Who will grow our food when today’s farmers retire?

October 1, 2019

With the average farmer being 54 years old, who will grow our food, when today’s farmers retire?

Hops growing at the Just Food incubator farm in Ottawa. (Photo: Kath Clark/SeedChange)

Local food is making a comeback in Canada today. Bakers, brewers, chefs — everyone is clamouring for healthy, locally-grown products. But with the average farmer being 54 years old, who will grow our food, when today’s farmers retire?

Meet Gregor Tennant, 24 years old, from Perth, Ontario. In 2015, he made the bold decision to set aside his hotel and restaurant management studies to try farming.

“I got started in organic farming sort of by accident,” he explains. “Nobody farmed in my family, but my aunt raises horses, so my grandfather bought land in Perth for hay. He wanted me to make him a garden. So I made him a garden.”

Around the same time, Gregor heard about an internship at a nearby organic farm.

“Next thing I knew, I was working at a farm.”

Gregor says that farming is the kind of job you’ll know you either love or hate within the first month. For him, it was love. But even with access to land and an internship, many obstacles remained.

“I really want to have an impact on improving the lives of people in my community through healthier choices. We don’t need to get our produce from the U.S. or Mexico. We can buy pesticide-free vegetables, grown locally.”

“I think that is the best way to learn: Throw yourself in the thick of it and try to absorb it all.”

Gregor Tennant

In addition to learning about organic farming Gregor also needed guidance on other aspects of managing a successful farm — developing a business plan, accounting and marketing. And he didn’t have the money to buy costly farming equipment yet.

So Gregor enrolled in the Start-Up Farm program run by Just Food, an Ottawa nonprofit. There, he got access to a small parcel of organic farm land, shared infrastructure, farm business training, and support from mentors and other new farmers.

“I think that is the best way to learn: Throw yourself in the thick of it and try to absorb it all.”

After just two years of hard work and hands-on learning, Gregor is already growing enough organic fruits and vegetables to sell at two Ottawa-area markets, with plans to expand. The next step for him is seed saving.

Saving and replanting your own seeds isn’t exactly common practice on Canadian farms anymore. In fact, 97 per cent of vegetable seeds planted in Canada are imported, year after year.

The downside of relying on uniform, imported seeds? Crops never get to adapt to local conditions. That can only happen when seeds are saved locally from one generation to the next. It also means seed varieties are disappearing. According to the United Nations, we’ve lost 75 per cent of our crop diversity in the last century.

“Youth who care about society should care about where farmers get their seeds,” says Gregor.

To help farmers incorporate seed growing into their practice, Just Food partnered with SeedChange, a non-profit that provides seed saving training to farmers around the world. “Seed saving is key to becoming self sufficient,” explains Gregor. “It’ll save me money, and it’ll also give me greater control over what I am producing.”

Farming hasn’t been easy, but Gregor thinks more young Canadians should consider it.

“We need younger farmers to try and bring back the knowledge that has been lost. Because of our inexperience, oddly enough, we can adapt more than the farmers who’ve been at this longer. We have the energy, the enthusiasm, and the time to make a difference; it would be a pity to put that to waste.”

Farming might not be for everyone. But for those who love it, the rewards are there.

“For me,” says Gregor, “I feel proud of what I do every morning. It’s a good thing to wake up to.”