Farmers often lament the lack of youth in agriculture. I would argue that this is not true — there are a lot more baby strollers than walkers at major agricultural conferences, especially ones where technology is highlighted.
There may be fewer young farmers, but the young men and women farming today have a broader reach in their knowledge and marketing.
The farming career of the future is not limited to gumboots and giddy-up — it is high-speed transactions and defined data-based decision-making. It is knowledge transfer and borderless information transfer.
And this is what is appealing to our next generation of food system leaders.
I was recently asked what I thought the farm of the future would look like. I go back to the things that have driven great change. The cellphone is the most recent disruptive technology and although it may differ in its shape or scope, the idea of having the world at your fingertips has been transformational. It is the cellphone that has allowed farmers in the most remote corners of the Earth to access production and weather information, talk to other farmers, find inputs (including water), and market their harvest and livestock.
What other changes are emerging and how do our young Canadian farmers fit in? And when armed with knowledge and technology, how do they successfully bring that back to the farm?
- More with Brenda Schoepp on the Alberta Farmer: Big picture ignored in supply management debate
My travels have taught me there is room for every farmer, and that the first order of business is to break out of the paradigms in which we reside. What will be your point of differentiation? How has risk been mitigated in your business model?
My guests were speaking of their laying hens. She wanted to optimize an unused barn at 80 hens and he wanted to maximize the numbers to 2,000. After a lot of research and number crunching, it became apparent that the optimization model was more profitable than maximizing. It reminded me of the hundreds of farmers I have met around the globe and my discovery that in a room of the biggest farms from a dozen countries that it was the three-acre asparagus farmer from an island who was making the most money.
Farms and families differ, but there are unconventional business models that make sense.
I think of the Dutch pig farms that I visited. The pigs were bought after the retail contracts were signed. Then the farmer thought,“Well, I may as well own part of that shelf, a share in the butcher, the trucks that deliver the pigs, the barn, and some of the mill that the feed comes from. Then I will charge folks to come eat pork and have picnics at my pig farm.”
It was a great value chain but the real profit centre was the data. The farm family developed the data systems for real time and the veterinarian paid the farmer to access his barn visually and on the real-time performance, health and environment data before determining if a call was needed.
Rethinking the way we do business is the most important thinking we do.
And therein lays the opportunity and the conflict.
As young farmers stretch their wings, they often hit the walls of tradition. There is a great value in tradition because it keeps us grounded. Yet of greater importance to this discussion is that the parents of the college graduate are often still very young, healthy and in deeper debt than grandma and grandpa were. They are having fun with technology as well and are starting to enjoy all they worked for. Unless there is a plan in place that has been in serious discussion with all the interested parties or a wonderful mentoring program, there is a risk of conflict.
Farming is about money and at every juncture there must be an economic analysis as well as an environmental assessment. Calculating the cost versus benefit is pretty easy and there is certainly an app for that. Doing an assessment of how the change affects the farm, the plants, animals and people who live there is enlightening. Just as in the 80 hens versus 2,000 hens story, the true cost to the farm was environmental.
Taking a holistic view is very beneficial because it provides a discussion for the pros and cons. There is not an app for that. It is our soft skills as farmers that must be employed here — a mix of traditional rationalization and modern-day technology.
Technology can not only be the attractive force behind farming, it can also be the bridge between farmers and farm families. For example, prescriptive farming may have a cost but it allows a third party to suggest production changes. Your career in agriculture could be drone mapping or it could be the agrology behind the information collected by that drone. It could be the marketing of that product to a new country or the development of a recipe or value-added product. Or it could be a greater understanding of diversity and setting aside wetlands, employing marginal grazing areas, or creating food forests from the same land base.
Although this discussion is general, farming is an exact science.
Science and technology bring new farmers to the fold and enhance the profitability on old farms. The gap between youth and the farm may be one post away as young men and women desire to be engaged in challenging careers that are a reflection of their core values and beliefs. The conflict on the farm may also be bridged with constructive data mixed with a healthy dose of common sense.
Through it all, remember in kindness that there is room for every farmer and food. Open minds and data-based decisions will empower young men and women to be the farmer they were born to be.