Canadian farming is on the verge of a massive change. Farmers are aging: the average age of a farmer in Canada is 55 and more farmers are over 70 than under 35. And even with so many farmers approaching retirement age, official succession plans are rare. According to a 2016 Statistics Canada study, more than 90 per cent of family farms had no written plan — and in Canada, it’s estimated that 98 per cent of farms are family-owned.
The new CBC Short Doc Counting on a New Crop looks at how one southern Ontario farmer is making sure his farm stays in good hands after he retires.
Jim Giffen has been farming the same land for his entire life. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all farmers before him. At 66 years old, Giffen is widowed and ready to wind down. None of his children are interested in taking over the farm, but 23-year-old Jon Goldsworthy — who didn’t grow up on a farm and works as an electrician — is. Goldsworthy has been working part-time on Giffen’s farm since he was a teenager.
Jon Goldsworthy, his fiancée Megan, and Jim Giffen on Jim's farm, outside of Barrie, Ont.
According to Neil Currie, general manager of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, this kind of situation isn’t uncommon. Because the farm industry went through some rough times in the ’90s and early ’00s, there is a generation of now-adults who grew up on farms, saw their parents struggle and opted to do something else. At the same time, more and more people who didn’t grow up farming are, for one reason or another, drawn to it.
“We’re seeing people moving out of the city and trying their hand at farming as a second career,” says Currie.
One of those farmers is Ayla Fenton. The 29-year-old has been working on farms near Kingston, Ont., for six years, and she’s planning to start a co-operative farm with some other young farmers. She’s also a board member with the National Farmers Union. Fenton first became interested in farming from an environmental perspective while studying biology at university. After a couple years working with community food organizations in Toronto, she decided it was time to get her hands dirty.
“I decided I couldn’t handle living in the city anymore, and I couldn’t handle a desk job,” Fenton says. “I took a farm internship with a farmer … and the rest is history. I just got hooked on it. [Having worked] with these urban agriculture projects and progressive food bank organizations, I started learning more about the social impacts of the food insecurity that exists in our country … farming became a way of combining my interest in having an outdoor job with addressing … what I think are some of the biggest challenges that our society faces.”
Fenton and Currie both say that one of the most significant barriers would-be farmers come up against is the cost of farmland. Currie says that the rise in the price of an acre of farmland has “exceeded any residential real estate market” over the last 10 years.
Depending on the location, you can see farmland for $5,000 to $25,000 an acre, says Currie. “If a developer buys it — and this is always the temptation for a retiring farmer — if a developer is interested in it, they can pay significantly more. Hundreds of thousands of dollars an acre for land if they’re looking to develop it.”
Fenton says that an increasing number of young farmers are doing what she’s doing: banding together to create co-operative farms.
Cows on Jim Giffen's farm.
“A lot of people from non-farm backgrounds are looking at more creative ways to do farming,” she says. “For a lot of us, it’s the only way we can imagine being able to purchase land. If we have a co-operative with a couple young farmers … it helps in terms of the capital outlay that’s required at the beginning.”
In the case of Giffen and Goldsworthy, the younger farmer plans to buy the farm from the veteran, piece by piece, over the next 20 years. In the interim, Goldsworthy is leasing part of the farm to raise his cattle, which he bought with a loan, and works together with Giffen to grow grain.
“Once I started to farm, I wanted to farm,” Goldsworthy says in Counting on a New Crop. “But I kind of knew that I [couldn’t] just buy a farm. Once Jim talked to me — like, ‘I want you to take over the farm and work into it’ — I was really excited. Jim is giving up a lot. He could easily just sell the farm for $2 million, and I would never [have been] able to get a loan for $2 million or even pay off the interest on that loan. For someone to give me [this] break … I probably would never [have] found that anywhere else.”
And what does Jim get out of the deal? “It’s really nice to know, climbing into bed at night … that somebody’s going to look after the farm and try to take care of it.”