Change is in the air for the Junior Farmers Association of Ontario, an organization dedicated to bringing together young rural people 15 to 29 years old.
After years of virtually no growth, suddenly there's a flurry of activity. Clubs that had shut down are reforming and new clubs are coming together in several regions, including North Wellington. And thanks to support from the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, Junior Farmers are increasingly being called to the boardroom when provincial matters affecting young people come up.
That's good for Ontario. Many members of this 64-year-old organization go on to become full-time farmers. We need them, and they need programs to keep them engaged in rural Ontario.
Overall, their legions are shrinking. According to Statistics Canada, from 1996 to 2001, the number of farm operators in Canada less than 35 years old dropped 35 per cent. The average farmer in Canada is more than 50 years old.
And as of the 2001 census, 15 per cent of farmers were 65 years old or more, a number that's almost twice as high as the rest of the labour force.
Still, against these odds, Junior Farmers are gaining ground.
President Cecelia McMorrow of Victoria County near Lindsay calls it a natural evolution.
Back in the dark days of the Mike Harris government, agriculture, among other disciplines, took a beating. Organizations such as Junior Farmers were decoupled from the provincial administration that had long given them a helping hand. It was a hard, painful separation and it left groups reeling. They were consumed with the change and their immediate task was to deal with the blow.
But now, a generation has nearly passed, and the outlook is different. Back when the provincial axe came down, many current Junior Farmers leaders such as McMorrow, a former College Royal celebrant at the University of Guelph, which has its own Junior Farmers club, hadn't yet entered the system.
So, they'd never known anything different than an arm's length relationship with the province. They didn't know what it was like to have an Ontario government arm to pull, push or coddle them.
And they're OK with it. In fact, it's become a point of pride. Ask McMorrow what distinguishes Junior Farmers from other agriculture groups for young people and she's quick to note the association is the only self-directed, self-governed youth program in Ontario, where 30 or so young leaders such as her are holding the reins for activities involving the other 500 members.
This responsibility is resonating throughout the new Junior Farmers. Traditionally, the organization had a reputation for what could broadly be described as its "social" emphasis. On its website discussion board, some still lightly refer to it as a marriage bureau for farm kids.
And its members still emphasize the fun aspect of getting together. But now, they're pursuing more leadership and travel opportunities, particularly the Junior Farmers exchange program.
It has always been popular, connecting them with others in Ireland, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Australia, New Zealand, Germany and Switzerland, as well as other Canadian provinces. But the exchange program seems to have increased in relevance to its members, who are part of the generation that's been raised in an increasingly global farming environment.
Whatever pointers they gain by spending time on farms outside their immediate community (or country) can only be good for Ontario agriculture, and ultimately, for consumers. And as McMorrow says, the best way to disguise learning is by making it fun.
She's thinks farming's changing fortunes are helping Junior Farmers membership. Although the livestock sector is still under extreme pressure, crop prices are much better than they've been in ages and are forecast to hold or increase their value for years to come. Those sunnier prospects resonate with young farmers.
"When we get together, everyone in the room wants to be successful," says McMorrow, who's in charge of communications and marketing for the Lindsay Agricultural Society.
"There are so many positives and new opportunities with niche markets, local food, the growth of organic markets and more. It's revitalized the whole industry."
Good luck to the Junior Farmers. Have fun, learn a lot, and thanks for keeping us fed.