I’ve always been a farmer. I grew up steps away from where I live now, near the village of Fillmore in southeastern Saskatchewan. My grandparents acquired a 640-acre property in 1956, and I helped harvest crops and raise livestock on those fields. I didn’t spend days off from school sitting on the couch and watching TV—there was always something to do. When I was young, my dad farmed 1,500 acres, and I helped feed our 80 cows and ensured they had bedding. As I grew older, he trusted me to harrow and flatten the ground for low-growing crops like peas and lentils.
Most days, I’d ride with my dad in the cab of his tractor while he worked the fields. As a young boy, there was nothing more exciting than being on a large piece of machinery. I’d lie on a ledge behind the seat, holding my little lunch kit, just like him. Sometimes he’d let me take the wheel. Other times, I’d doze off on the cab floor.
In 2006, I left the farm to get a degree in agriculture, specializing in agronomy and crop science at the University of Saskatchewan, and then returned home to join the family farm. We faced exceptional challenges during my first two years back. The spring of 2011 was so rainy that we could only seed a quarter of our farm, and that quarter wasn’t growing well at all. After an infestation tore through our crops, I sprayed pesticide in the fields and wondered why I even bothered when we wouldn’t get much of a yield. But after my family and I persevered and our luck turned around, I realized that the unpredictable ebbs and flows of farming are part of the package.
Today, our third-generation farm employs seven people and grows wheat, canola, lentils and flax on 15,000 acres of Saskatchewan prairie. We sell to grain companies and specialty buyers that export our commodities around the world. My dad is still involved in the business, but I’ve taken on a bigger role over the past 13 years. I have three sons with my wife, Stephanie, plus two nephews and a niece, and our vision is to grow an enduring farm for the fourth generation. Someday, all six of them may want to farm, but it won’t be easy if they choose that path. As my dad’s generation moves into retirement, we face a growing threat: reduced access to skilled labour.
According to a recent RBC report, 40 per cent of Canadian farm operators will retire in the next decade. That will coincide with a shortfall of 24,000 workers on farms, nurseries and greenhouses. Even though retired workers sometimes come back to help during harvest season, they’re reaching a point in their lives where back-to-back 12-to-15-hour days are no longer pleasant, or even possible. When they’re gone, we’ll have a significant gap. The report found that our country has one of the worst skills shortages in food production compared to other major food-exporting nations, and finding people to fill seasonal roles has become all but impossible. Worse still, roughly two out of three Canadian farmers do not have a succession plan in place.
I’m already seeing this problem play out. Last December, one of our full-time employees retired. He operated equipment, worked in our shop and made sure everything was well maintained. That kind of dedication is hard to replace, especially as we enter our first growing season without him in more than three years. Finding someone to take over his position became a five-month ordeal, involving multiple job board posts and an application to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, which connects people around the world with short-term job opportunities in Canada. It’s often a last resort for farmers here. The application, which is long and detailed, took many hours to complete, and there’s no guarantee that applicants will find a new employee. (In our case, we finally found somebody who responded to our post on Indeed.)
There’s plenty of problems to fix with the TFW program. Applicants have to prove there’s adequate housing for the worker in advance, and sometimes that means renting a place that’s going to sit empty for months before they arrive. The application also asked me repeatedly to explain why I was unable to hire a Canadian worker, but farm owners know that there simply aren’t any Canadians willing to take these jobs.
That’s the fundamental problem with our worker shortage: since birth rates have collapsed over the last couple of decades, our available workforce is shrinking, and those able to work aren’t working for us. My job posting offered competitive pay and benefits, but I found that prospective qualified employees weren’t interested in manual labour and long hours. Urbanization is another issue: major cities welcome immigrants by the thousands, but rural areas don’t get the same influx of newcomers.
If we do end up with a farming crisis because of this labour shortage, the effects will be far-reaching. We currently export the vast majority of what we produce in Saskatchewan, so we’re not going to run out of food in Canada any time soon. But if we want to keep food prices down around the world, we need greater agricultural production, which relies on farms meeting their labour needs.
One in eight Canadian jobs are related to agriculture—whether that’s primary production, transportation or food sales. Since Canada is a major food-exporting nation, agriculture is one of our most profitable sectors and part of our country’s economic backbone. A labour shortage will harm that sector, increase unemployment and drastically reduce government revenue. That may lead to fewer government services, which will hurt all Canadians, whether they’re involved in farming or not.
It’s high time the government recognizes the danger our industry faces. We need to enact change through policy and bring more skilled agricultural labourers to Canada; they can come from the pool of international workers who have experience in this sector. The Dutch government, for example, recently announced misguided plans to buy out and close up to 3,000 farms in an attempt to reduce emissions, and those are workers looking for an opportunity to stay in the business they know and love.
We also need to prioritize investment in agriculture, both public and private. According to RBC’s report, every dollar invested in agricultural research and development generates $10 to $20 in Canada’s GDP. But one of the biggest investments we need to make is in our classrooms. If we want to grow this industry and transform Canada into a world leader in agricultural technology and food production, we need our young generation to consider this sector as a viable and competitive place to build a career. There are Canadian organizations like Agriculture in the Classroom working to fill in this educational gap, teaching students to care about how and where we get our food.
I’m optimistic about the future of farming in our country. The rate of retirement over the next decade will likely generate enormous opportunities for those of us trying to grow our farms, and agricultural technology is innovating fast. On our farm, we monitor field operations data, which tracks our machines and any potential mechanical problems. We also own several weather stations with sensors that help us observe our crops’ conditions. Companies like John Deere have even created fully autonomous tractors for certain field applications, and someday, perhaps within the decade, they can help stem the bleeding rate of farmers.
In the meantime, we’ll work with what we have. Owning a farm means operating on hope and resilience. There’s a lot out of our control—the weather, the workforce—and we must learn to bear those trials well.
So on the days my wife needs a break, I’ll grab our kids and take them out on my tractor, just like my dad did all those years ago. Since cabs are bigger now, there’s enough room for all of them to be buckled in next to me. My boys are just as fascinated with farm machinery as I was at their age, and those rides are the highlight of our day. Once my time to retire comes along, all I want is to leave behind a family farm strong enough to survive for future generations. I don’t know if my boys will grow up to choose these fields over a career in a big city, but at least they can have even greater opportunities than what my dad gave me.
As written for Maclean’s magazine. Click here for the post as seen in Maclean’s.