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Business Commentary Agriculture’s generational challenge: fallow workforces, relationships

Only one of 10 farmers are under the age of 40 now, a marked drop from one out of four in this range two decades ago.

Mark Spowart/The Globe and Mail

Emerson Csorba advises public- and private-sector organizations and higher-education institutions on issues related to cross-generational engagement and the future of work. He is a World Economic Forum global shaper and University of Cambridge trust scholar

In recent years, Canada's agricultural workforce has entered what can only be a considered a significant demographic shift. According to the 2011 Census on Agriculture, the most recent national census on the country's agriculture workforce, farms with an average operator age of 55 years or older accounted for more than 50 per cent of farms in 2011; in 1991, this number was 37.7 per cent.

Moreover, only one of 10 farmers are under the age of 40 now, a marked drop from one out of four in this range two decades ago. With the consolidation of farms and the continued movement of young Canadians toward urban living spaces, farming has the challenging task of thinking through how best to recruit its next generation.

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However, it is also critical that we consider generational shifts likely to take place in agri-retailing – a question that stands to impact Canada's agriculture competitiveness if not addressed. Agri-retailers, who have developed long-lasting relationships with Canadian farmers in past decades (to the point of virtually becoming members of farm-management teams), are susceptible to the similar social and technological trends that affect worker loyalty.

The challenges of the long-term relationship between farmer and agri-retailer was explored at the recent 2016 Canadian Association of Agri-Retailers conference in Saskatoon. I interviewed young Canadian farmers and agri-retailers to explore the potential dynamics on this question over the upcoming decade. But the insights provided by two conference presenters – Justin Funk, of the University of Guelph and Agri-Studies Inc., and Dr. Allan Gray, director of the Center for Food and Agricultural Business at Purdue University – were also insightful. Here were three major takeaways:

Competitive advantage is more about people than product

For agri-retailers, there is now very little difference between the quality of product from one company to the next. Although companies might seek to differentiate themselves on price, loyalty between farmers and agri-retailers – that is, the relationship between people – will provide competitive advantage in the future.

Social and technological trends are challenging loyalty

These trends are contributing to an "individualization" of this workforce, like many others. Technology provides millennials with many options in their careers and lifestyles. Settling with just one company is not a priority. Anecdotally, agri-retailers at the 2016 conference have seen increasing churn on their sales teams, which, if true, is a major risk for the relationship between farmer and agri-retailer. In the past those relationships may have lasted for years, even decades.

Agri-retailers will need to invest heavily on people skills

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Achieving loyalty in corporate, agri-retailer environments will be more challenging, especially as agri-retailers continue to consolidate. Training young workers in agri-retailing companies, with attention paid specifically to the ideas of patience and trust, and leadership development for incoming staff, will be paramount in forming long-lasting relationships with farmers.

As these generational shifts change Canadian agriculture, it's evident that the industry will experience challenges in attracting and keeping good people, both in farms and in agri-retailing. But it's the challenge of fostering loyalty between these two sides of the industry – in a world where the rate of change is increasing – that will determine success.

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