SKILLS FOR A NEW FARMING ERA
BY ELLEN COTTEE
The agriculture industry faces pivotal challenges, and a new report from the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) suggests action is needed. Farmer 4.0: How the coming skills revolution can transform agriculture, details the precarious situation Canadian agriculture finds itself in as it faces a labour shortage, shrinking profits and its slice of global export markets diminishes.
Andrew Schrumm, RBC senior manager of research, said it was the concerns of farmers that inspired the report. While RBC staff were preparing a separate report on youth and the digital skills revolution, they became aware of problems faced by the agriculture industry. “We heard about labour shortages and people not entering the industry,” said Schrumm. “We wanted to explore that with industry groups and see what value we could add.”
The report was released in August 2019 following four months of roundtable discussions with farmers, industry groups, economists and academics. Central to the report’s recommendations are integrating agriculture into school curriculums and increasing funding for skills and technology advancement. It also lays out suggested methods to reduce the shortage of farm labour.
While the industry is by no means in crisis, it is at a crossroads. Canadian agriculture could face a shortage of 123,000 workers within the next decade, stalling productivity and decreasing global exports.
Alberta Barley chair Dave Bishop farms grain near Barons and agreed the farm labour shortage must be addressed. “We need to make agriculture this nice, shiny, attractive opportunity for people,” he said. “Once people get into agriculture, they tend to stay for their whole career. They just need to get here.”
Getting them here requires better integration of agriculture into general education, the report concludes. Compared to their peers in countries such as Australia and the Netherlands, Canadian children are not generally taught about food production and farming practices. They enter the workforce with little awareness of opportunities presented by the industry.
Once students are made aware that the farming sector requires workers with a wide range of skills, they’re drawn to investigate. To make this happen, co-operative education, a mix of classroom learning and real-world experience, is an effective way to educate young people about agriculture.
“Producers have told me they have software engineers [do co-op work] on the farm, and once they get on the tractor, using the equipment they’re programming, they see the opportunity there,” said Schrumm. “There are many skills needed in agriculture.”
Technology is another area government and industry groups must address to maintain global competitiveness, the report states. In 2018, Canada’s share of global agriculture technology funding was just 3.4 per cent, behind Brazil and India.
It’s not that farmers don’t want technology, explained Bishop. “We are often early adopters of technology,” he said, instead suggesting barriers centre upon money. “We may call it a family business, but it’s still a business, and we need to look at our capital investment.”
More funding from government, industry and private sources for technological innovation in agriculture would help the ag sector increase production by overcoming the barriers of time and money, summarizes the report. A set of federal government economic recommendations, The Barton Report of 2017 likewise emphasized the importance of funding the sector.
As with integrating agriculture into the education system, spurring increased funding for skills and technology will not be a speedy process. “There’s a lot of opportunity in the industry,” said Schrumm. “We’re all thinking long-term about what agriculture will look like, but we need to start preparing now.”