Farm career daunting for some young people

The Chronicle Journal

Murillo, Ont. — Susan Fisher grew up on a dairy farm. So the 19-year-old Murillo resident knows very well that, contrary to John Denver’s cheerful ditty about country living, life on the farm is not always “laid back.”

In fact, the life is often very hard. But Fisher said it’s a lifestyle she prefers.

“I’ve seen how hard my parents worked, and really admire them for it,” Fisher said this week.

“They are happy with their work, which I think has given them a lot of joy.”

But whether Fisher and others in her generation can afford to follow in their parents’ footsteps is a big question mark.

In the last 30 years or so, the cost of getting started in dairy farming has sky-rocketed; the figures involved are eye-popping.

According to the Canadian Dairy Commission, the cost of purchasing a supply quota in Ontario — the roughly 60-year-old system that guarantees farmers a set price for their milk — is currently $24,000 per cow.

That means a young farmer looking to purchase a quota for 80 cows — a typical dairy herd size in the province these days — is looking at forking out nearly $2 million, not counting the cost of land and equipment.

Though a milk quota only has to be purchased once, and may increase or decrease over its life depending on demand, it’s a big number to have to borrow.

“You can pay it back, and there are loans out there, but you only make so much money,” Fisher noted.

“There’s a lot of young people who are excited about a career in agriculture, but are still not sure. Land costs, equipment costs — everything is going up.”

While consumers continued to face steep increases at grocery stores, farmers didn’t see much of the gains.

In February, the dairy commission raised the farm-gate price for milk by just over two per cent, which worked out to be less than two cents per litre.

“In the last year, producers faced increases in feed costs, fertilizer costs, fuel costs, and interest rates,” the commission said in a news release. “Disruptions to supply chains continue to put upward pressure on input costs.”

It added: “The price paid to farmers is only part of the price paid by consumers.”

There are nearly 3,300 dairy farmers in Ontario, with about 20 of those operating within a short drive from Thunder Bay in areas like the Slate River Valley.

Tarlok Sahota, the director of Lakehead University’s Agricultural Research Station, said what he’s observed over the years is not new startups but “the next generation (of dairy farmers) taking over from their parents.”

Sahota added: “Our farming community is able enough to retain their younger generations on farms.”

In practice, milk quotas are sold among farmers “through an exchange site that’s a bit like the stock exchange, or through quota increases that happen when demand increases,” a commission spokeswoman said.

Currently, “there is indeed enough quota to meet demand (for milk products),” she added.

Though the cost of starting a dairy farm from scratch may seem prohibitive, the province has signalled it believes there’s still a future in it for young people.

Earlier this month it earmarked $300,000 for the University of Guelph and the Dairy Farmers of Ontario “to help young people prepare for meaningful and well-paying careers in the dairy industry.”

The program is to have a distance-education component so that potential Northern candidates like Fisher wouldn’t have to live on the university’s campus, which is located an hour’s drive west of Toronto.

“Ontario’s dairy farmers are everyday heroes who work tirelessly to keep milk and dairy products on the table for families across our province and country,” Labour, Immigration, Training and Skills Development Minister Monte McNaughton, a southwestern Ontario MPP, said in a news release.

Dairy farming, meanwhile, remains a big business in Canada, accounting for more than $8 billion in net farm cash receipts in 2022, according to commission data.

Nationally, about 1.4 million cows maintained at more than 9,700 dairy farms produced 26 million hectolitres of fluid milk, nearly 500,000 tonnes of cheese, 371,000 tonnes of yogurt and 152,000 tonnes of hard ice cream. One hectolitre contains 100 litres.