Cultivating a New Crop of Farmers

Farming, once a heritage, is becoming a lifestyle choice.

Traditionally Québec’s farms, like others across the country, have been passed from parent to child, each generation essentially serving an apprenticeship of chores with ever-increasing responsibility before taking over the job. But that’s not true any longer. More and more farm kids choose different careers — and at Cégep de Victoriaville, at least, a new crop of farmers is being nurtured.

“We are full of students in this program who come from non-farming backgrounds,” says Simon Dugré, director of ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­the Centre d’innovation sociale en agriculture at Cégep de Victoriaville. “They choose this training because they want the lifestyle of a farmer.”

A fresh crop of farmers is good news for Québec, which has seen a steady drop in number of agricultural businesses (the term the cégep uses for any form of farming, from dairy to vineyards to vegetables). It’s also good news for farmers who are ready to retire, but don’t have children who want to take over. Letting go of a lifetime of work put into the land is hard, but the potential for inexperienced hands to let the business run down, and the lost value of decades of farming knowledge is a problem for society as well as for families. It’s also a challenge for young people, just starting out, to afford a farm, and the equipment needed to run it.

Clearly, it was time try some new approaches to renewing farm life, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council’s College and Community Social Innovation Fund has given Cégep de Victoriaville funding to research and develop a system to support successful transfer of farms to people from outside the family.

Dugré and his team are framing the support system they hope will facilitate non-family farm transfer, and contribute to the sustainability of new farm enterprises. So far, research partners at Université Laval have not found many models in agricultural literature for what they are thinking of, a virtual network of incubators within agricultural businesses. How to capture a farmer’s accumulated knowledge, transfer it, create ongoing “communities of practice” to support new farmers as they settle in, and how they will adapt to this approach are all important questions they are tackling.

At the heart of their solution is a special type of mentor, skilled in turning around businesses, because they’ve been through it themselves. They will help to identify good matches between farmers ready to sell and “agricultural entrepreneurs” who are looking for a farm business. They’ll bring the two together and advise both on the challenges and decisions involved in making the transfer successfully.

“If you have a good relationship with a potential new farmer, it’s like an adoption,” explains Dugré. “It’s your life, and you want to see it continue and thrive. If you have the right person to make this relationship with, this adoption can be created.”

About Cégep de Victoriaville

Le Cégep de Victoriaville c’est près de 1 600 étudiantes et étudiants à l’enseignement régulier, 375 à la formation continue et plus de 400 employés... Learn more