When Anastasia Fyk graduated from high school and left the family farm, she never imagined living there again.
But after eight years abroad, concerns about climate change have brought her back to western Manitoba and her family’s land northwest of Dauphin, in a bid to find a more sustainable way to produce food.
“I’m working on getting back to the way we farmed before, but with new technologies,” the 33-year-old said.
She is one of a growing number of young Manitobans getting into farming, according to Statistics Canada.
The data of the recently released agriculture census 2021 said that Manitoba had the highest proportion of farm operators under 35 in Canada — 11.5% of Manitoba farmers are in this age bracket, compared to the national average of 8.6%.
This is up from 2016, when Manitoba also had the highest proportion of young operators, at 10.8%.
Fyk’s family grows buckwheat, wheat, oats and canola.
She practices permaculture, a method of growing food that aims to match natural processes to maintain soil health.
The harmful impacts of industrial monoculture on the environment concern Fyk, but she also saw potential solutions by changing the way people grow food.
“We could sequester a lot more carbon doing things like permaculture…instead of annual farming,” she said.
“We are still bleeding farmers”
The latest statistics showing the increase in the number of young farmers in Manitoba are encouraging, said Fyk, but the sector still faces many challenges that are forcing more and more people out of the business.
“I think it’s amazing that Manitoba has the most young farmers, but at the same time, we’re still bleeding farmers. There are not enough farmers, especially young farmers, to fill the void.
There were 34,780 farm operators in Manitoba in 1991 — the first year Statistics Canada comparable data collected in its agricultural census. That number has declined with every census period since, falling to 19,465 in 2021.
The number of farmers under 35 in Manitoba fell to a low of 1,965 in 2011, before rising in 2016 to 2,175, then back to 2,230 at the last census.
Despite the increase in the number of young farmers, the average age of Manitoba farmers continues to age, from 53 in 2016 to 54 in 2021.
Statistics Canada also reports an increase in the percentage of women operating farms in Manitoba, from 23.8% in 2016 to 26.5% in 2021.
“I think it’s a really interesting thing, that it’s not just, ‘OK…the son is going to take over the farm,'” said Colin Penner, a professor of farm management at the University of Manitoba.
“It’s not necessarily gender-based anymore.”
These are encouraging signs in a difficult time for Manitoba farmers, who endured a painful drought and grasshopper infestation last summer, followed by a prolonged wet spring that delayed planting.
“This year the seeding was unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and I don’t think my dad has ever seen it, and he…has been farming for many decades,” said Jamal Abas, 30.
He and his family have 190 breeding cattle on a farm near Hodgson, in the Interlake region of Manitoba, where they also grow wheat, canola and oats.
In addition to being a full-time farmer, Abas goes to law school, but farming will always be a way of life for him, he said.
“It’s a thrill to steer your cultivator over land that your grandfather and great-grandparents and great-uncles and great-aunts cleared with axes and horse-drawn plows,” a- he declared.
“There’s a sense, of course, of pride with that.”
“I was much happier”
Jake Ayre also comes from a long line of farmers, dating back more than seven generations in the UK, before his family immigrated to Canada in 2002.
The 25-year-old left the family farm near Minto, in southwestern Manitoba, to attend the University of Winnipeg. He had no intention of getting back into the business.
“I was working in the city and found myself daydreaming about the farm all the time,” he said.
“I realized I was a lot happier at home, on the farm, and that’s something I saw myself doing. And it gave me a sense of accomplishment.”
Interest in the sector appears to have increased, as indicated by the number of students Penner from U of M sees in her class.
“Our classes for the past few years have been pretty much at capacity, which has been a lot of fun,” he said.
But these young farmers face challenges.
Many families have sold their farms during tough economic times in recent decades, and Fyk says most young people who get into farming are taking over family farms or doing small-scale, direct-to-consumer farming.
“I would say anyone looking to get into farming as a first generation farmer, it’s really not an easy task,” she said.
“There are a lot of hurdles when it comes to land, when it comes to machinery. It’s extremely expensive. And for someone who’s never farmed, it’s a huge risk to take .”
But she felt a responsibility to return, in part because she worried about what would happen to her family’s land if she didn’t take it back.
“Otherwise it would be in hands that I’m not sure would take care of the land,” she said.
“I know if it’s not me doing it, I’m not sure anyone else would.”