May 25, 2024

Canada’s Fresh Crop of Agricultural Talent

new climate-friendly techniques

In the face of harsh climate conditions impacting their land, a new generation of farmers in Canada is uniting to adopt innovative methods, reduce emissions, and strive for sustainable livelihoods

Earning a livelihood through agriculture has always been a demanding task. However, contemporary Canadian farmers, belonging to a new era, confront an array of challenges that their forerunners never encountered. These challenges encompass escalating expenses, a diminishing supply of arable land, and the formidable influence of climate change, which can severely degrade soil quality and disrupt food production on a larger scale.

Comprising 12 percent of Canada’s overall greenhouse gas emissions, agricultural pursuits present a dual challenge for the up-and-coming generation of farmers. They must not only contemplate ways to curtail their personal greenhouse gas emissions but also revamp their farming approaches to endure drastic shifts in temperature. All the while, they need to generate sufficient income to support their workforce and provide sustenance for their families.

At Wooodleigh Farms in Cavan-Monaghan

Numerous individuals are seeking assistance from peer-to-peer organizations like Young Agrarians. Originating in British Columbia in 2012, this organization facilitates connections among young farmers, offering workshops, networking opportunities, and even initiatives for sharing land. This enables them to lease compact land parcels from established producers.

As of 2020, Young Agrarians had extended its reach to encompass Manitoba and Saskatchewan, with ongoing plans for enlarging both its personnel and its array of offerings. The surge in peer-assistance groups, according to certain farmers, stems from a desire to exchange knowledge, particularly concerning regenerative farming techniques. These practices aim to rejuvenate soil health and bolster resilience against the impacts of climate change.

Pioneering a fresh era in Canadian agriculture, the latest cohort of farmers is at the forefront of change. Among them, some are revolutionizing soil management practices, reevaluating tilling and ploughing methods, and reimagining on-farm energy utilization. Concurrently, others are actively advocating for enhanced agricultural policies and greater backing for the education and development of fellow young farmers.

Norm Lamothe is eager to try new climate-friendly techniques

While not affiliated with Young Agrarians, Norm Lamothe comprehends the significance of agricultural research in his endeavors to rejuvenate the soil on his Cavan Monaghan farm situated in Central Ontario. He holds optimism that ongoing exchanges of knowledge will motivate farmers to bolster their climate resilience, fostering a positive outlook.

Operating on his wife’s ancestral property, Mr. Lamothe tends to a vast expanse of 500 acres, cultivating cereal crops such as soy, wheat, and oats. Additionally, they manage a compact market garden dedicated to fruits, vegetables, and indoor plants, while also engaging in maple syrup production.

Engaged in farming for the past ten years, with the last three marked by full-time commitment following his departure from a corporate trajectory, he reflects on the transformation:

“Over this period, we’ve undergone substantial shifts,” he remarks. “Our primary emphasis lies in nurturing the soil, the very foundation for cultivating our crops.”

Throughout the last century in North America, the adoption of industrialized farming methods, including practices like tilling, has driven the degradation of soil. This process triggers carbon oxidation within the soil, rendering it more susceptible to climate change impacts such as droughts and floods. According to Mr. Lamothe, this soil degradation has essentially eradicated around 50 percent of the organic content, which he regards as a vital and robust resource for crop management resilience.

Mr. Lamothe shows off the rich soil at Wooodleigh Farms

Engaging in the practice commonly termed “regenerative farming,” Mr. Lamothe focuses on revitalizing soil nutrients. His approach involves a meticulous crop rotation regimen and the transformation of leaf and yard waste into fertilizer, thus diminishing the reliance on store-bought blends. Expressing his intent, he states:

“Our foremost objective centers on reestablishing the organic composition. After all, an inability to cultivate crops directly affects our financial sustainability.”

Furthermore, they’ve integrated a solar radiator system to counterbalance energy consumption and are actively exploring the prospect of transitioning a segment of their crops into biofuel production. This biofuel could potentially fuel a portion of their farm machinery.

Nonetheless, Mr. Lamothe underscores that the process of adaptation within the farming sphere operates at a leisurely pace. He highlights that the most significant hurdle is the protracted timeline required to test novel techniques. As he puts it:

“The complete cycle, from data collection to analysis and decision-making for the next step, spans an entire year. Unlike the retail world where outcomes are swiftly apparent within a week, farming entails a distinctly different rhythm.”

the biochar

Mr. Lamothe finds encouragement in the emerging research landscape and the allocation of government funds to encourage farmers to explore novel agricultural methodologies. He affirms:

“Research constitutes a pivotal motivator for me.”

He further highlights the presence of farmer-led collectives like the Ontario Soil Network, which brings together around 50 to 60 like-minded individuals. Elaborating on this, he shares:

“Within this network, I serve as a mentor to fellow Ontario farmers aiming to refine their practices. It’s a platform where we can openly exchange our experiences—be they positive, challenging, or insightful—and pose inquiries.”

