Farming has a bumper crop of grey hair, and industry veterans worry about where the next generation of leaders will come from. But some are already on the scene.
Alberta Farmer asked four young producers what needs to be done to encourage young people to get involved in farm organizations.
Mike Vanden Dool
Alberta Milk delegate
The 35-year-old runs a dairy farm with his brother and father near Picture Butte. He’s been a delegate with Alberta Milk for 6-1/2 years, and his role is to advise board directors and assist them with committee work.
“I think the biggest barrier for young producer involvement is the time commitment, especially when you have a young family,” said Vanden Dool, who has two young children.
“Directors are gone from about 60 to 100 days. That’s a huge time commitment, and with a young family, it’s pretty hard to do.”
But the time it takes to be a delegate — about 10 days a year for Vanden Dool — is much more manageable.
“Some people think that being involved is a big workload, but it really depends on how busy you want to be. As a delegate, I’m only on one committee, but I could be on two or three. We have regional meetings a few times a year. It’s really about how busy you want to be, and I think a lot of people have false information about what’s involved.”
Vanden Dool encourages other young producers to get involved, but said he also understands that even a delegate role can be too much for some.
“My generation is usually the people who are doing all the milking,” he said. “I’m lucky I have a good hired hand who frees me up to do this.”
But getting involved can also help young producers get ahead.
Alberta Milk holds a biannual Next Generation Forum for producers between the ages of 20 and 40. This year’s forum is in Red Deer and is designed to minimize time away from the farm — it starts at 1 p.m. on May 20 and concludes the next day at 3:15 p.m. Along with learning about the activities of Alberta Milk’s board and how to make policy changes, attendees will hear presentations on topics ranging from succession to improving herd health.
Alberta Wheat Commission chair
Although only 34, Erickson has been chair since 2012 and first got involved with farm organizations in 2006 when he was asked to sit on the board of the Alberta Winter Wheat Commission.
A father of four, he operates a grain farm near Irma with his father and wife.
“I got kind of lucky,” he said. “I was young and wasn’t really involved with the industry. My dad was really involved, and had a lot of experience and was going to a lot of meetings. I really enjoyed the politics side, networking, and getting involved in policy, so they asked us if either my father or I would sit on the board.”
Young people can be shy about volunteering, and often don’t understand the impact farm organizations have, he said. But there are ways to overcome those barriers.
“Alberta Wheat has tried to use its bigger network to get people involved in projects and get young farmers to go on the Canadian International Grain Institute’s Combine to Customer course. One of the biggest things we can do is use technology and social media to reach out to the younger generation. That’s the way they like to communicate. We try to communicate a lot with younger producers, so that when they get asked to do something, they don’t feel so intimidated.”
Technology is also being used to address the time crunch faced by young producers.
“It’s hard to get people to go to meetings,” said Erickson. “That’s why we can try to meet more efficiently, and try to hold meetings over FaceTime or things like that.”
And more young people seem to be interested in getting involved, he said.
“The challenge is that the older generation, or guys like me who have been involved for a while, have to make sure that we don’t talk over their heads,” he said. “You have to tell people that there are huge opportunities available for them to expand their own knowledge, so they can bring that information back to their farm.”
Young Cattlemen’s Council president
There’s “a huge learning curve” when you first join an organization, said the 30-year-old father of three, who farms with his wife and has 110 head of cattle on their ranch south of Lethbridge.
“You have to get comfortable speaking out and communicating about the issues,” said Meyer. “But it’s necessary to have young people sitting at the board table, because older people may not be in the industry that much longer. Young people have a longer future in the industry, so they should be at the board table helping make those decisions.”
However, they also have a lot on their plate. Along with growing their business, many young producers are dealing with succession, managing high debt levels, and doing most of the farm work because they can’t afford hired labour, Meyer noted.
Nevertheless, there are more organizations for young farmers, including his. (The Young Cattlemen’s Council, which serves producers aged 18 to 35, was set up by the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, but has its own board and terms of reference.)
“These groups are actively introducing young people into the industry on either the political or the marketing end,” said Meyer. “There are fewer producers in the industry and they’re getting older, so it seems to be a growing concern.”
Groups like his teach members how to be board directors and run meetings; introduce them to organizations like the CCA and the Five Nations Beef Alliance; and offer insights into the issues (and politics) of their sector.
“It’s less intimidating because people are with their peers and can encourage one another,” said Meyer. “This helps the CCA and they’re doing succession planning for their own organization and grooming leaders for the future.
“You get to see how things are done, and you can bring forward issues that are affecting young people.”
For older producers, a five- or 10-year initiative may seem like a long-term project but Meyer has a different view.
“I’m planning to be in the industry for the next 40 years, so I’m always wondering what this is going to look like in 40 years. And nobody ever thinks that far ahead. Some initiatives could have longer-lasting effects on producers who are young, versus ones who may be retiring.”
Cattlemen’s Young Leaders mentee
The 29-year-old, who runs a commercial cow-calf farm near Endiang with his wife and parents, has just finished his year-long mentee program, which matches professionals and industry leaders with young producers.
Part of the appeal of the program is that it fits activities into blocks to minimize time away from the farm.
“Instead of having an event every other month, we have two or three events during the year where we get everyone together and put as much stuff as possible into that time,” said Somerville, a father of two.
“This is done in recognition of the fact that so many of us are spread so thin right now. You need to have a more flexible meeting schedule, because the traditional meeting schedule doesn’t work for young people today.”
This kind of program also overcomes the perception that the industry is a closed club.
“If you look at the board of a provincial industry association, it tends to be men of a certain age,” he said. “If you don’t feel that you fit within that demographic, you might not even try to be involved.”
Like Meyer, Somerville views issues through a long lens.
“I’ve got an entire lifetime of involvement in the industry in comparison to someone in their 50s and 60s. If industry groups don’t seem to be representing our interests, or if we don’t feel we have a place in them, we’re going to look elsewhere to meet our needs.”
Want to learn more?
The four producers profiled in this story are willing to answer any questions from other young farmers who want to know more about being involved in a farm organization.
Here’s how to reach them.