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The new agrarians

In the next 15 years, almost half of Canadian farms will change hands. Meet seven millennials who view agriculture as a career — and moral calling.

By Lois Ross


It took Al Boyko and Hélène Tremblay-Boyko more than 25 years to build Breadroot Farm, a 607-hectare certified organic farm near Canora, Sask., where they raise grass-fed beef cattle and grow grains and other crops like peas, hemp and oil seeds.

They’re both in their 60s, and starting to wonder what will become of their land once they retire from active farming. Their three daughters are established in other careers, so passing Breadroot Farm down to a family member is not an option. And after spending years paying down the debt they took on as they built the operation, they have misgivings about selling it outright and seeing someone else face the same burden. “It seems to us,” says Tremblay-Boyko, “that the only people making the money in those exchanges are the banks.”

Rather than sell their land, the Boykos are planning to donate it to a community land trust that will lease it to a young farmer committed to the same sustainable, ecologically sound agricultural principles they champion. Boyko explains: “We are hoping to set it up so that people who are farming this land see themselves more as stewards or caretakers of the land, and that they are able to farm it and make a living for their family, and pass it along to their [children] and continue to do it that way rather than every generation having to borrow money and pay for the land over and over again.”

The Boykos have no illusions about it being easy to find the right fit. “It’s like an online dating service,” quips Tremblay-Boyko, “and sometimes you wonder if you’re going to meet the right one.”

If the right one does eventually come along, there’s a good chance that he, she or they will emerge from the ranks of a movement of millennials who have chosen agriculture as a vocation for living out passionately held views on ecology, economic justice and food security. Many have little or no background in farming but are committed to making a go of it using innovative approaches that echo their ideals.

The movement they embody is broadly called New Agrarianism, defined by author, activist and farmer Wendell Berry as “not so much a philosophy as a practice, an attitude, a loyalty, and a passion — all based in close connection with the land. It results in a sound local economy in which producers and consumers are neighbours and in which nature herself becomes the standard for work and production.”

In the last 55 years, Canada has lost 63 percent of its individual farms, though the total amount of farmland has remained close to the same. More than half of the remaining farms are run by a farmer over the age of 55; with almost half of the country's farmland expected to change hands in the next 15 years, rural Canada is in the midst of a profound transformation. The New Agrarians are determined to be part of it — for the sake of their families, communities and the planet.

Photo by Lois Ross

Ayla Fenton, 26
Kingston, Ont.


The daughter of a doctor and a teacher, Ayla Fenton works on a small farm that produces organic dairy products and vegetables, and markets them through a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program, in which consumers pay farmers a set fee in return for receiving fresh farm products at regular intervals during the growing season. Fenton is also the youth president of the National Farmers Union and a co-director of the National New Farmer Coalition, an association of individuals and non-profits working in the ecological agriculture and food sectors.

“This is a huge, powerful social movement, and it’s really new,” she says after greeting me at the gate of the farm where she works, on Howe Island near Kingston, Ont. While back-to-the-land movements are nothing new, “This one is more powerful because it is driven by the crisis created by the environmental and social justice factors around food and agriculture.”

Fenton’s interest in farming was sparked by ecology courses she took in university. “I consider myself a farmer because I intend to pursue a career in farming and aspire to have my own farm at some point in the near future,” she says. “I am working on farms to find out about what type of operation I want.”

Fenton points to a recent national online survey conducted by the National New Farmer Coalition that showed a deep interest in ecology and organic farming among next-generation farmers. And, like Fenton, 68 percent of the 1,326 farmers surveyed do not have a background in agriculture. Most are university educated, and more than half of the respondents are women. Many farm near cities where they can market their produce more easily, but where land is also most expensive.

The research also made it clear that Fenton and her contemporaries face two barriers that have always challenged small-scale farmers: access to land and financing. Peer-to-peer knowledge sharing can help bridge the skills gap, but without government policies and programs that encourage small-scale farming, it will not be easy for young farmers to get established. “We need a new policy landscape,” Fenton says. 

Photo by Our Little Farm

Geneviève Grossenbacher and Jim Thompson
Lochaber-Partie-Ouest, Que.


As a university student, Geneviève Grossenbacher thought she might become a doctor or a midwife or do some sort of environmental work. Then in 2004, Grossenbacher accepted a six-month internship in Cuba teaching children in Havana to garden. “I loved my internship, and it is probably why I am still farming,” she says. Thompson visited her there and caught the bug too. Back in Montreal, the two found urban gardens and farm projects where they could continue to learn.

Today, the 30-somethings run a 68-hectare operation called Notre Petite Ferme in western Quebec, growing 35 different types of organic vegetables for sale in local markets or to consumers who pay an advance fee to participate in their CSA. “Food has always been an important part of my life,” explains Grossenbacher. “I was always interested in using food to build peace. When you have food security, there is less social unrest.”

