The exodus of young people from the farm seems to have tapered off as, among other things, prices and trade conditions improved and farmers diversified.
But today, what factors are primarily responsible for keeping young farmers on their land? To what extend do cultural, societal and emotional matters figure in?
And if those matters have a significant degree of influence, can they be supported in some way so young people are less apt to leave the farm?
That’s what University of Guelph researcher Sharada Srinivasan wants to know. She’s leading a four-nation research project, involving farmers from Canada, China, India and Indonesia, entitled “Becoming a Young Farmer.”
She’s trying to determine why farming is tough – but possible – for young people, and specifically, what impediments they face.
The project is underway in Canada now, the third of the four countries where it’s being held. Srinivasan is looking to recruit two University of Guelph Master’s students to help carry out the ground-breaking study. Interviews with about 100 farmers will take place in the late fall or early winter.
Unlike other research endeavours that have tried to find out why young people leave farming, she wants to know why they stay. She wants to know why young people today are going back to their home farm or starting to farming independently, and understand the challenges they face as they grow crops and raise livestock.
“We start with the premise that they want to be on the farm, not leave it, and figure out how they’re able to stay, what they say they need and what their challenges are,” she says. “I think the answers we find will be constructive for those who are choosing to farm.”
Here are some other facts about this research worth mentioning.
First, Srinivasan is not an Aggie. She’s not from a farm background. She’s not affiliated with the ag college at Guelph. And her research is not funded by the ag ministry.
Rather, she holds the Canada Research Chair in Gender, Justice and Development at the University. Her project is supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. She’s in the department of sociology and anthropology, and has a breadth of ag experts a stone’s throw away.
And although she doesn’t have a farm background, India, the country she comes from, is even more agricultural than Canada. There, a huge proportion of the population depends on farming in rural areas, making some awareness of agriculture almost inevitable…along with the understanding that farmers in rural India live in one the most poverty-stricken societies on Earth.
“You can’t ask questions about poverty without addressing agriculture,” she says, “and you won’t find solutions to social injustice by ignoring farming.”
Srinivasan expects to see similarities and differences among countries. But she hopes that the discussion that is shared through this research project means the participants and others can learn from each other, and that the results will help make them stronger farmers.
The study has been underway for eight months outside of Canada. It’s early going, but Srinivasan says two main points are emerging about why young people in the countries she and her team have surveyed start farming and keep farming.
First, she says, is quality of life. Particularly in congested countries, farming in rural areas is seen as less harried than trying to survive in a bustling city. “The country is simply considered by young farmers a better place to life, with not as many pressures as highly urbanized areas,” she says.
Second, young farmers like the autonomy of working for themselves. True, they have to answer to those who buy their commodities. But they say that’s different than working for a so-called superior, like a boss or a foreman.
“Their hours may be long, but they like not having to work under someone, or predictable nine-to-five office hours,” she says.
So quality of life and autonomy are keeping young farmers in place in China, India and Indonesia.
How about Canada?
That’s what the students Srinivasan is recruiting are going to find out.
She believes agriculture holds untapped potential for young people, given how many people rely on it, and how many unfulfilled farming jobs await those with the determination to pursue them.
She hopes information gathering, which involves colleagues and students from universities, research institutes and NGOs in other countries, will be complete in early 2018, so data analysis can begin.
I’m anxious to see her results, how they’re received by decision makers and the modern, global view they give us of dedicated young farmers.
Want to participate? Contact Srinivasan at [email protected]