03/01/2012 03:56 EST | Updated 05/01/2012 05:12 EDT

With agriculture at a crossroads, young farmers face obstacles getting started

MONTREAL - Cammie Harbottle considers herself one of the lucky ones.

When the 30-year-old began growing vegetables in Tatamagouche, N.S., three years ago, she was able to sidestep two of the biggest hurdles facing young Canadians trying to start a farm: access to affordable land and equipment.

Harbottle was offered a cheap, long-term lease on a large piece of farmland set up as a community land trust by a few friends. She was also able to split the costs of a second-hand tractor and other equipment with farmers using the same land.

"I was really fortunate," Harbottle said, a native of British Columbia who worked on farms in her home province before heading east.

"I could never have afforded to buy a farm in B.C. and pay a mortgage. It's tough enough as it is."

Others, however, don't have such advantages.

Buying or leasing land, particularly near a city, can be crippling to a farmer just starting out. And many young farmers have difficulty finding a bank willing to lend them money for start-up costs.

At the same time, the age of the average farmer continues to climb.

Roughly 40 per cent of Canadian farmers are over 55, and relatively few young people are entering the farming business. With many of those farmers set to retire, the next decade could be pivotal in determining how Canada produces and consumes its food.

Christie Young, executive director of FarmStart, an Ontario organization for new farmers, says about 75 per cent of outgoing farmers don't have a successor in place. That means many farms will likely be purchased by larger operations or land developers.

"As a country we have to decide what kind of farms and communities we want," Young said.

"There is so much evidence that owner-operated farms contribute to their communities over and above these huge, consolidated corporate farms."

Small-scale farming has been in decline for years, of course. Between 1951 and 2006, the number of farms in Canada dropped by nearly 400,000 — more than 63 per cent. Over that same period, the average farm increased in size by 160 per cent.

Canada's current agricultural policy, a $1.3-billion agreement between Ottawa, the provinces and territories signed in 2008, is set to expire in 2013.

Advocates are hoping a new agreement is geared toward new, small-scale farmers rather than large-scale industrial ones.

Often, new farmers don't have access to funding programs because they don't meet the minimum farm income required.

Harbottle, who is also president of the National Farmers Union's youth wing, said many choose to grow vegetables rather than go into livestock or dairy farming, which has higher startup costs.

But Paul Slomp, a 31-year-old cattle farmer living in Ottawa, is committed to making it work.

At Grazing Days, a patch of rented land 20 kilometres south of Parliament Hill, Slomp has been raising grass-fed Angus beef cattle for the past two years.

Slomp was unable to secure a bank loan and instead raised capital privately through friends. He also keeps his expenses to a minimum.

He doesn't own a vehicle and bikes out to the farm every day during the summer. The rent is a fraction of the market value because the owners, former farmers themselves, wanted it to be used for agriculture.

"I don't think I would be able to do what I'm doing if I had to pay market value for my land," Slomp said.

Slomp takes orders directly from consumers, cutting out the middleman that would take away from his slim profit margin. He also rents freezer space in a large storage facility and outsources the slaughtering work to a local abattoir.

Like Slomp, Harbottle initially had trouble securing capital to build the packing shed she needs in order to wash and pack her vegetables for market. She eventually secured a $20,000 loan from a Nova Scotia organization for the equipment.

She now grows more than 40 types of organic vegetables at Waldergrave Farm, which she sells locally and at the farmers market in Halifax, where she has no trouble clearing out her produce.

"There's a lot of demand," she said. "I can't really meet it all."