Eat well, spend better: local farmers need consumer support

Numbers released this week by Statistics Canada raise some red flags in Canadian agriculture: fewer farms are in operation, and the cohort of farmers nearing retirement age is growing.

The agency counted 193,492 farms last year, down 5.9 per cent since the last agricultural census in 2011.

Mike Bouma, a Bathurst-area farmer and president of the Agricultural Alliance of New Brunswick, said the decline in the number of farms is worrisome for small producers.

Fewer farms means operators in ancillary businesses such as tractor, seed and equipment dealers, get siphoned away to other regions.

"They just go to the areas with larger farms," Bouma said.

Agricultural operations in Canada employed 280,315 people in 2015, according to the census, but it remains a challenge for the little guy to make ends meet.

"It's a concern because as our numbers go down, the less of a voice we have in the industry," he said. "The more people we have, the larger our voice."

Growing youthful demographic

Farmers, like the rest of Canadians, are getting older.

The census found that the 55-and-over age demographic is the fastest growing for farm operators — and the average age of operators edged up from 54 years in 2011 to 55 years in 2016.

"Since farms have to be fairly large to make a living," Bouma said, "that can be daunting for a young producer looking to get in."

The decline in the number of farms, however, hasn't totally scared off the young folks.

The number of farm operators under 35 rose from 24,120 in 2011 to 24,850 in 2016 — the first increase in that category since 1991.

"Making ends meet is definitely challenging," said Phil Savage, 33, the owner and operator of Savage Gardens, a small vegetable farm in Kingston, N.B.

Like many other young farmers, he's embraced small-scale agriculture as "a lifestyle choice — to be connected to the land, and doing something that benefits the planet and the world."

The ideals, in Savage's case, are frequently higher than the profit margins.

"The inputs on a farm are always going to be pretty high, no matter what you do — even for vegetables," he said. "The profits are slim, especially when you're small-scale and trying to direct-market most of your produce."

Vote with your dollar

As in any business, consumers are the key to ensuring that small farms survive.

But grocery shoppers have been "pulled into the ease of shopping at big-box grocery stores," Savage said, and "aren't going out of their way to find farmers markets or farm stands."

"I think that's the biggest challenge — losing the consumer to big businesses that have huge marketing budgets and make it convenient for the consumer to get everything in one stop."

Savage suggested government advertising subsidies for local producers could help build consumer awareness of the importance of buying from local farms.

"Advertising is prohibitively expensive for a small independent operation, so programs that subsidize advertising could be a way to help farmers," Savage said.

While farmers markets and stands might lack the fancy ads and one-stop convenience, they offer something that supermarkets don't have: fresher, better-quality food.

Plus, "your dollar is staying in your community," Savage said, "and you're fostering a better sense of community by going to farmers markets and connecting with farmers."

Bouma agreed.

"Grocery stores are no fools," he said. "They'll go where consumers are leading them. If consumers demand local produce from their local grocery stores, stores will follow their consumers demand.

"There are a lot of challenges, but it's got to keep going, or we lose diversity of foods, as well as economic diversity."