I just want to have some land to deal with," he said. "Yes, I have 20 years experience but the weather here is very different from my country."

As a farmer without land, he's turned to farm matchmaking, which pairs farmland seekers with farmland owners. The farming industry is hoping it'll fix their vacancy problem.

Farmers are getting older. Most don't have succession plans in place. The industry is looking for solutions for the farmland. So some are betting on matchmaking. The CBC's Haydn Watters explains. 6:47

Family farm not as common

Vacant farmland is a serious threat. According to a 2016 Statistics Canada study, 92 per cent of farmers don't have succession plans in place,  It also found the average age of farmers is rising, with more farmers over age 70 than under age 35.

Municipalities are noticing the empty fields and hoping to do something about them. Grey County, about 120 kilometres northwest of Toronto, hosted a sold-out matchmaking event late last month, in an attempt to connect farmers.

FarmLink specializes in farmer matchmaking, sort of like a dating service for farmers and those looking for land. It lets landowners make listings and land seekers make profiles. Almost 200 farmers on the site are looking for land at the moment across the country.

Philly Markowitz, Grey County's economic development officer, poses with FarmLink's Anahita Belanger. Markowitz hosted a sold-out farm matchmaking event in Grey County, where Belanger presented. (Haydn Watters/CBC)

The group's Anahita Belanger said it is attempting to head off a growing problem.

"There's not as many children who are looking to take over the family farm," she said. "In the next 10 to 15 years, we're going to see the largest land transfer we've ever seen in history."

For many young farmers trying to get into the industry, the cost of land is a big barrier and sharing land is a way to get a start. 

Farmers seek young farmers to mentor

Belanger has been dealing with all sorts of farmers. Some just want to rent, handing over the field and letting the land seekers do their farming. Others are hoping to mentor.

One farmer couple she spoke to expected the land seeker to sit down and have dinner with them, ideally every night.

Vegetable farmer Rosemary Crick is still trying to figure out what to do with her land. She has 20 hectares in Neustadt, Ont., 80 kilometres east of Lake Huron. With 12 hectares rented by a neighbour, but she wants to share other sections of the land.

A flock of chickens and a few ducks shelter from the cold on Crick's farm. Crick used to live in Toronto but moved to the country 11 years ago. 'We were that couple that just kept talking about moving to the country. I got tired of hearing myself say that over and over and over again.' (Haydn Watters/CBC)

She's run Crickhollow Garden as a vegetable farm for 11 years. During that time, she's seen a lot of nearby farmland go vacant. Her barn and front field are sitting empty at the moment and she's looking for the perfect match.

"The ideal situation would be a mixed herd ... maybe some Jersey cows or some Highland cattle ... just a mix of animals," she said. "We've [already] got bedding on the floor and everything."

Alfarra has specific requirements too. He's looking for an experienced farmer to guide him through Ontario's distinct seasons. He hasn't gotten used to all the snow just yet. He knows it's going to be a challenge, but he's up for it.

Farm matchmaking may sound romantic but it's not quite the case. 'I might just state that I am happily married,' joked Crick. (Haydn Watters/CBC)

"Farming everywhere, it's a good business. You are not going to lose," he said. "If you love it, you will succeed, wherever you are."

His four kids are cheering him on. If it works out, he would like to buy some land of his own.

"It's like you have a small baby when you put the seeds in the land … you watch it grow and when it's time to harvest, it [feels] amazing when you feel the success."

About the Author

Haydn Watters is a roving reporter for Ontario, primarily serving the province's local radio shows. He has worked for CBC News and CBC Radio in Halifax, Yellowknife, Ottawa and Toronto, with stints at the politics bureau and the entertainment unit. He also ran an experimental one-person pop-up bureau for the CBC in Barrie, Ont.

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