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Canada’s farming future in trouble unless 30,000 immigrants fill gap of retiring farmers, report says

As Rehan Khan scans his 160 acres of muddy, partially snow-covered field, he sees golden — and red — opportunity.

“The first year, I seeded oats. Then in 2022, it was wheat. This year, it’s red lentils,” said the father of two who farms near Yorkton, Sask.

Khan left Pakistan in 2018 so his kids could go to school in Canada.

He said goodbye to his family farm and 20-year career in agriculture advising farmers on chemical and fertilizer use.

Getting into Canada’s ag sector was the natural move, but Khan warns other migrants it’s not easy.

“There must be local support. Then [immigrants] can be successful farming.”

Researchers say Canada needs 30,000 new immigrants like Khan to either start up their own farms, or take over existing ones, to avoid a looming labour crisis in the agriculture industry. Some worry, however, current programs aren’t set up to attract or support that workforce.

40 per cent of farmers to retire by 2033: report

About 40 per cent of Canadian farmers are expected to retire within the next 10 years, while 66 per cent of farmers don’t have a succession plan, according to a recent report from RBC.

At the same time, researchers expect the agriculture industry to be down 24,000 farm, nursery and greenhouse workers.

To fill this gap, the report suggests Canada update its immigration programs to specifically bring in 30,000 farm-focused newcomers. One solution, the report states, is to create a federal process for experienced temporary foreign workers (TFW) to get permanent resident status. 

A drone shot of an orchard shows migrant workers pruning the trees.
Migrant workers prune fruit trees in Pereaux, N.S. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

The TFW program only “scratches the surface of the labour shortage,” said Evan Fraser, co-author of the report and director of the Arrell Food Institute at the University of Guelph, where he is a professor of geography.

“We’re also talking about radically new forms of agriculture like the explosion of the greenhouse industry … and the emergence of the vertical farming sector,” he said. 

“These are year round operations…. So the very notion of a temporary migrant worker that comes in simply for the growing season doesn’t really make sense.”

Ag-focused immigration pilot ends in May

In 2020, Canada started an agriculture-specific immigration pilot program designed to give a path to permanent residency for non-seasonal workers with experience, but it’s set to end this May.

Ottawa says as of February 2023, more than 1,500 people have been admitted through the program. The pilot was designed to handle up to 2,750 people.

Immigration Minister Sean Fraser was unavailable for an interview due to travel.

A department spokesperson told CBC in an email they are assessing the pilot “and the possible extension beyond its scheduled expiry.”

The spokesperson said giving migrants permanent residence “is not the solution to labour shortages.”

“These newcomers will only remain in the sector, like other permanent residents and Canadian citizens, if it offers competitive wages, good working conditions and long-term prospects for themselves and their families,” he wrote.

The report also suggests Canada seek out farmers in countries such as the Netherlands and New Zealand who may be forced to downsize or close if they don’t meet strict climate change rules regulating emissions.

Support needed through the process

There are other hurdles for experienced farmers who want to get started in Canada. For example, the price of farmland has increased more than 20 per cent over five years.

In many areas, a budget of $1 million might not cover a small farm, according to Rajin Gill, who specializes in farm realty in Abbotsford, B.C.

“I think there’s a big discrepancy between pricing and what [newcomers] can afford,” said Gill.

“We get lots of calls from people who are eager to start. They’re the people you want opening the farms because they’re passionate. But there’s that gap between what they can afford and what they’re going for.”

Saskatchewan has the cheapest price per acre in Canada. Khan said he’s invested $223,000 on his land since he bought it in 2021. He said he was lucky enough to buy when he did, since prices have gone up since then.

Beyond money, the support isn’t there, he said.

“Unfortunately, in the very beginning, I couldn’t find so much information. But now I know how to buy something, from where to buy … where to sell grain. With the passage of time, I got this,” he said.

Rehan Khan stands on the ladder leading to the cab of a John Deere tractor on a sunny day.
Khan’s operation is too small to warrant buying machinery. He found neighbours let him rent their machines and trained him to use them. (Supplied by Rehan Khan)

Khan struggled to find affordable, fertile land in his price range near Regina, where his family settled. He bought land near Yorkton, and rents a place there so he can stay near the farm.

Khan’s 160 acre-farm is relatively small compared to many operations in Saskatchewan, which made it tough to find a company willing to rent out machinery, he said. Luckily, a neighbouring family offered to rent out their machines – even showed him how to use it.

“They’re more like family friends now,” said Khan.

Khan wants to see government employees support newcomers with information up front on everything from renting machines to tips on selling the product.

“All these things should be considered not only for the immigrant, but for the government agency who wants to get farmers in here to occupy and take over these lands.”

Labour shortage affects food costs

A labour crisis like the one forecasted could force Canadians to spend more at the grocery store.

Heather Bruce, chair of the department of Agriculture Food Nutritional Science at the University of Alberta, said COVID-19 was a taste of the possible future.

“We saw significant slowdowns in the ability to process meat. We also had a shortage of ingredients for foods as harvests were compromised. All of these things can contribute to food insecurity, increased prices, empty food shelves at retail stores,” she said.

“Our immigration policies support our food security and allow our companies to be competitive not just in terms of their ability to supply food, but also to supply food at a reasonable price.”

Someone shops in a supermarket's produce section.
Food prices have been rising rapidly over the past year, and a labour shortage in Canada’s agriculture sector could make that problem worse, experts say. (Patrick Doyle/Reuters)

Investing in tech and people

The report suggests existing farmers do their part to avoid the labour crisis, by automating operations so it takes fewer people to work a farm.

Steven Donald is on it.

“We’ve spent a lot of money on technology such as auto-steer, GIS mapping and air seeders that can run full prescriptions without an operator manually telling it what to do,” said the 43-year-old grain and livestock farmer near Moosomin, Sask. 

This summer, Donald is also upgrading his grain cleaner,  a machine that sorts grain based on weight and size, so it can run 24/7 without supervision.

“But at the same time, to manage an operation properly — doing all your weed scouting and seed timing — it boils down to so many acres per person to manage that,” he said.

WATCH | Farm worker shortage looms: 

canadas farming future in trouble unless 30000 immigrants fill gap of retiring farmers report says 3

Intense labour shortage looms in Canada’s farming industry: report

7 hours ago

Duration 2:17

A recent report says Canada needs to welcome 30,000 immigrants to offset a labour shortage and the rapid rate of retiring farmers, but there are challenges for newcomers looking to take up farming in Canada.

That’s why Donald is hiring a temporary foreign worker this summer. For the first time in his family farm’s history, he can’t find local, consistent help.

“Weather dictates 100 per cent what we do. Sometimes we have a very narrow window to put our crop in or take it off,” he said.

“When the crunch comes on and we have to put so many acres in a short time, that’s when we need the extra help. And that help is harder and harder to get.”

A man in his 40s stands next to a teenager look at the camera on a sunny day. They wear matching hoodies with the family farm logo on the chest.
Steven Donald and his son Alex stand near the grain cleaner on their family farm near Yorkton, Sask. (Kirk Fraser/CBC)

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