Blake Hall used to joke that he was about as close to being a nomadic herdsman as a person could be in the 21st century.
“All I owned was the cattle,” the Forshee-area rancher said with a laugh.
“In the beginning, we moved between five farms in five years, which is expensive, labour-intensive, and stressful on the cattle. It’s hard to build a successful farm operation if you’re constantly on the move.”
But for a growing number of new producers in Alberta, that’s becoming the hard reality of farming in the province.
Sky-high land prices, combined with a shortage of farmland in some regions, have made buying land a pipe dream for young farmers. Today, more than a quarter of the land farmed in Canada is rented, leased, or crop-shared.
“From my perspective, gone are the days of mortgaging a quarter-section and paying it off with whatever you’re growing on it. I have no illusions about that,” said Hall, who farms with wife Angela.
That’s especially true for new farmers who won’t be inheriting land.
“Both my wife and I grew up in town and didn’t have any family that were farming, so we didn’t have any direct access to farmland,” said Hall.
“It’s tricky, especially if you’re not from the community where you’re renting land and you don’t know any of the other landowners. We didn’t have any connections to get started on a land base.”
In 2015, the Young Agrarians — a farmer-to-farmer network devoted to growing the next crop of Canadian producers — surveyed more than 1,300 new and aspiring farmers across Canada. Just over two-thirds said they didn’t come from a farming background.
For those farmers, stable access to land is the biggest hurdle they face to farming full time, said Dana Penrice, Young Agrarians’ program manager for the Prairies.
“These are people who are excited about growing food and doing good for the environment through farming. They want to get their hands dirty,” she said. “They’re ready to start their own farms, but that land access issue becomes a barrier for them.”
Making it work
And more specifically, the high cost to purchase land is a challenge most aren’t able to overcome. For those producers, the Young Agrarians have recently released an Alberta Land Access Guide to help them explore their options for accessing land.
“Trying to make it so they can create a viable business model that supports land payments is really difficult, so what we’re trying to do is explore different options that are available,” said Penrice. “Often people just immediately think that they need to own the land, but that’s not always the case.”
More often, leasing may be their best option, she said.
“I think we’re going to see more and more of that in the future,” said Penrice.
That’s how the Halls started on a small scale with an existing rancher who was understocked and had some room for their cattle.
“We were able to move our herd onto their place and pay cash rent or trade labour for the cattle to stay,” said Hall. “That evolved into year-over-year rentals as our herd grew and we needed more acreage.”
But it was stressful for the young family.
“Like most farmers, I feel called to it. It’s a passion,” he said. “But as a new entrant to farming, I had to be profitable. I couldn’t get an operating loan. I couldn’t get any help from the banks whatsoever. So I had to be profitable from the get-go.”
After 10 years of successfully farming through the struggles, the Halls were able to get a bank to give them another look.
“It was worth it in the end when we were able to get a lease on a place and actually set down some roots and invest in some infrastructure,” said Hall. “We were able to buy 40 acres, which is too small if you’re running cattle. But it gives us a home base for the cattle and we continue to rent pasture on top of that.”
Producers in other parts of the province aren’t facing quite the same challenge accessing land, though. In northern Alberta where Paul Buck farms, it’s less expensive to buy land, and there’s more of it available.
“I don’t know that land is hard to find up here — it’s more just the overall cost of buying land and equipment. It’s just a whole lot of capital to even begin farming,” said Buck, who farms with his wife near Fairview. “Even for one quarter, I don’t know how it’s possible for a young person to even begin farming. For it to actually make them money would take forever.”
Like Hall, Buck didn’t grow up on a farm, but the full-time chemical rep decided to start “dabbling with farming” last year when he bought two quarters near Fairview.
“Where I am, I look at it as a land investment with hopefully a little money made from the actual farming I’m doing on it,” he said. “For me, it’s a hobby. But for people who are really trying to get into it, I don’t think it’s even possible.”
For many, a small-scale approach is how they’re able to get started, said Penrice.
“A lot of new farmers are interested in smaller-scale farming and direct marketing. Sometimes it’s a little bit easier to access land that way, but sometimes it’s about thinking creatively.”
But small-scale, direct-to-consumer production isn’t the only approach young farmers are looking at, she added.
“There’s a diverse interest in farming and in types of farming,” she said. “Vegetable production and small-scale livestock production is great, but we’re also going to need a lot of people taking over broader acres, too. That becomes an even bigger land access challenge.”
Sky-high southern prices
That’s the case for southern Alberta grain farmer Ben Dyck.
“I’m located in Taber right in the heart of the most expensive farmland in Western Canada,” said Dyck. “There’s no land for sale anywhere in our neck of the woods here, and it’s reaching $20,000-plus an acre for irrigated farmland. Those who have land and have sat on it for years and years have a lot of equity and they can leverage that to buy more land.
“So for young farmers like myself who aren’t fortunate to have land early on, it’s pretty tough to get into now.”
Dyck moved to Canada as a young boy in the early 90s, and after a decade as a farm worker, his father was able to buy some land. But that land base wasn’t big enough to support all four boys in the family, so they were forced to rent some additional land until 2008 when the rental agreement ended.
“I did look at being able to purchase the land, but it was just so far beyond being able to cash-flow it from a financial perspective that we decided we had to let it go,” said Dyck, who works as a farm supervisor near Taber.
After keeping an eye out for some affordable land, Dyck finally lucked out for this crop year and was able to rent a partial piece of around 65 acres. But he isn’t sure how long he’ll have access to the land, and while the piece he’s renting has a newer pivot on it, the capital expenses for equipment, storage, and other infrastructure are high.
“That’s the situation I find myself in now — pretty much with my hands tied behind my back,” said Dyck. “I feel like my only chance is to get into a long-term rent deal or relocate further east or north. Here, it’s just very difficult.”
Despite his struggles, Dyck hopes to stay on the land long term.
“Farming is in my blood. It’s what I know and love,” he said. “If I found a really good opportunity elsewhere, I wouldn’t be opposed to that.
“But my family is here and I like Alberta a lot. It’s home to me.”
But that home might start to look a little different as farmland continues to be bought up and farms consolidated.
“The trends are showing that we’re getting larger and larger farms, and fewer and fewer farmers. That has a really significant impact on rural communities,” said Penrice.
“I think that’s the biggest risk — we’re losing people from the landscape, and rural communities are dying. If we’re really trying to work on rural revitalization, we want people on the land. We really need to have a concerted effort to engage people in farming.”
That’s a daunting task, but Young Agrarians has seen first-hand that there are new and emerging farmers who want to do it.
“COVID has proven that — people want to be living more of their values and growing their own food, which is really exciting,” said Penrice.
But as long as affordable land remains a barrier, it will be harder and harder for those people to enter the industry.
“I really do think family farms are the backbone of our community, but as that land gets gobbled up, I don’t think it will come up for sale again. It’s a one-way trend, as far as I can see,” said Hall.
“If that land gets bought and consolidated, the obstacles are only going to increase for the next generation. Even if they’re passionate and interested and profitable, they may not have a chance to buy land.”