This is an interesting point in history as the world becomes urbanized and agriculture faces a critical loss of labour and investment in the farm. Case studies around the world support the absolute need for solutions to agricultural employment. In the EU, labour shortages and retirement (only seven per cent of farmers are under 35) have forced the closure of farms and growth projections are capped because of the loss of workers and the increasing demands of regulatory frameworks. In Australia the No. 1 concern is the loss of farms and labourers, as it is in the Americas, Eastern Europe and essentially worldwide.
As an example, unemployment in India is 9.8 per cent of 1.5 billion people and over 25 per cent of the population is under 20. This represents a growing opportunity for Canadian exports to India but an internal domestic nightmare. Government programs to subsidize workers have resulted in male workers contributing three days per week to garner the subsidy. As men sit idly on the streets, the fields are emptied. In recent years, urbanization has moved the population to the city. In a short 20 years, the rural population of India went from 96 per cent to 61 per cent. Most of that change was in the last five years as wages in the city jumped to $5 per day. It is difficult to keep workers engaged on the farm when farmers routinely make only $1,000 per year.
As economics evolve, so does urbanization, which creates layers of challenges. Even the wealthy are without solutions. As I visited with the men and women of the millionaires’ club in Salem, India, they too were distressed about the labour situation on coffee plantations. The owners found themselves not only having to be more involved in the day-to-day business, but also actually working, something well below their caste. As in Canada, the farmer is aging worldwide and is over 50 years.
Machinery that can displace people will help but does not provide the complete solution as indigenous equipment cannot always be fuelled or serviced. It is not clearly understood by the consuming population that continued access to food at affordable prices and increasing consumption may come with consequence.
At the Canadian Food Summit held in Toronto this spring, the discussion of land in relation to attracting agricultural workers and new entrants was again discussed. It is difficult for young, new entrants to buy land when it has been appreciating at such a rapid rate. And, it is sometimes trying for established farmers to employ anyone at an acceptable wage level when access to land may be limited or uncertain.
Security of land
The solution to longer-term employment and the engagement and ownership in farms is deeply tied to longer-term leases on productive properties. Without the security of land access, there is little security in long-term career advancement. This is a problem that cuts deeply into farm ownership and the labour force worldwide and is felt from the depths of the small farmer to the height of corporate food processing. It may be one of the most pressing issues in agriculture today. Small indigenous farmers are loath to put inputs into land that may be ripped from them at any moment.
The female farmer in Africa knows this best as she struggles to produce 90 per cent of her nation’s food without the assurance of access for the following season. It is impossible for her to engage farm labour and she suffers severe stress from not knowing if her own needs will be met year to year.
The farmer in Ukraine knows how quickly the tides of political change turn and hangs tightly to the annual lease. Even those large corporate farms in Ukraine will have several thousand one-year leases to make up the land base that would require investment in extra labour or equipment. And in North America the lack of access to long-term land leases is the hurdle that keeps new entrants firmly planted on the outside of the farm gate.
This is an opportunity in Canada to engage the public in the discussion on food, the economic value of food production as well as the societal benefit. Farming is food and we must respect that relationship to attract young people to the agriculture business. Children who are well fed are smarter, healthier and more motivated to achieve higher education. Canada should look at her own internal educational systems to encourage agriculture and agribusiness, commerce and trade in school at an early stage. In addition, travel opens the window of the world and allows for the exposure to and incorporation of agricultural improvements from a global perspective. An active part in the advance of agriculture by business and government is essential as is the incorporation of centres of excellence that create a level of professionalism to farming.
The shortage of farm labour is more complex than the simple perception that youth do not want to farm. Those who do want to farm have difficulty with access to long-term lease agreements and those who don’t want to farm often come back to it as a second career. We need education for this demographic too. Agriculture and agribusiness may not be flooded with applicants because people simply do not know how exciting and broad the industry is. Ensuring that school councillors know these career paths is very important. The solutions to the global shortage of farm workers are complex and varied but we must start somewhere and the best place is to encourage and celebrate farming at home.