This year, he was honored with an award for his leadership in cultivating climate-resilient agriculture by Farms at Work, a peer-to-peer support organization based in Ontario.

“I perceive only possibilities,” he asserts. “I firmly believe that by enhancing our climate resilience as cultivators, we heighten our prospects for countering prevailing climate vulnerabilities. This encompasses factors like erratic weather patterns and the elongation of scorching seasons.”

The repercussions of diminished crop yields extend beyond the realm of individual farmers like Mr. Lamothe. The ramifications reverberate throughout the entire agricultural supply chain, subsequently affecting consumers as well.

Agriculture has remained a cornerstone of the Canadian economy, contributing 7 percent to the nation’s gross domestic product in 2022 and yielding a revenue of $143.8 billion.

Nonetheless, according to Mohamad Yaghi, who serves as the agriculture and climate policy lead at the RBC Climate Action Institute, the federal government is failing to provide the forthcoming cohort of food producers with the necessary competitive advantage within the global market.

Sustainable agriculture research and farmer support have garnered commitments in the billions from the United States and Europe. Mr. Yaghi points out that in comparison, Canada significantly trails in terms of the assistance extended to farmers. He emphasizes:

“The government faces a critical choice regarding its stance on agriculture—a decision that, from my perspective, should unequivocally prioritize this sector.”

the products Ms. Hamir and her husband, Neil Turner, grows in the Courtenay farm

Arzeena Hamir possesses personal insight into the pivotal significance of policy and funding in tackling the challenges of climate change in the agricultural landscape. In 2015, her husband and she experienced the dire impact firsthand, losing their entire onion harvest—amounting to nearly 40 percent of their farm’s yearly output. This devastating loss was attributed to an unprecedented drought during that summer, which essentially drained the moisture from the soil on Vancouver Island, where they cultivate 26 acres of organic fruits and vegetables.

In 2012, they acquired the property in Comox Valley. While neither had roots in farming, both brought agricultural-related degrees to the table—Ms. Hamir had studied crop science at Guelph University—alongside a shared aspiration of nourishing their local community. Right from the outset, Ms. Hamir underscores that they embraced farming through the lens of sustainability. She remarks:

“From the very beginning, our approach was driven by a commitment to making optimal choices for the land and the diverse life forms that coexist with us.”

Ms. Hamir and Mr. Turner process dried garlic

This entailed primarily relying on manual labor to circumvent the adverse impacts of tilling on soil health. They also integrated solar panels onto their residence’s roof and transitioned from gasoline-powered vehicles to electric counterparts, including electric golf carts for transporting harvested produce. However, Ms. Hamir swiftly recognized that addressing the challenges of farming within the context of climate change necessitated collective effort—government intervention was imperative.

Following the loss of their onion crop, Ms. Hamir and her husband opted to construct a dugout to enhance water retention. This move not only occupied land that could have been employed for cultivation but also incurred an unforeseen expense of $15,000.

In the meantime, persistent droughts persist in exerting their toll. Absence of rainfall for a span of 10 to 12 weeks results in soil that becomes parched, attaining a clay-like texture, according to Ms. Hamir. She notes:

“Subsequently, when rain does arrive, the soil lacks the capacity to effectively absorb the moisture.”

In order to safeguard the soil during periods when crops aren’t cultivated, Ms. Hamir employs a technique known as “cover cropping.” This involves planting vegetation on bare land that firmly binds to the soil, serving as a protective shield against the harsh impact of high temperatures and arid conditions. However, this practice comes with its own set of costs. She notes:

“We’re investing in numerous plants from which we don’t derive any financial gain.”

These mitigation techniques – like implementing cover cropping and installing solar panels – entail financial expenses, a resource that young or inexperienced farmers might not readily possess. This is where policy intervention becomes crucial, as stated by Ms. Hamir. Following the establishment of the dugout on their farm, she vigorously advocated for the B.C. government’s endorsement of on-farm water storage. Her determined efforts yielded success. Reflecting on this achievement, she mentions:

“It might not sound overly glamorous, but it’s a significant step now that the province is willing to contribute 50 percent of the funding.”

Advocacy was never a predominant aspect of Ms. Hamir’s farming expectations, yet she has evolved to perceive it as the most effective means of bolstering the agriculture sector. Reflecting on this, she notes:

“The extent to which Europe has channeled resources into investigating climate-conscious agricultural systems was beyond my initial imagination. Canada has merely embarked on this journey, while the U.S. has also surged significantly ahead.”

