Ottawa has announced a one-year investment of up to $1.9 million that is aimed at attracting youth to green jobs within agriculture — a sector that has been wracked by labour shortages and continues to struggle to draw young people into the fold.
Agriculture and Agri-Food Minister Lawrence MacAulay and Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna revealed a plan last month that will provide employment opportunities for post-secondary graduates.
"Creating green jobs for youth in key growth sectors, such as agriculture, allows youth to gain the necessary skills and work experience they need to succeed in today's job market," said MacAulay in a release. "Hiring youth to implement environmentally beneficial activities on the farm and in the agriculture industry benefits the environment and will also help us grow the economy."
Under this initiative, farmers are eligible to receive up to $10,000 per intern to implement "environmentally beneficial" projects, while other employers in the agricultural sector can receive up to $16,000 per intern to undertake "environmental activities, services or research" that will benefit the agriculture sector.
Farms across the country have felt the effects of a major labour shortage in recent years, particularly with fewer young people getting into the industry. According to government statistics, the average age of a Canadian farmer is 55, and only eight per cent of farmers fall under the age of 36. It's a concerning figure for a sector that expects only one in three of the close to 74,000 forecasted job openings to be filled by 2022.
But while large operators scramble to find ways to entice young people into the industry, small-scale farms in Pemberton and across the country have been bucking the demographic trend, said Rootdown Organics co-owner Sarah McMillan, who employs two summer students full time at her Meadows Road organic vegetable farm each year.
"I keep reading everywhere that we're in a dire situation in North America because there are no young farmers getting into farming, and while that's true for a large number of the bigger (operators) out there, there is such a huge surge of young farmers starting left, right and centre in small-scale, mixed vegetable farming," she said.
"When we came (to Pemberton) eight years ago, it was all older generational farmers on their larger-scale seed potato (farms) over many acres. Since we've come, every year there's a new young farmer who starts out doing a smaller scale mixed vegetable-type operation and I think that's hugely on the increase, not only in Pemberton, but across Canada and North America." McMillan chalked the trend up to a second "back-to-the-land movement" that has inspired young farmers to seek out a more agrarian lifestyle.
"People from our generation and younger are not really excited by the lifestyle offered by living in the city and want meaningful work," she said. "A large percentage of it is a lifestyle choice, but the interesting thing to note now is that it's actually a feasible way to make a living, so there's more interest in it."
While she was interested in the federal initiative, McMillan said the timing of Ottawa's announcement would make it difficult to take on an intern to work on a new green project at the start of the farming season.
A huge barrier for new farmers breaking into the industry continues to be soaring land prices, McMillan said. It's pushed many new farmers to lease land from other operators, an increasingly popular option in the Spud Valley, although it doesn't offer the stability that McMillan is after.
"If there is some creative way to get people onto land, then that's great," she said. "There are a lot of great land leasing situations out there, but I personally didn't love being in that situation because you put a lot into the land and you don't have security long term."
For more information on the Agriculture Youth Green Jobs Initiative, visit www.agr.gc.ca.