P.E.I. farm population shrinking, getting older, faster than rest of Canada's
P.E.I. lost more than a quarter of its farm population in 15 years
The number of people involved in farming, which has been falling for more than a century, is dropping at a faster rate on P.E.I. in recent years than in the rest of the country.
Recently published numbers from the 2016 census show a 28 per cent drop in the farm population on P.E.I. since the 2001 census. For Canada as a whole, the population was down 18 per cent.
Perhaps more concerning, the average age of farm operators is rapidly growing.
While the overall number of farm operators is down 26 per cent, the number aged 55 or older is increasing, up 27 per cent. That leaves more than half of farms operated by someone in that older age bracket. In Canada as a whole, the number of farm operators is down just 22 per cent, and most of them are still under 55.
David Mol, president of the P.E.I. Federation of Agriculture, has been watching this trend on the Island for the last 35 to 40 years, but he said it has happened so slowly it was difficult to notice.
"I didn't see it soon enough to lend a voice to making it an issue or a concern," said Mol.
"You look around the crowd and you recognize it's not just a few grey hairs that you're seeing, it's just that there's a few not grey hairs."
But it is a well-recognized problem now, he said, adding that as steep as the downward curve has been, he sees opportunities to turn it around.
The technological landscape
Adoption of technology has been growing rapidly in farming, said Mol, and that in itself could make a difference.
"Technology in agriculture is starting to change, catch up with the technology skills and levels that other industries have in place," he said.
"The young people identify with technology and GPS and all the stuff that goes with it."
The industry is also coming to be about much more than growing crops and raising livestock. Success on the farm used to be simple: work hard, and if that didn't solve your problems, work harder. Mol said the answers are no longer that easy.
"You need to have savvy in a whole lot of areas, not the least of which is social media, the ability to do business via electronic pathways, and recognize that things can be done without physically having to go out into the field and do it," he said.
This has led to new divisions of labour, where one family member might have primary responsibility for the crops while the other is a corporate manager, and both are seen as equally important.
"Everything is recognized as being integral," he said.
The new family farm
The census also shows big changes in the size of families on farms.
In 2001, almost two thirds of farms on P.E.I. were occupied by families of more than two people. By 2016 that percentage had fallen to less than half.
This creates a challenge for the traditional succession plan of the family farm.
"There was an unspoken succession plan. There was an expectation that the son was going to follow in the father's footsteps," said Mol.
But even as long ago as the end of the last century that was starting to change.
"It was more interesting and probably more profitable for young people to go out west and take on jobs that were certainly better paying," said Mol.
But Mol believes part of that equation can be changed. Farming is unlikely to ever be about the money, but he said more can be done to make it more interesting for young people to stay.
"If you don't bring your children into the business at a younger age at [higher] responsibility levels ... you're likely going to lose them," he said.
"I don't think that was a recognition a couple of decades or three or four decades ago. I think there was a lot of young people that left the farm in frustration because the father never knew when to slack off on the reins a bit."
Also up for consideration is the notion that it must be father to son.
The P.E.I. Federation of Agriculture has a young farmers branch, and Mol said for all the greying of heads over the last decades, he is seeing some new faces in that group.
"In the last five years I'm seeing a little bit of a reversal," he said.
"I'm seeing more young people come to meetings and showing interest."
Recent statistics confirm that observation. While the number of farmers aged 35 to 54 continues to collapse, and the number under 35 is well down from 2001, there was an increase between the 2011 and 2016 census.
The numbers are very small, just another 35 farmers, but it is the best possible trend for the future of agriculture on P.E.I.