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A growing demand for more farmers


September 29, 2008
By Gary Jones

During his now famous 2006 lecture,
“Fifty Million Farmers,” Richard Heinberg1 expanded on the issue of
peak oil and the need to move back to a more locally based agricultural
system.

During his now famous 2006 lecture, “Fifty Million Farmers,” Richard Heinberg1 expanded on the issue of peak oil and the need to move back to a more locally based agricultural system.
“Today,” he notes, “so few people farm that vital knowledge of how to farm is disappearing. The average age of farmers in the United States is over 55 and approaching 60. The proportion of principal farm operators younger than 35 has dropped from 15.9 per cent in 1982 to 5.8 per cent in 2002. Of all the dismal statistics I know, these are surely among the most frightening. Who will be growing our food 20 years from now?”

In his book, Re-making the North American Food System, (Blackwells, Feb. 2008), Prof. Michael Hamm suggests “3 F’s” for a successful future – the Farm, the Farmer and Farming. Elsewhere, he, too, highlights the serious loss of farmers in the U.S. (with specific reference to Michigan). Between the years 1964 and 2000, while the number of small farmers (nine acres or less) remained static, the number of medium and large farms dropped by 38 per cent and 67 per cent, respectively, but very large farms (>500 acres) increased by 120 per cent – more than double! In essence, this means fewer businesses (i.e., farmers) farming the land.

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This mirrors what many of us already know to be true in the greenhouse sector here in Canada. Indeed, similar trends are borne out in statistics published by B.C. Ministry of Lands, (“Fast Facts,” 2007 edition) this time using farm sales as the measure of farm size. In the decade ending 2006, the number of farms with sales of less than $50,000 fell by 13 per cent in the province, while the number of large farms (sales >$250k) increased by 11 per cent.
Heinberg does the math. “Based on Cuba’s experience, in its transition away from fossil-fueled agriculture, that nation found that it required 15 to 25 per cent of its population to become involved in food production. … Extrapolated to our country’s (U.S.) future requirements, this implies the need for a minimum of 40 million and up to 50 million additional farmers as oil and gas availability declines.”

This would mean about four million new farmers in Canada. Moreover, this transition, Heinberg proposes, must be complete within 20-30 years.

Are we ready?

You may not agree with the assumptions of this scenario, but it doesn’t take a genius to realize the shortage of young blood entering conventional agriculture. “The masses” are going to more “sexy” (= better paying) industries.

Let’s face it, we do have an image problem among young people. But take note: the UN is making almost daily statements on policy changes to increase global food production, and pronouncing on a return to local, non-industrial food systems. However viewed, we are going to need more people with “farming” knowledge and skills. “They” just don’t know it yet.

A GREAT OPPORTUNITY TO GENERATE NEW URBAN FARMS
Rather than seeing the loss of farmers as a problem, Hamm sees it as “a great opportunity to generate new urban farms” and a new urban farming system. Local becomes essential. With the experience that existing growers have, here is an opportunity for that collective knowledge pool to be passed on, and perhaps for the first time in our generation for the value of our profession to be properly recognized in Western society. Communities and individuals are becoming receptive to the need to be a more “food secure” nation. Perhaps only by passing on existing knowledge to new growers in an urban setting can this happen.

There are many proponents now of a need to move away from an “input intensive” agricultural system to an “information intensive” system. In other words, a more farmer-based system. Heinberg concludes his lecture with a very encouraging statement. “Could we actually regain much of what we have lost? Yes, by going back, at least in large part, to horticulture.”

1 Richard Heinberg, (Oct. 2006), “Fifty Million Farmers,” twenty-sixth annual E. F. Schumacher Lectures, Massachusetts.


Gary Jones is Chair of Production Horticulture at Kwantlen University College and serves on several industry committees. He can be contacted at Gary.Jones@Kwantlen.ca.


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