August 21, 2019

Matthew Burns isn’t complaining.

He won’t be getting two weeks off this summer. He won’t get a vacation next winter either.

What some might see as a never-ending daily grind from dawn till dusk, the 24-year-old sees as a way of life — one that allows him to be his own boss.

"I enjoy just being able to do whatever I want to do each day," said Burns, a sixth-generation dairy producer in Cookshire, Que., in the Eastern Townships.

Over the past decades, the average age of farm operators in the country has steadily increased.

In 2016, more farmers were over the age of 70 than under 35, while Quebec farmers remain the youngest in Canada, with an average age of 52.9.

But beyond the statistics, there are people in their 20s who are taking on the challenge of keeping the family business alive — despite trade disputes and unpredictable weather patterns — all for the love of the land.

The Burns farm has a written succession plan for the day his parents decide to retire, unlike 92 per cent of farms across the country, according to Statistics Canada.

"I plan to keep it going and aim for another generation — hopefully we can go for a seventh," Burns said.

Burns wasn’t always convinced he’d stay on the farm after graduating from high school.

He took up pure and applied science at Champlain College in Lennoxville with the intention of becoming an agronomist.

"But once I got through about a year and a half, I decided, ‘I want to come home to the farm," he said.

Managing two jobs — and a 6-month old

Shelby Drew Harrison, 23, was nine months pregnant and working in her family barn last December when her husband suggested they wait until the morning to deal with some broken pipes.

"I told him, 'If we wait till tomorrow morning I have a feeling we're gonna have a baby' — and that's exactly what happened," said Drew Harrison.

One week later, she was back on her mother's farm, with baby Kynlee in tow, ready to tend to the cows.

Drew Harrison now juggles motherhood with her day job as an animal feed consultant and her work on the Apple Ridge Farm, in Canton-de-Hatley, in the Eastern Townships.

Her passion for animals started at a young age, when she used to follow young calves around at her grandparents’ farm.

When her grandfather fell ill in 2012, Drew Harrison stepped in to help him milk the herd and check on the calves.

"That just solidified how much I wanted to continue being out with my cows — because it kept me connected to him, always."

Now recovered and going on 73, her grandfather continues to work full-time.

"You can’t slow him down," she said, laughing.

'You’re so lucky'

Aimée Pocock was about to sign her registry to start a master’s degree when she had her "aha moment."

While studying in Montreal, she was spending all her money on organic produce.

That’s when she realized her parents' farm was where she needed to be. Now she plans to take over Sanders Organic Farm in Compton, a project her parents started in 1974.

The career change surprised herself as much as it surprised her parents, even though it was always at the back of her mind.

"I think for every child that grows up on a farm, they know it's something that's always there for them," Pocock said.

The 24-year-old remembers kids laughing at her in high school when she told them she lived on a farm.

Now, the reaction she gets is, "Oh my God, that's so great. You're so lucky."

With an unwavering interest from consumers to eat local and organic, Pocock is choosing a good time to be a vegetable producer.

But that doesn’t mean young farmers aren’t facing trials.

New challenges

While long work days and feed costs have always been a reality for farmers, Drew Harrison sees new challenges her generation will have to cope with.

She considers her main obstacle to be land availability, in a region where unoccupied agricultural pastures are few and far between.

"It's not just your small gentlemen farmers anymore, with 30 or 40 cows. Now it's big farms that support themselves with all the land they own and rent."

Apple Ridge Farm’s 20 cows roam rented pastures, a new reality that is putting small farms "at the mercy of landlords," said Drew Harrison, who rents from her cousin.

Burns isn't in that boat, thanks to his great-great-great-grandfather John, who bought the land in 1873.

But he doesn't own all his equipment.

His bright green tractor is a rental he brings in for the summer months to harvest the hay — an expense he couldn't afford year-round.

Burns thinks it would be next to impossible for someone who doesn't have a family inheritance to dive into the field.

"There's just so many costs involved with starting a farm or buying a farm from someone."

Farming under the watchful eye of social media

Peter Enright, director of McGill University's farm management and technology program, said regardless of the specialization, there has been one major shift between the generations of John and Matthew Burns — social networks that are completely transformed.

Decades ago, neighbours "up and down the road" were farmers, and understood the realities of agriculture, he explained.

Now, people are far removed from the process, but are quick to criticize the industry, especially those who work with animals, he said.

That’s why farmers "need to be constantly aware of the image of their industry, and they need to be ambassadors."

Burns acknowledges that one negative comment on social can soak up a lot of his energy.

"There are so many people out there that have no clue what a farm is, they have no clue about how animals are taken care of and they think that our only goal is to mistreat animals," he said.

"That's completely wrong."

His bottom line is based on the well-being of his cows and it’s in his best interest to care for them adequately, he said.

"It's just harder and harder to make the general public understand that."

Drew Harrison uses social media to engage in those conversations, and show people what is happening at the farm day in, day out.

For example, when a calf is born, or when she goes out to mend fences in the winter, she posts an explainer video.

"People in Ontario now know what we do and want our produce."

McGill graduates head back to the field

Burns is a graduate of McGill's farm management and technology program, a three-year, CEGEP-level diploma course that sharpened his business and management skills.

Many young farmers across Canada are taking that same step. In 1996, 1.6 per cent of farm operators had a university certificate or diploma. Twenty years later, that figure jumped to 17.9 per cent.

Peter Enright is the director of McGill's Farm management and technology program. (Submitted by McGill University)
Peter Enright is the director of McGill's Farm management and technology program. (Submitted by McGill University)

Having a professional degree is often required to apply for government loans or subsidy programs, said Enright.

But more importantly, students who come in with a lot of hands-on knowledge need to learn managerial skills, like balancing feed rations, for example.

With paper-thin margins, Enright said it is crucial for farms to make every cent count.

"We want them to understand how that works, so when they’re interfacing with their input suppliers and with their consultants, they’re the ones making decisions."

Enright sees enthusiasm on campus daily — and has also seen an increase in enrolment over the past decade.

"The young kids I see, they are certainly passionate, energetic, and highly skilled — so I’ve got faith in the future."

"They have the moral and social obligation to kind of be the stewards of the landscape."

For Burns, enrolling allowed him to be “a bit more prepared” for farm life.

It also allowed him to develop a network of fellow farmers he can brainstorm with when needed, and validated his decision to go back to his roots.

"I don't think I could sit in downtown Montreal for very long," said Burns, looking out at the rolling hills behind his family home.