So you want to be a farmer…?

Living off the land. At one with nature. Healthy bank accounts. Doing what you love and never “working” a day in your life. Clear starry nights and quiet country mornings. Sounds awfully glamorous, doesn’t it? Those whose exposure to agriculture has been limited to following popular Twitter hashtags like #farm365 #farmlife and #ranchlife may believe that these are the tenets of a farmer’s existence.  So why do younger generations continue to leave the farm? Why do so many of those raised on farms choose not to carry on the tradition?

There are several popular misconceptions when it comes to farming, so let’s examine some of the reasons that farm ownership is declining in North America. In 2014 there were 2.08 million farms covering 913 million acres in the United States, down 5% from 1999 when there was 2.19 million farms on 947 million acres (USDA “Farms and Land in Farms). In Canada the number of farms decreased 7% from 249 thousand to 229 thousand over the 5 year period from 2001 to 2006.

Myth: Farmers choose their profession solely for profit

The insinuation of this myth of course, is that farming is a significantly profitable industry. Recent statistics, however, suggest exactly the opposite; 2013 saw Canadian farms average a record (yes, you read that correctly, RECORD) net income of $78,000 per year.  Consider that the vast majority of Canadian farms are still in the category of “family farms” and you quickly realize how dire the situation is – of the 229,000 Canadian farms in 2006, over 193,000 (84%) had gross farm receipts at the low end of the scale.  $78,000 per year. Divide by 2 people. Divide by 365 days. That leaves $106 per day, per person. Farmers don’t get benefits, health & dental insurance, matching investment contributions or vacation pay like many in the general workforce. They work day in and day out for $106 per day, per person. Profit most certainly is not the motivation.

Fact: Farming is an inherently risky business (yes, it is very much a business)

Imagine walking into your new job on your first day of work making paper airplanes. Your boss comes in and tells you that you won’t be paid each week – you will get paid at the end of the year based on how many paper airplanes you make. “Not so bad,” you think, “I can work my tail off and make lots of paper airplanes.”  Then your boss tells you that your pay also depends on the quality of what you make, what the market forces are at the time you need to sell them (demand) and how many other planes are made by other people just like you (supply).  Then imagine that your boss tells you that you need to front 100% of the costs of all of your expenses, including the mortgage/rent on your office and storage space! He’ll give you a loan, of course, but ultimately the costs are yours to bear. Starting to sound a whole lot less fun, isn’t it?  So you work hard all year. You pay for your supplies. You make hundreds, thousands even, each of red, yellow and blue paper airplanes. Sale day comes. You’re proud, you’re ready to get paid for your year of hard work! In a good year, perhaps you do get paid, and handsomely at that. But in most years, you’re likely to see something like this: blue paper airplanes are in oversupply so the price barely nets a profit; your red paper airplanes were on defective paper, so even though they’re in demand, they don’t make top grade for pricing; and your yellow planes fetch a tidy sum, leaving you with something less than the aforementioned $78,000 to take home after you pay all your bills.  That’s a whole lot of risk, for not a whole lot of (financial) reward. Farmers cannot control the cost of their inputs, the environmental impact (weather, disease, etc.) on their production, or the market demand and pricing for their commodity. So yes, farming is an incredibly risky business.

Myth: It’s easy to take over the family farm

Sure, most farmers were raised on a farm to begin with. There’s an old anecdotal saying, “you can take the boy [girl] out of the country but you can’t take the country out of the boy [girl].”  For many, farming is in their blood. So why has the number of farm operators under the age of 35 decreased from 11.5% in 2001 to 9% in 2006? Why is that number hovering around 10% to begin with?!  The answer is a complex one, to which there is no single answer because the reasons vary by individual.  Ultimately, however, the answers have already been discussed here, so let’s expand.

A primary reason can be found in our discussion of profitability; farmers simply don’t have retirement plans or benefits such as 401k’s or RRSP’s like many in the regular workforce have access to.  Therefore, the older farmers simply are not retiring. This means younger farmers are left to start anew (a massive financial undertaking when one considers the capital requirements and debt servicing of land, inventory and equipment) or to work with their parents in an “understudy” role.  This only further dilutes the net income of the individuals involved, and since working capital is already at a premium, large scale expansion with a 50% increase in shareholders but not a 50% increase in equity is wholly untenable.

Another reason is simply the combination of economics and risk prevalent to farming. The appetite to take on a profession where your first financial move is to incur significant debt, and then to work tirelessly day in and day out to make, in some years, a healthy wage, and in other years, a paltry one (if one at all) is simply not an appetite that many have.  It requires a special combination of intestinal fortitude, stubborn pride and even a touch of craziness to take on such a challenge.  These factors themselves are commendable, and honorable.  Farmers do feed cities. In fact, farmers feed the world.

So you want to be a farmer? You’ve chosen a profession that few choose. You are in elite company. Your contribution not only shapes the world, it provides food for human and animal sustenance. You enjoy the beauty of a quiet morning sunrise over the fields that stretch in front of you. You breathe in fresh, clean air.  You find and maximize purpose in lands and objects that otherwise may fall to neglect.  You are a steward of nature, a conservationist, an advocate for our future.  You delight in the small joys: the first bleat of a newborn; the first gentle lick from its mother; the way the youngsters frolic in the fields while the herd’s matriarchs look on first with concern, then with disdain. You agonize over the defeats: the ill-timed weather, the unexpected virus, the natural selection that inherently exists to cull the weakest.  You laugh, you smile, you cry, sometimes in joy, sometimes in sorrow, you fret, you plan, you work and you succeed.  And then next year, you do it all again.

Rejoice and be proud of your choice.  You have chosen a time-honored and noble profession and the world is truly in your debt. You want to be a farmer… And if that is what you want, there is nothing better you could be.


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