By 2033, Canada will face one of the biggest labour and leadership transitions in the country’s history. A new report from RBC finds that 40% of Canadian farm operators will retire by 2033 -- and to make matters worse, a deficient of 24,000 farm, nursery, and greenhouse workers is expected to emerge over that same 10-year period.

RBC's report -- produced in partnership with the Boston Consulting Group Centre for Canada’s Future and Arrell Food Institute at the University of Guelph -- draws attention to the reality that 66% of Canadian producers do not have a succession plan in place, “leaving the future of farmland in doubt.”

Canada to face labour shortage in farm operators“Canadian farmers are getting older and fewer,” says RBC. Graphic courtesy of RBC Economics and Statistics Canada.

“These gaps loom at a time when Canada’s agricultural workforce needs to evolve to include skills like data analytics and climate-smart practices that enable us to grow more food with fewer emissions,” says RBC. “Through short-, medium-, and long-term policies, Canada can establish the digitally-savvy agricultural workforce needed to make our country a global leader in low carbon, sustainable food production.”

Such policies range from upping Canada’s concentration of specialized immigrants. By providing permanent immigration status to over 24,000 general farm workers and 30,000 farm operators, the country can bridge retirement and staffing gaps, says RBC. But without a significant labour infusion, the country’s already-worrisome agricultural skills crisis will only worsen. As it currently stands, 60% of today’s farm operators will be over the age of 65 by 2033 -- the highest proportion on record.

RBC also points to policies that stand to help in the medium-term, including building a new pipeline of domestic operators and workers by promoting post-secondary enrolment in agricultural programs, as well as integrating agriculture into mainstream programs.

In the long term, RBC recommends increasing investment into research and development so that more mechanized and autonomous solutions can be introduced on Canadian farms.

RBC’s findings came in a week shy of Ontario Premier Doug Ford's latest round of eyebrow-raising changes to the province's development policy. One of the changes, announced on Friday as part of the Helping Homebuyers, Protecting Tenants Act, pertains to “greater flexibility to build homes in rural areas.”

In other words, with the optimistic goal of inching closer to its 1.5M new homes by 2031 target, the Ford government has introduced allowances that would give individual municipalities the power to decide what farmland can and cannot be developed, with only a loose definition -- "prime agricultural areas to support an agri-food network" -- extended to what should be protected.

Although the Act specifies that the intention of the new legislation is to “help smaller and more rural communities address their local housing needs and provide adequate housing for farmers and farm workers,” it’s hard to argue that it doesn't encourage urban sprawl and implicate Ontario farmland, at a time when, as RBC’s data makes abundantly clear, it’s already at high risk.

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