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Retirements and labour shortages plague Canadian farms. Food price increases?


A looming wave of retirements among Canada’s farm operators and shortages of skilled workers who could replace them is set to crash down on the country’s agricultural sector, experts are warning, with major ramifications for Canadians’ grocery bills.

A report released this week from RBC’s Climate Action Institute projects that two of every five farm operators in Canada will retire over the next decade. Two thirds of producers also don’t have succession plans in place, the report finds.

Canada’s agriculture sector is expected to be short some 24,000 general farm, nursery and greenhouse workers over the same period, per the report, which was prepared with the help of the Arrell Food Institute at the University of Guelph and the Boston Consulting Group.

“This is placing the sector on the cusp of one of the most transformative labour transitions in this country’s history,” says Mohamad Yaghi, RBC’s agriculture and climate policy lead.

The report positions Canada’s looming labour shortage as both a threat and opportunity, where an already robust agriculture sector could either falter in “uncertainty” or, if properly addressed, could propel the industry to new highs.

Seizing that moment — or not — could have significant impacts on how much Canadians spend on trips to the grocery store, Yaghi tells Global News.

When Russia first invaded Ukraine more than a year ago, the conflict sent a shock through global agricultural supply chains because the countries typically combine for 29 per cent of the world’s grain exports.

While Canada produces grain itself, that disruption to food security spurred higher commodity prices, which are set globally. Statistics Canada last year pointed to the war in Ukraine as a significant driver of food inflation, and experts say the conflict is still having knock-on effects at the grocery store.

Canada has already been stepping up to meet demand amid disruptions to the supply chain. A National Bank Financial report released Wednesday noted the demand for the country’s agricultural products has been “unprecedented” with new records set for grain and canola exports in February.

aghi says that disruptions like this show the need for Canada to build out and reinforce its agricultural production in the decade to come as the world needs a reliable source of crops to keep food affordable as the global population grows.

“Ever since the onset of the Russia-Ukraine war, we’ve seen food insecurity increase around the world,” he says.

“The world needs a reliable food export partner like Canada.”

Offsetting labour shortages through immigration, automation

The RBC report projects that, in the short term, Canada will need to attract 30,000 permanent immigrants to establish their own farms or take over existing ones to maintain the agricultural sector’s output.

It points out that global competitors including Japan, New Zealand and the Netherlands have taken similar steps to attract farm operators to their country.

Much of the physical labour on Canadian farms is currently done by migrant workers, and the RBC report recommends pivoting the current temporary foreign workers program to enable a path to permanent residency.

It notes that the flow of labourers can be hamstrung when they visit their families in their native countries, and some governments could be reticent to let their workers return to Canada as food insecurity plays out within their own borders.

Teric Greenan sees an alternative way to complete the necessary and often gruelling jobs done by migrant workers — automation.

Greenan is the co-founder of Nexus Robotics, which has developed an autonomous machine that travels through farmers’ fields to automatically detect and remove weeds while leaving crops such as lettuce and onions untouched.

“The idea is that we want to be able to help with the labour shortages and increasing costs for farmers,” he tells Global News. “Weeding is a very repetitive task, and a robot is capable of doing just as good of a job as the field workers do.”

Greenan says workers he’s spoken to on farms in his native Nova Scotia, where he himself took a stab at farming after leaving university, would much prefer doing jobs in the air-conditioned warehouses than pulling weeds in the hot sun.

When he started the small vegetable farm in Lunenburg County, N.S., Greenan admits he was “a bit naive” about the state of what he saw as fairly straightforward problems that were, quite literally, deeply rooted in the agricultural industry.

“I realized that there were a lot of repetitive tasks that were still being done by large crews of migrants,” he says.

If Canada loses its reliable supply of migrant workers — as RBC projects will happen to some degree with the labour shortfall over the next decade — Greenan says the food system will “collapse.”

“Canada has essentially become dependent on workers being flown in from other countries in order for our food system to exist,” he says. “And that’s very scary.”

Greenan believes that automated solutions like Nexus Robotics’ de-weeding machine will, over the next 10 years, become more and more common in Canada’s agricultural sector and drive down labour costs on farms.

But even he concedes automation is not a “silver bullet” for today’s food security challenges.

“The size of the food system right now is very large. And I don’t see robotics having a massive impact in terms of percentage of labour cost cutting for probably around ten years. It’s going to take some time to ramp up,” he says.

Reimagining agriculture careers and education

Though today he’s working for one of Canada’s biggest banks, Yaghi’s background is firmly rooted in the soil of a farm in Lebanon where his family grows olives and grape vines.

“My family’s always had a green thumb. So it’s been part of my life story, essentially,” he says.

Though he’s migrated to Canada, he hasn’t completely left his family’s fields behind.

Yaghi tells Global News that with the advent of satellite imagery, he’s able to keep tabs on how his dad is running the farm as a “remote worker” of sorts.

Remote work and farming are concepts that don’t typically run together in many Canadians minds, but both Yaghi and Greenan say there’s a need to reimagine the sector to attract youth to study what can be a very rewarding field.

Such a rebrand is critical to ensure Canadian farms can attract homegrown talent, they say.

Greenan, a self-confessed “city kid,” was turned off of school when he was studying engineering and found himself drawn to food production and sustainable eating aspects of the industry.

“Agriculture is a core component in order for people to be able to live healthy, fulfilling lives. It just seemed like a very meaningful path, and that’s why I pursued it despite not having a whole lot of knowledge beforehand,” he says.

There are so many “fascinating” aspects to farming that most urban-born Canadians are never exposed to, he says. He adds that, in his eyes, this fuels a lack of understanding about what farmers do and how integral their contributions are to Canadian society.

Yaghi also calls for universities with agriculture programs to break down “silos” in their programs and be more open to integrations with technology and business-focused studies.

Yaghi says there are opportunities in agriculture to bring a diversity of backgrounds to the field and be a “Swiss army knife” of sorts.

Farmers in Canada are “some of the greatest entrepreneurs in the country,” he says, and the industry needs to attract a fresh crop of talent to thrive.

“I think any expertise from any domain … can really transform the industry here in Canada,” he says.

“It’s really, really an exciting time. And if I were to encourage anyone thinking about careers, I’d certainly recommend agriculture.”

Source: globalnews

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