Dry conditions in 2023 have depleted the dugout, or reservoir, at Amara Farm

During 2019, she became an integral part of the policy task force within Farmers for Climate Solutions, a farmer-driven nationwide coalition focused on promoting avenues to facilitate emission reduction within the agricultural domain. She engaged in discussions with the then-Minister of Agriculture, Marie-Claude Bibeau, and holds the view that the task force’s advocacy exerted a meaningful impact on the federal government’s resolution in 2021 to allocate $200 million to the On-Farm Climate Action Fund. This fund aims to aid farmers in the adoption of advantageous management techniques, including practices such as cover cropping and diverse soil management approaches.

Persistently, Ms. Hamir advocates for policies that can dictate the line between sustaining her farming venture and being compelled to cease operations altogether. As she puts it:

“Farmers aren’t inclined to voice grievances.”

This is a driving force behind her proactive stance — she endeavors to amplify their narratives within the broader society:

“It’s about conveying the realities faced by farmers to a wider audience, fostering a deeper comprehension of the challenges they grapple with.”

Ms. Hamir checks on the tomato greenhouse

A report released by RBC in April, co-authored by Mr. Yaghi, forecasts that by 2033, 40 percent of Canadian farm operators will have retired. This transition will coincide with a shortage of 24,000 workers in the categories of general farm, nursery, and greenhouse labor.

The report underscores that these gaps materialize just as Canada’s agricultural workforce needs to transform, integrating skills such as data analytics and climate-conscious methodologies to enhance food production while curbing emissions. The report advocates for the federal government to prioritize the immigration of skilled farm operators to address this challenge. Nevertheless, some producers speculate that the solution might be found closer to home.

Jacob Beaton, a representative of the Tsimshian First Nations, oversees Tea Creek Farm, an expansive 450-acre property situated in Kitwanga, Northern B.C. He possesses a concept that, he asserts, could simultaneously address the scarcity of labor and the complexities of farming within the context of climate change.

Starting from 2020, Mr. Beaton has been providing training to young individuals from Indigenous backgrounds in various skilled trades and agricultural methodologies. These encompass a spectrum of expertise, from crop supervision to the workings of greenhouses. Mr. Beaton underscores that the training is rooted in regenerative practices, as these align with the longstanding farming traditions of Indigenous communities.

According to him, Indigenous communities have historically faced exclusion from conventional agricultural endeavors. Regulations within the Indian Act restricted their land ownership and continue to pose obstacles in securing funding for land acquisition. Mr. Beaton highlights:

“Indigenous farmers currently comprise less than 1 percent of Canada’s food producers. The decline from 100 percent to nearly zero wasn’t coincidental; it was a deliberate outcome.”

He notes that even today, there are elders who recollect a time when the Kitwanga River Valley thrived with Indigenous food producers.

“Thus,” he adds, “my purchase of this land and its revitalization through farming holds profound significance.”

Farmer Jacob Beaton teaches sustainable agriculture at Tea Creek Farm in B.C.’s Kitwanga River Valley

Mr. Beaton has witnessed over 1,400 students engage with Tea Creek Farm’s workshops and courses. A majority of these participants possess an entrepreneurial disposition, he remarks, expressing a desire to establish sustainable and regenerative livelihoods by harmonizing with the land.

“It’s been truly captivating to delve into the historical narratives of early settlers, detailing the remarkable efficacy of Indigenous food systems,” he reflects.

He goes on to note that Indigenous communities employed farming methods that astounded Europeans during that era, resulting in an exceptional degree of “food production prowess.”

“Today,” he observes, “the resurgence of regenerative farming is leading to the adoption of practices akin to what Indigenous peoples traditionally engaged in. Cover crops, for instance, are gaining traction – a technique with Indigenous roots. Additionally, controlled burns are experiencing a resurgence, serving a multitude of purposes, including the restoration of phosphorus levels to the soil.”

According to Mr. Beaton, enabling Indigenous communities to access agricultural training, financial resources, and opportunities for land acquisition would significantly contribute to the wider adoption of regenerative agriculture.

“Given our inherent values, Indigenous peoples naturally gravitate towards regenerative approaches, which eliminates the need for extra persuasion,” he asserts. “The key lies in facilitating the feasibility. The primary hurdles boil down to two factors: access to land and financial resources.”

Apart from conducting workshops on his farm, Mr. Beaton has also provided remote instruction for entities such as Young Agrarians. He recognizes the existing aspiration to engage in sustainable farming practices. Nevertheless, he emphasizes that endeavors like his, which provide educational opportunities for young farmers, necessitate increased backing. He further underscores the importance of governments enacting policy changes that align with Indigenous aspirations to acquire and cultivate their own land.

The prevailing labor scarcity within the agricultural sector, he asserts, constitutes a significant challenge, yet he firmly believes a remedy exists. He states:

“The answer lies in recognizing that the Indigenous population stands as the youngest and sole expanding demographic group in Canada today. Moreover, Indigenous individuals are four to five times more inclined to embark on entrepreneurship and initiate their own businesses. This is particularly advantageous since farming is akin to running one’s own enterprise.”

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