One notes that Alberta Agriculture is holding seminars about how to get into farming. It’s not the first time the department has held such events, your old writer recalls beginning farmer seminars 40 years ago. In a previous life, I was just such a beginning rancher in the BC Peace River area, so I have some experience in the dreams and the reality of trying to start ranching from scratch. It should be said that starting up an agricultural operation in BC is much more difficult than inAlberta. The BC government has shown little interest in significantly supporting agricultural development. Commercial agriculture is not deemed to be politically-correct and government support seems to favour local, organic and small-scale producers on the island and in the Fraser Valley. BC also intends to flood thousands of acres of crop and pastureland behind the Site C dam in the Peace River district – there is a message there. But I digress.
Those of us who were ranching on the BC side were quite envious of those on the Alberta side who, to us, were being offered all kinds of generous financial and technical start-up support programs by the Alberta government. At that time in the 1970s, the Lougheed PC government had initiated an economic diversification program that included agriculture as one of their centrepieces. An interesting note was that oil had skyrocketed to $30 a barrel from $10 and the government was flush with cash that they intended to use to fuel their diversification goals. It was the glory days of the Alberta Agriculture department with massive increases in staff and support programs for almost every sector. I am not sure if there ever was an analysis done of all that government effort to expand agricultural production but it did increase, although actual ag diversification was not much of a success. For instance grain and oilseed production has increased along with beef production – feedlot expansion was particularly successful. Yet pork and lamb production, despite millions in support programs, have stagnated. The question is would ag production have increased anyway despite government programs.
The reality in commercial agriculture is that production expansion has increased mainly because of consolidation – that being farming, feeding and ranching operations just got bigger to stay in business. It used to be that 1,000 acres was a self-sufficient grain operation – now its 5,000 acres. Two hundred cows was a big ranch – now its 500 cows at the least to support a family. That was all achieved by small farmers selling out to larger operators. On top of that it takes really skilled managers to operate large farms, feedlots and ranches. So where does a beginning farmer fit into this picture? It’s not a pretty picture as even staying in the commercial ag business requires large scale financing, significant risk management and insightful marketing. Acquiring a large land-base is virtually impossible considering the price of usable land – which is real estate market driven. Leasing land seems to be the only avenue open to beginners, but there they face stiff competition from the big operators. It looks rather dismal for beginners - so what drives Alberta Agriculture to hold these beginners seminars. Part of what drives that perspective is the average age of farmers and ranchers is getting closer to 65 and that there may be a crisis in turning over production to the next generation. I would suggest that perspective is somewhat misguided and has been for many years.
I recall 40 years ago that the age of farmers and ranchers was not that much different than it is today. Governments were equally as concerned with the turnover back then – but somehow the ag industry survived mainly through consolidation and a quiet succession within many families. Of course there has been a generational turnover in the ag department and no doubt eager new bureaucrats figure they have just discovered a new problem. Their response has been to re-invent seminars and programs to entice innocent young dreamers into the industry. Considering the painful start-up costs of areal commercial operation, most will fail or not even get off the ground. If the government is worried about the generational turnover in agriculture, perhaps they need to support the consolidation process and let concerns over the average age of farmers resolve itself – it has done exactly that for the past few decades. I think in most cases, outside of a few highly skilled folks, that the days of anyone starting a farming operation from scratch are long gone.