To farm or not to farm?
Some young people in British Columbia see their future in the family farm, despite drop in farming population.
Apple growers Marc and Madeleine van Roechoudt are working on a succession plan for Madeleine to eventually take over running the orchard.
Orchardist Roger Bailey concedes it's quite possible none of his three teenagers will want to follow in his farming footsteps.
"I didn't start farming to force it on anybody," says the 48-year-old proprietor of 80 acres of sweet cherries and 20 acres of apples in Oyama, a small Okanagan orchard community several miles north of Kelowna, Canada.
His two daughters and a son, ages 13 to 16, have demonstrated varying degrees of enthusiasm for agricultural endeavors. "My son comes out with me when I ask him. He's not fully keen on it at this stage," Bailey says. "The youngest daughter doesn't really want to have much to do with it. She's got a different skill set, more artistically inclined.
"My oldest daughter has been instrumental in handling our big crews of French-Canadians picking cherries. She's bilingual and has a real touch for that. She can be the boss without being threatening and has done a great job for us.
"She has the interest in the human side of it. We'll see if that progresses. She'll have to go out and see what the world looks like before she decides anything. If she comes back, fine; if not, that's fine, too."
These days, more and more British Columbians are fleeing farms. According to the latest Canadian census in 2006, the province's farm population has dropped to 1.5 percent of the total population, compared with 14.7 percent in 1931, even though the total farm area in the province has doubled to seven million acres in the same time frame.
Those who remain on the farm are aging. Farmers aged 65 and over make up 13.5 percent of the farm population in British Columbia, up from 5.4 percent in 1971. And the average age of farm operators in British Columbia increased between 2001 and 2006 from 49.9 years of age to 53.6.
Two anomalies to that trend are Andrew Gambell, 26, and Madeleine van Roechoudt, 27, whose apple farms are little more than a stone's throw apart in Winfield, just north of Kelowna. Both young people are being groomed to take over well-established orchards.
"Right now I'm kind of the general manager," says Gambell, son of Pearce, 74, and Penny, 61. Both parents are still active on the 35-acre orchard, and Penny is a former president of the British Columbia Fruit Growers' Association.
"I just do all the spraying and looking after the employees," Andrew says. "I haven't gotten into doing the bookwork and everything yet just because they haven't released the reins to me yet. That is the future plan. We haven't quite figured out how it's going to work—a lease to own or that type of thing. I have siblings as well, so it makes it more difficult with how it's passed down."
The industry's rural lifestyle and self-employment are what attracted Gambell. "I grew up with farming," he says. "It's such a nice lifestyle. How can you turn it down, really? You can't be in it to make a lot of money. You've just got to love what you do."
Van Roechoudt is training to take over from her 73-year-old father, Marc, who owns Dorenberg Orchards, a 50-acre apple operation. Madeleine graduated from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver with a bachelor's degree in science (global resource systems). She intended to go into landscape architecture, but had a change of heart.
"Agriculture is very rarely viewed in a positive light," she says. "When you're growing up, you don't think of it as a career opportunity. It's more of a last resort. But I always wanted to move back to the farm, always liked living on the farm. When I finished university, I thought it made more sense to run the farm rather than just live on it.
"There are a lot of opportunities in agriculture, and there are a lot of very flexible opportunities, too: working outdoors, working indoors, managing your own business. As long as you can come up with a way to make money."
Van Roechoudt believes one of the keys to survival in the industry is knowledge. She recently attended the Young Farmers Summit of the Americas in Calgary, Alberta.
"You have to know your industry well and know where you can make more money, whether it's a niche market or more volume or selling to a particular buyer more directly," she says. "Agriculture is always changing, so you have to be looking for the next thing around the corner."
Van Roechoudt says her family is working on a succession plan, and right now she's involved more in the office management aspect of the business.
She says she's neither optimistic nor pessimistic about the future of the industry.
"I see my future more as a land manager. You can always make money growing something, right? We have a lot experience growing apples, but if we can't make money growing apples, then surely we can grow something else."
Gambell also thinks flexibility is essential in the business.
"We're looking to get into more vegetables to diversify our income because we can't rely on what the packing house is paying us," he says, noting that many growers, especially in the southern Okanagan, are switching to grapes and getting out of the apple business. "That means less produce for the packing house and less selling power."
Bailey, who won a Canada's Outstanding Young Farmers program regional award in 2000 with his wife, Diane Courchesne, says farming isn't an occupation for someone looking to make quick cash.
"I'm 15 years into this project, and there's not a lot of cash floating around," he says, adding that it's equity gains that are increasing his net worth.
"You certainly have to focus on the economics of it as much as possible and try not to rely on things you've heard from your dad or grandpa. Go out to the field days and listen to the scientists; listen to the consumer as well if you have the ability to do that.
"You have to be willing to change pretty quickly. You need some luck. If you come in with just the ability to put long hours in outside, it's not enough to make a go these days. There's lots of math involved and lots of planning."