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Forty per cent of the people who run Canada's farms will retire by 2033, and more than half of them have no succession plan. The looming shortage of skilled agricultural workers is cause for concern in a country that is the world’s fifth-largest exporter of agri-food and seafood, a recent report by the Royal Bank of Canada suggests.

Experts and farmers say the retirement wave puts local food systems and food security at greater risk. They are urging the government to change its policies to make it easier for skilled immigrants and newcomers to the sector to take over existing farming businesses or start their own.

To fill the gap, the report suggests Canada should accept 30,000 permanent immigrants over the next decade.

“The strength of the local food system is threatened by this loss of farmers,” said Jenn Pfenning, president of the National Farmers Union and owner of Pfenning's Organic Farm in New Hamburg, Ont. Rural economies and communities are also put at risk if there aren’t enough people to farm, she noted.

"We have already been facing — as I'm sure anyone who's paid attention to farming in Canada has seen over the last decades — increasing acreage and decreasing numbers of farmers farming. And with that, there is a loss of a connection to the land and a loss of local food systems."

Pfenning believes it’s not enough to bring in immigrants to fill worker shortages. The biggest problem lies with the economics of farming, she explained. “The numbers are telling us that over my lifetime, the increase in input costs — everything from the cost of land, equipment, soil amendments, seeds and labour — all of those have meant an increase in our cost of operations that has exceeded the increase in gross revenue," Pfenning said.

Jenn Pfenning, head of the National Farmers Union, says the strength of the local food system is threatened by the loss of farmers. Photo submitted by Jenn Pfenning

Climate change is also a huge stressor that factors into farmers' ability to manage effectively, she added. So is affordability.

"Many of the next generation don't see themself in the family farming business. I think it is not a simple answer of one aspect, but the cost of farmland is certainly one of the greatest," said Pfenning.

The looming shortage of skilled agricultural workers is cause for concern in a country that is the world’s fifth-largest exporter of agri-food and seafood, a recent report by the Royal Bank of Canada suggests. #Farmers #Agriculture

RBC contends Canada’s agricultural worker shortage is one of the most serious problems and that a rapidly approaching demographic crisis is set to make the issue worse.

“In 10 years, 60 per cent of today’s farm operators will be over the age of 65. Never have so many Canadian farmers been so close to retirement. In addition, the number of operators below the age of 55 has declined by 54 per cent since 2001. The most immediate solution to this challenge rests at our borders,” the RBC report reads.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) says there are several permanent immigration pathways available for workers in the agriculture and agri-food sector, as well as agriculture-adjacent industries. For instance, agricultural supervisors and managers are eligible to apply under the express entry permanent residency program because they are high-skilled occupations.

“Canada launched the agri-food pilot in May 2020 to help address the labour needs of the Canadian agri-food sector by testing a new industry-specific approach,” said Julie Lafortune, communications adviser for IRCC. From the time it started until February of this year, the program has admitted more than 1,500 new permanent residents, she added. The processing time, including both eligibility and admission decisions, has been approximately seven months during that period, Lafortune said. The pilot program has been extended, with some changes, until May 2025.

In 2022 alone, more than 2,900 permanent residents with intended occupations in the agriculture and agri-food sector were welcomed through economic immigration programs, said Lafortune.

While the government can help boost agricultural workforce numbers, Lafortune added it is up to employers to ensure they stay. Like other permanent residents and Canadian citizens, these newcomers will only remain in the sector if it “offers competitive wages, good working conditions and long-term prospects for themselves and their families,” Lafortune added.

Keith Currie, president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, agrees that in the short term, making it easier for foreign agricultural workers to get permanent residency and ensuring workers are protected will help ease labour shortages. However, longer-term strategies are also needed to increase awareness of careers in agriculture.

“We also need to ensure there’s an operating environment that enables profitability for the sector … to ensure the next generation sees optimism in the future. This is the most critical element to ensure there’s interest from future generations,” said Currie.

In a statement, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) told Canada’s National Observer it recognizes Canada’s agricultural labour market is currently extremely tight. Reasons include the impact of COVID-19, access to foreign workers, Canada’s older-than-average workforce, supply-chain wobbles and seasonal production, among others.

According to AAFC, the government supports measures to help farmers acquire and protect farmland.

“In July 2022, federal, provincial and territorial ministers of agriculture reached an agreement on the Sustainable Canadian Agricultural Partnership. This new $3.5-billion, five-year agreement, which took effect on April 1, 2023, will position the sector for continued success as a world leader in sustainable agriculture, environmentally, economically and socially,” reads the statement.

AAFC also delivers the Youth Employment and Skills Program, which provides a wage subsidy to employers who hire youth for agricultural jobs, the statement added. “The program offers support for 50 per cent of wages to a maximum of $14,000 to agriculture employers hiring Canadian youth. Employers that hire youth facing employment barriers will be eligible for 80 per cent of the cost of salaries and benefits and may be eligible for an additional $5,000 to address specific obstacles to employment,” according to the statement.

According to AAFC, in 2021, the whole agriculture and agri-food system employed 2.1 million people, provided one in nine jobs in Canada and generated $134.9 billion, or around 6.8 per cent of Canada's GDP. That same year, Canada exported nearly $82.2 billion in agriculture and food products, including raw agricultural materials, fish, seafood and processed foods, to more than 200 countries.

This story was produced in partnership with Journalists for Human Rights for the Afghan Journalists-in-Residence program funded by the Meta Journalism Project.

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Increasing competitiveness is not going to solve the problem of the imbalance between what farmers receive for their products and what consumers pay. The other entities in farming and ranching, the processors, the researchers, the retailers all demand a living wage, while the farmer is dependent on what others are willing to pay. Government needs to become involved not just in making agricultural production more competitive in the marketplace, but in supplementing farm income until the initial producer receives a sustainable percentage of the retail price of food.