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March 29, 2016

Who will feed us in the future?
By Dan Mazier

Manitobans put a priority on eating local food, and that means we need local farmers to produce that food. But alarmingly, we’re losing them in droves.

The average age of a farmer in Manitoba is 55, so retirement for many is on the horizon. On the other hand, the high cost of buying and running a farm business has resulted in a 73 per cent drop over 20 years in the number of farmers younger than 35.

Young farmers are telling me that securing farmland has become just too cost-prohibitive. Land in southwestern Manitoba, for example, has been selling at up to $2,000 an acre more than it did five or six years ago – so an average-sized farm could cost $3 million for the land alone. It’s very difficult for young people to carry this debt load as they begin their careers.

Even if a young farmer chooses to rent land instead of buying, the costs to operate the farm can also be prohibitive. Sixteen years ago it cost just under $250,000 in annual expenses to run an average-sized farm in Manitoba. Currently, that same farm requires almost $500,000 to keep it running for a year, based on inputs, land and machinery costs, depreciation, storage and labour.

With these expenses, one bad season could wipe a young farmer out. Not having equity in the farm business means one flood, one drought, one early frost, a decline in livestock prices – and they would not be able to pay what they borrowed for operating expenses.

Young farmers entering agriculture or those having recently entered need back-up in the form of solid and meaningful programs that will help them to lower their risk. Only then will we see more farmers under the age of 35 entering the business.

I call on political parties and candidates to make support for young farmers a priority in this election, and Manitobans agree. A recent poll by Keystone Agricultural Producers shows that 82 per cent of Manitobans want to see government do more to assist young farmers. Those of us in the agriculture industry are concerned about its future, and it appears other Manitobans are, too.

There are existing programs to manage risk for all farmers, but these have been significantly watered down to the point that many wonder whether buying into them is worth it. Not only does the next government need to return these programs back to pre-2013 levels, but it must also make special concessions within them for young farmers.

I would also like to see new and innovative programs that encourage, support and assist young farmers so they can continue the agricultural tradition in Manitoba of producing food for local families.

By providing this assistance, the next government will ensure Manitobans can continue to access safe and affordable local food.

Dan Mazier is president of Keystone Agricultural Producers, Manitoba’s largest farm policy organization. He farms grains and oilseeds near Justice, Manitoba.

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For an interview, please contact Dan Mazier at 204-720-4646.