"This is the fun part of feeding beef cattle in the winter," Alyssa Dennis smiles as she yanks on plastic twine in the destringing of a frozen round bale.
She's squatting on a wagon feeder while the family's small herd of beef cattle root for their dinner. At this moment, it's THE place in the world where she most wants to be.
A 4-H member who would rather hitch a tractor ride to school than take the bus, Dennis says she'll likely always have cattle "depending on who I marry".
But she watched her club's calves sell for depressed prices last fall and says that with prices falling far shy of $1, the money just isn't there to entice her into thinking of herself as a career farmer.
Dennis and other young farmers share feelings of pride and respect, a joint OCA/Ontario Pork survey discovered last year.
But they are often discouraged by a skeptical older generation, which has continually advised them not to farm.
"That's what I've heard my whole life," says OCA policy advisor Jen Sniveley.
"But there is a future out there for people who are willing to be innovative."
Many of today's young farmers do think optimistically about the future. Yet they rarely attend industry education sessions, seeing the University of Guelph as their "only top-of-mind resource" for continuing education, according to an Ipsos Reid survey conducted last summer among young hog and beef producers. Apart from feed and business contacts, "no organization is providing continued learning on a more informal level," suggested the industry's younger generation.
It noted that Dennis's peers are enthusiastic, but strapped for time and cash and unaware of professional development opportunities.
"Nothing really surprised us," Sniveley said last week of the survey.
"We're constantly trying to encourage the younger producer," she said, acknowledging that young people don't generally want to come to meetings with their parents- even if they're 45.
"We're a little stuck on ideas," she says.
While OCA and Ontario Pork initiated the research to help them understand the needs of young farmers, they also found out where they fit into a young farmer's perceptions. The two organizations were looking for ways to encourage young people to start or continue farming and to "equip them with the right skills to maintain and increase Ontario's economic competitiveness in the agri-food sector".
It took additional prodding for the young (under 39) producers to acknowledge the Ontario Cattlemen's Association or Ontario Pork as educational sources.
The Young Farmers Needs Research study dated last September recommended that "Ontario Pork and Ontario Cattlemen's Association" consider leveraging continuing education activities for younger farmers on an informal scale, but that training "must be executed efficiently and be made as convenient as possible".
In contrast today's 50-plus farm veteran is pessimistic, views the industry's future with skepticism and disappointment and feels exploited, the Ipsos Reid survey discovered when it interviewed producers last August. Yet the 50-plus farmer is the family member most likely to attend industry meetings, sit on boards and guide policy.
"Younger farmers have the predominant belief that the industry will return to a profitable, rewarding livelihood for them and their families. This is articulated through feelings of pride, confidence and trust," according to the Ipsos-Reid findings. Young farmers are interested in training in financial management, leadership and succession planning, but aren't likely to attend meetings with their parents.
All farmers considered financial success to be "managing cash flow successfully to keep ahead of bills and keep the operation running".
But younger farmers wanted to progress "past day-to-day cash flow to invest in increasing their operation size (for owners) or buying a greater stake in their family operation (for non-owners) to eventual financial independence from mortgages".
"Future financial success for older producers is focused on retirement needs and heavily reliant on the sale of their operation," the survey concluded.
The study, part of a three-pronged strategy derailed in part when Ontario Pork cut positions last fall, had set out a path in which an industry co-ordinator would be hired to visit counties to encourage young producers, and a handbook "So You want to be a beef/hog farmer?" would be produced.
But that $80,000 initiative was scaled back to a survey which interviewed five older hog farmers from Woodstock and eight younger producers from Ridgetown/Stratford. Producers were required to have joint or sole decision making on an operation
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which either farrowed 100 sows or shipped more than 1,000 hogs in the year. The nine surveyed beef producers from Owen Sound or Listowel either ran a 20 cow/calf operation or fed more than 50 head and respondents included four younger producers.
All "producers believed they had sufficient skill and experience to be successful and had resources to assist them with farm/herd management challenges," but they acknowledged a need for further learning in financial planning and younger producers particularly were nervous of emotional conflict with parents and non-farming siblings on the topic of succession planning.
"Among younger farmers, there is a perception that OCA events are more closely aligned with the needs of the previous generation. Younger farmers are open to the concept of OCA as a training/skill development resource," the survey found. "As with OCA, younger producers tend to have a more passive role with Ontario Pork, but are open to the concept of Ontario Pork as a training/skill development resource."
Overall, the survey concluded, "Younger farmers represent a highly engaged audience for industry training and knowledge and they would be receptive to the idea of Ontario Pork and OCA providing them with training on a smaller scale (seminars, meetings, etc.). For many farmers, this would represent a significant increase in level of engagement with their producer association."
So the OCA and industry partners were launching a pilot project: a beef industry session geared to "young producers," with the ultimate goal of establishing a "networking and training resource for the beef industry at a one-stop shop," says Durham Region's rural economic development officer Marlene Werry. While she said that ideally programs will be offered at the county level, the dinner meeting was to gauge if there is buy-in from industry youngsters.
Opportunities, challenges and needs of Ontario beef producers were taking centre stage.
"Not only will you meet people with similar interests, but through the round table discussions you will discuss your similar needs and challenges," says Werry.
And you'll have a say in programming.
"You will also provide input to the facilitators about the types of resources and educational vehicles young farmers need."
The workshop could be extended through the province if there is interest.
"We had questions about if it's open to older farmers," chuckles Sniveley, admitting older farmers are welcome, but this event is for the young'uns.
For more information e-mail Werry at email@example.com.