Grossenbacher and Thompson started their agricultural apprenticeship in earnest by working on an incubator farm not far from their current operation. Explains Grossenbacher: “The idea with an incubator farm is that you rent a small parcel of land, have access to basic infrastructure and share knowledge with others in the community. . . . It was a great way to start and test our plan for growing vegetables.”

In 2015, they relocated their own operation under a rent-to-own investment fund created by the Quebec government and private-sector partners. The fund provided them with access to land when no bank would offer financing.

Grossenbacher notes that Quebec is a leader in Canada when it comes to supporting new farmers. In addition to the rent-to-own programs, the province has land trusts as well as a land-linking program that matches entry-level farmers with farmers who are retiring or want to share their land.

Today, Thompson farms full-time while Grossenbacher works with USC Canada (formerly the Unitarian Service Committee) organizing and mobilizing the public on food issues. “As much as I love farming,” she says, “it was clear early on that I would want to continue working on systemic issues that need to be moved on if we are going to keep people in farming.”

Photo by Sara Dent

Cammie Harbottle, 35
Tatamagouche, N.S.


I caught up with Cammie Harbottle by phone just 10 days after she gave birth to her second child. The baby gurgled away in the background as we chatted.

Harbottle’s Waldegrave Farm is named after a hamlet that once stood nearby. After working on farms for six years in British Columbia, Harbottle moved east to her part of the 40-hectare land in Nova Scotia held in common by the Tatamagouche Community Land Trust. This spring will be her ninth season farming it.

The trust was created about 13 years ago when a group of 12 friends, who had cycled across Canada to draw attention to climate change, decided to buy the land. The trust’s bylaws stipulate what the land can be used for, and because it’s held in perpetuity, it will never be bought or sold. Harbottle has tenure on her parcel through a 25-year renewable lease.

“It gives me secure access to land without a mortgage, and I am able to steward this land. The underpinning philosophy of this trust is that land should be treated as a common good, rather than proprietary,” she explains adding that they wanted to “look at land in a different way . . . separate from the speculative market.”

While farming can be daunting at times, particularly with weather aggravated by a changing climate, Harbottle has no regrets about the commitment she has made. In fact, doing her bit to mitigate climate change is one of the reasons she chose farming in the first place.

“[It] made sense to me on a lot of different levels. I saw what was happening to our food system, and I saw the loss of knowledge that was happening with all the generations of farmers leaving the land. I also wanted to do something practical, constructive and meaningful for my life. And for me, growing food and feeding my family and my community was the most constructive, practical, thing I could do. . . . I love the challenges — it has a physical side, it has a mental side, it keeps you learning all the time, active and outside.”

Photo by Avi Caplan

Paul Slomp, 36
St.-André-Avellin, Que.


Paul Slomp heaves open a large orange door on a century-old barn, and sunshine lights up the solid whitewashed beams inside. Arrayed against the back wall are commercial-sized refrigerators and freezers that store the grass-fed beef produced on his Grazing Days farm in the Petite Nation region of western Quebec.

Unlike many ecological young farmers, Slomp has a farm background. He was born and raised on a dairy farm in the Netherlands, later moving as a child with his family to a dairy operation near Rimbey, Alta., southwest of Edmonton.

An engineer by training, Slomp became involved in Engineers Without Borders after university and volunteered on agricultural projects in sub-Saharan Africa for four years. But he was at odds with the development model of the projects he worked on.

“All of the subsistence farmers I worked with were being pushed to produce more, use fertilizers, try ‘improved’ seed. . . . We in North America have been on this treadmill since the Second World War,” he says. “And look at agriculture in Canada, how abused it is. We have lost farmers, livelihoods, communities. . . . And this model is held up as the only way to produce more food. It’s all hogwash.”

In 2010, back in Canada, he started Grazing Days on a 26-hectare rental property in Manotick Station in the rural southern part of Ottawa. “It was like an incubator farm. We did not own anything. I rented everything we needed.”

It was a no-frills living for a single guy. Initially, the money to buy cattle came from family and friends who wanted to help establish his grass-fed beef business by holding $500 community bonds — a type of personally guaranteed loan. When Slomp met his partner, Josée Madéia Cyr-Charlebois, and started a family, it was time to either “stop farming or to go whole hog.”

They started looking for a bigger farm and for financing. “Every bank I talked to would ask how long I had been farming. I would say two years and they would say, ‘Good luck!’”

