Budding Trend: Young People on the Farm

Evidence mounts that young people are returning to farming in many parts of Canada and the U.S. Can it last? One father sure hopes so, especially at his sixth-generation family dairy.

By Richard Banks | Photos By Jamie Cole

Gavin MacDonald (left) and his father Donnie, tag-team their approximately 150-year-old dairy near New Glasgow, Nova Scotia.

Gavin MacDonald (left) and his father Donnie, tag-team their approximately 150-year-old dairy near New Glasgow, Nova Scotia.

When asked about the challenges he faces in the operation of his family’s dairy, an impish grin works its way across Gavin MacDonald’s youthful face. “Uh, challenges? Our Scottish history. They landed us in the most hilly area of Nova Scotia.”

His father, Donnie, sitting next to him, chuckles and, as if to rattle the 26-year-old’s cage a little more, asks him his favorite job on the farm.

“Picking rocks, which we have tons of here, along with clay soil,” Gavin quickly answers with a hint of sarcasm. “So, those are my two …”

“Your pet peeves,” Donnie interjects, as if he’s had this conversation before.

While the particulars may differ, similar discussions have transpired between generations of farm families for, well, generations. Whether it’s occasional grousing about early-morning milkings or weekends running a combine as friends visit the mall or go fishing and hunting, the essence of the conversation is much the same whether it’s on a dairy farm in Atlantic Canada or a row-crop operation on the Great Prairie.

An appreciation, even a passion, for the family business notwithstanding, life for a farm kid can be tough. Even harder on young parents who may want to attend their children’s sports and other school-related events. Given demands on their time, slimmer margins, price of land and a host of other obstacles, it’s little wonder young folks have for decades opted for nonfarm careers.

The MacDonalds grow low-heat-unit corn and grass hay on 450 acres, but due largely to a short growing season, they must still purchase a portion of their feed most years.

The MacDonalds grow low-heat-unit corn and grass hay on 450 acres, but due largely to a short growing season, they must still purchase a portion of their feed most years.

That trend, however, has recently shown signs of reversing. While the 2011 Canadian Census of Agriculture, the most recently released, showed a continued decades-long exodus of youth from farms, more recent anecdotal evidence points to an increase in the number of young producers. Extension agents, dealership staff, farmers and others describe seeing more men and women under the age of 40 at meetings, in their stores and on their farms.

“Lately,” says Gavin of the region near his family’s community of Greenhill, “there has been an influx in young people that are really gung-ho to start farming or to continue farming, and that’s a really nice thing to see. I think [they] are interested in farming now because the technology is advancing in everything from milking cows to tractors they use, so it’s a lot different work than just manual labor. Even feed salesmen to tractor salesmen, they’re even getting younger too because there’s now a younger group of farmers.”

Dan Mosley, a dairy Extension specialist with Perennia (a Crown agency owned by the Nova Scotia government) has noticed the trend too. “In some areas of the province I would say that the average [age] is probably around 40 or even 35. It’s very encouraging to see a lot of young producers and younger people coming into the industry.”

There’s now tangible evidence of the same trend in the U.S., albeit, as in Canada, the growth is mostly in the smaller farm sector. The most recent USDA Census of Agriculture—the 2012 edition, released in February—showed a 1.1% increase since 2007 in the number of producers younger than 35. A modest rise, but made all the more substantial when you consider that in 1982 young farmers less than 35 years old comprised 15.9% of the total. The most recent census shows the percentage of producers at just 5.7. Perhaps the new census numbers signal the exodus is abating. They’re even more remarkable when you consider many states showed significant increases, such 14.4% in New York and 40% in Maine.

Donnie MacDonald

Donnie MacDonald

At 57, Donnie, whose wife, Donna, also works on the farm handling various business tasks, isn’t ready to quit working his 80-milking-cow dairy and 450 acres of farmland. “I’ve been milking cows full time for 40 years and I still enjoy it. So as long as I do, I’ll probably keep doing it.”

Still, he’s hoping Gavin will continue working in the family business, called Century Mac Farm, and be part of the budding trend of younger folks growing and producing food. For several years, Donnie has been encouraging Gavin to take on greater responsibilities in hopes that he’ll eventually become the sixth generation of family to run the dairy.

In addition to helping run the operation on a daily basis, Gavin now makes all the breeding decisions and has set up a system of computerized records for the program. Along with an employee, he runs the tractors and helps decide on new equipment purchases.

“If he decides some day, ‘Yes, I want to farm, I want to take over,’” says Donnie, “well, then he can purchase the Century Mac Farm. Or if he wants to gradually move in as a smaller partner, he can move in [by purchasing] shares in the farm.

“It’s easier under our Canadian laws to move under incorporation; whereas, if it’s just a sole proprietorship, then it basically has to be just sold out. So, we’re hoping that if he wants to someday, he has a choice—he can either do it gradually or he can just come in and get rid of the old man.”

“Send him out to pasture,” jokes Gavin, who is still considering the invitation to take over the farm one day. “I’m not 100% sure on what plays into [the decision]. Just over time I’ll see. I think we’ll have to expand to survive, but we can only grow to about 100 cows because of a shortage of available land.”

“I’m not forcing him to make his mind up today, tomorrow,” says Donnie. “Someday down the road, when I feel like I’m going to want to slow down totally, then maybe then the pressure will be on him. But to that point, I’m fine with what he wants to do, and we’ll go from there.”

Until then, father says to son, “I mean, where else will you find a better boss?”

Or, retorts Gavin, “You could say, ‘Where will you find a better employee?’”