N.B. farmers grow older, and fewer have succession plans

·5 min read
Sisters Ellen Folkins and Sophia Sharp arrange a bouquet on their farm in Lower Millstream. (Mike Heenan/CBC - image credit)
Sisters Ellen Folkins and Sophia Sharp arrange a bouquet on their farm in Lower Millstream. (Mike Heenan/CBC - image credit)

The average age of farm operators in New Brunswick has risen to 57, according to the 2021 agriculture census done by Statistics Canada.

That isn't surprising to young flower farmer Ellen Folkins, but it's disappointing.

"Young farmers are a generation of people who are really innovative," she said on her family's farm about 70 kilometres northeast of Saint John.

"Things are changing really fast, and we're allowing it and we're supporting it, and we're not afraid to see it happen."

Folkins and her sister Sophia Sharp grew up on their family's seventh-generation dairy farm in Lower Millstream. In 2020, they decided to take the plunge and start Sharp Brook Flower Farm on the same property.

WATCH | 'I don't plan on just letting it rot'

"During COVID, my sister and I were looking for a little outlet, so we started a small cut flower garden thinking we would sell a few bouquets at the end of our driveway," Folkins said. "And it blew up."

They have planted more than half a hectare and are growing more than 30 different varieties of flowers.

The sisters have been selling fresh-cut bouquets in their roadside stand and will begin booking U-pick appointments later this month.

Facebook/Ellen Folkins
Facebook/Ellen Folkins

As women in their twenties, Folkins and Sharp are in a minority of farm operators, 37.2 per cent, who are under 55.

Folkins, a board member of the New Brunswick Young Farmers Forum, said there are a number of barriers for young people trying to enter the field.

"I think there's a lot of young people that are interested in farming, but there's no access to the help they need to get there," she said.

"We see a lot of farms that are selling out. And then there's a lot of young people that would love to take over that farm, but they just don't have the capital available to purchase it."

She would like to see some sort of matching program that pairs young people up with farmers who don't have a successor.

Folkins said her brother will be taking over her family's dairy farm, but she understands a path forward isn't always that clear for other farmers.

7.7% of N.B. farms have succession plans 

Nancy Millican, 60, grows organic haskaps on land that has been farmed by her family since the mid-1800s. She and her husband Allan, own Covered Bridge Haskap Orchards in Head of Millstream.

Like most farms in New Brunswick, it doesn't have a succession plan at this time.

"My granddaughter loves haskap berries and she said she would like to be a haskap farmer," she said. "But she's only two."

Mike Heenan/CBC
Mike Heenan/CBC

The 2021 agriculture census found that fewer than one in every 10 New Brunswick farms have a succession plan. This compares to a 12 per cent national average.

Allan said their adult children have pursued other careers and aren't interested in taking over operations. He plans on farming until he can't and hopes at that point the farm will fall into the right hands.

"It's kind of a hard thing to think about because we really don't know how that's going to go," he said. "But, you know, we got to figure something out. I don't plan on just letting it go."

Haskaps are native to Scandinavia but can do well in New Brunswick climates. Nancy says they are an extremely healthy berry with four times as many antioxidants as high bush blueberries.

Watch | Growing the berry with the tangy taste

"Haskaps are like a super fruit," she said. "They taste like a blueberry-blackberry-raspberry combination. They have a very vibrant, tangy taste."

The Millicans said haskaps seem to be gaining recognition in the province, but they continue to prioritize education in hopes of encouraging more people to seek out the berry.

The farm has more than 4,500 haskap bushes which are now in their prime.

'No one in the wings to take over'

Tamara Sealy, the first vice-president of the New Brunswick Agricultural Alliance, said a farm succession plan involves the transition of ownership, management and operations.

Business growth officers with the Department of Agriculture are able to help farm operators with succession planning.

"But I mean, if there's nobody to take over your farm, there's no need to make a succession plan," Sealy said.

This seems to be a recurring theme, she said.

Mike Heenan/CBC
Mike Heenan/CBC

"Frankly, there's not a whole lot of money in certain commodities right now. And it's long hours, hard work, hard on the body, and especially high costs these days.

"So it's a very challenging industry to enter and make it profitable and sustainable."

Sealy also pointed to a succession planning guide on the Agriculture Alliance website.

A quarter of farm operators are women

While the 2021 census found the total number of New Brunswick farm operators decreasing, the proportion of female operators has risen to 23.6 per cent. It is however still below the national average of 30.4 per cent.

Ellen Folkins said she thinks that number is higher, as women don't always take credit for their involvement on the farm.

"I think in the past, the farmer was the farmer, and the farmer's wife was the farmer's wife. And that's not the way it is anymore. They've always been there, maybe in the shadows, but I don't think any farmer around here would be running if it wasn't for the women."

Folkins said her mom wouldn't identify as a farmer, but she puts in as much work as anyone else.

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