Family farms at risk?

Bryan Maynard says his grandfather, a Prince Edward Island potato farmer, didn't start talking about retirement until he was 80 years old and had been diagnosed with dementia.

At that point, with no succession strategy in place, Maynard and his brother suddenly had to scramble to find a way to keep the farm in the family and just barely managed to do so.

The 33-year-old's situation is not uncommon. A growing number of farmers are nearing retirement without having formally planned for their successors, putting the next generation of small-scale farming at risk — something Maynard and advocates are urging farming families to think about.

"Our grandfather didn't really want to talk about selling the farm, ever, until it was too late and he had to," Maynard said.

A Statistics Canada study found last year that the average age of Canadian farmers had reached 55 after rising for decades, and 92 per cent of farms had no written plan for who will take over when the operator retires. It also found there were more farmers over age 70, than under 35.

Christie Young, of Guelph, Ont., is trying to tackle that issue with Farmlink, a matchmaking service she runs for farm owners and prospective farmers across Canada.

She has found there's no shortage of young people armed with business plans who want to get into farming, and older farmers who want to see their land farmed by a new generation when they retire.

The problem, she said, is that many farmers have become heavily leveraged in recent decades, having borrowed against the rising value of their farm properties — which spiked nearly 40 per cent per acre on average between 2011 and 2016, according to Statistics Canada.

That means farm owners need to sell their properties for full market value in order to retire, said Young, so the only buyers tend to be large agricultural operations consolidating farmland in rural areas or, if the farm is in the shadow of a city, property developers.

"If you're a new farmer who's trying to buy a piece of land and pay for it by working the land, it's almost an impossible proposition," she said.

Young uses Farmlink to help farm owners and young farmers set up partnerships that begin years before the owner's retirement, such as lease-to-own arrangements that can allow a new farmer to start small and expand.

"The problem is that's not how building farms has happened in the past — we don't have a whole lot of history with agriculture, we only have 200 years — and the transition between generations hasn't looked like this before," she said.

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