The couple sought other land tenure models, such as land trusts, to no avail. “All of these alternative models are nice, but they are really difficult to navigate and orchestrate.” Most retiring farmers they met did not want to partner, says Slomp. “Most just wanted to sell.” In the end, a retired farmer gave him a mortgage to purchase the 81-hectare farm he currently works, “based on my character, on my knowledge and my track record.”

Now in its seventh year, Grazing Days sells its grass-fed beef and pastured pork directly to consumers who place their orders online, using a guide to determine how much they’ll need.

“Climate change puts a new tint on stewardship,” says Slomp. “We want this farm to be an example of what culture and agriculture and food production is, can be, and should be.”

Photo by Ted Chastko

Dana Penrice, 31
Lacombe, Alta.


Dana Penrice’s speech is peppered with terms like holistic farming, carbon sequestration and bale grazing. At 31, she has been farming for the last four years and is involved in many agrarian organizations including Young Agrarians in Alberta and Holistic Management Canada, to name two.

She grew up on 6.5 hectares near Lacombe, Alta.,“and I always felt that I was in between being an urban kid and a rural kid.” She still is. Penrice and her partner, Ted Chastko, live in Lacombe, close to the farm and their business, C&E Meats, which produces grass-fed beef, pastured lamb and, occasionally, free-range chickens. Like many farmers, they both hold down off-farm jobs to make ends meet.

But it’s early days. “We are using the farm as a learning experience,” says Penrice. “We are honing our skills and seeing what we are good at and where we are making mistakes. We consider our small operation more as an incubator farm.” Social media has proven to be a valuable tool for learning. “You can find out a lot by just asking on Twitter: ‘How do you feed your pigs?’” says Penrice.

She also makes abundant use of technology to spread the word about the organizations she’s involved in. Young Agrarians was founded in British Columbia in 2012 and has operated in Alberta for more than a year. Penrice helps to organize Young Agrarian meetings, workshops and farm linkages, where retiring farmers are introduced to younger proteges hoping to learn, access land and become farmers themselves one day.

“I get calls all the time from farmers who are looking for someone who is non-family to come onto their land. I am getting more inquiries from older farmers than I am getting from young people wanting to farm. That’s the stuff that is keeping me up at night right now,” she says.

But it’s also a reason to be hopeful. “It’s hard not to think we are headed towards some pretty serious challenges. Farming is an active way of engaging with those challenges. By doing ecological practices on a farm, you can have a much bigger impact.”

Photo by Andrea Wiseman/Courtesy of Blake Hall

Blake Hall, 32
Red Deer, Alta.


I connected with Blake Hall on a Sunday afternoon just after lunch. He was busy feeding the hens and asked if I minded if he continued to work while we chatted.

Hall, 32, has wanted to be a farmer for a long time. He whetted his appetite for agriculture on a farm-to-consumer operation in southwestern Ontario more than a decade ago, when he was training to be a carpenter. He tried to learn as much as he could about farming on weekends and evenings.

In 2009, he spent a year on the road, working on 24 different farms and ranches in the United States and Canada. A year later, he rented some land in northern Ontario and bought his first small herd of cattle. “I was in no position to buy land, so when I bought those cattle I was the closest to being a nomadic herdsman as you could be,” he says. He moved his cattle onto four different farms in three years, eventually heading west, toward his hometown of Red Deer, Alta.

He admits it was challenging to find an established farmer as a partner.

One day, he decided to post some of his cattle for sale on the online advertising service Kijiji. Hall chuckles as he remembers the moment he got a call from a farmer who wanted to improve his herd. One thing led to another, and in 2013, with an educator on holistic management facilitating the setting of objectives, they reached an agreement that would see Hall take over management of the farm.

With a self-renewing lease and a rent-to-own agreement on the house and its acreage, the ranch is now home for Hall, his spouse, Angela, and their two children. Today he rents 162 hectares and owns 60 head of cattle, but also manages another 40 for the retired farm owner. The cattle are pasture-finished and direct marketed to local consumers through Hall’s small business, Prairie Gold Pastured Meats.

Hall plans to purchase the two hectares where the house stands, which will provide pension money for the retired farmer. “Just like every other older generation, our landlords are equity-rich but cash-poor, and they are trying to finance a retirement without selling land,” he says. “So it is a win-win if we can buy this acreage and then they get to cash in on a bit of their equity without selling the entire farm.”

And it means Hall can keep doing what he loves.

“Managing a perennial polyculture is such a powerful agent of change,” he says. “Economically, we have seen our communities gutted and depopulated. Having a local food system is an antidote to that — and it’s ecological and economical. We direct market to about 150 families; when we have our field days, farm tours and meat drops, we realize that there is community building around food.

“I think we have a good thing going.”

Lois Ross is a writer, editor and communications specialist in Ottawa.




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