Thank you for the opportunity to share my thoughts and research regarding contemporary issues facing young and start-up farmers who seek to begin or expand their farm operations. I'll also address the associated issue of debt and the transfer of farm operations from one generation to the next.
Before getting into the heart of my comments, I want to recognize that there are many unique aspects of farming, most of which were raised in our previous discussions. Farming requires a unique partnership with nature, and this dynamic relationship poses an ongoing challenge. Second, many farmers and future farmers grow up on farms and come to know farming as a way of life. In this regard, farmers are committed to place and farming in a way that many of us view as important.
Let me begin with a very important question. How do young farmers fare in the agricultural sector? This question poses a bit of a challenge because, to answer it, one needs to find an occupation to compare with farming, and as I've mentioned, farming is unique in many respects. With that caveat in mind, one starting place might be to compare the percentage of Canadian farm operators under 40 with the percentage of Canadian owners of small to medium-sized enterprises under 40.
Using data from the 2011 census and Industry Canada, we calculate that, as of 2011, 10% of the total farm operators identified as the oldest operator on the farm were under the age of 40. Comparatively, in the same year, 12% of majority owners of small and medium-sized enterprises were under the age of 40.
Should we be surprised at the percentage of farm operators under 40? I'm not in a position to answer that question for you, but as you continue to contemplate this issue, keep in mind that farm operations typically involve millions of dollars of assets and hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt; hence, these kinds of capital-intensive industries require unique operational and managerial skills. We need to assess our age expectations in farming against similar capital-intensive businesses in Canada.
As we do this, we should keep in mind farming and its unique partnership with nature. This means that, as one farmer recently put it to me, 80-hour work weeks are a good thing, and during some seasons, they work when the sun shines and enjoy a day off when it is raining. In these times, weekends are just part of the calendar. These seasonal demands may discourage some young people from entering the industry. Also, it is important to recognize that modern farming is not as biased against older folks as it used to be and is less demanding physically than in the past.
Farming requires a broad suite of capital investments, including land and buildings, machinery, and equipment, and in some cases, livestock. Importantly, it is unlikely that the magnitude of debt for any particular farm can be associated with the soundness of the farm operation. Farmers running the highest debt are likely to be doing so because creditors are comfortable that they are in a position to repay this debt. For this reason, there are other measures used to assess the financial well-being of the farm sector. These were gone over in detail in your last session, but they include measures like liquidity and debt-to-asset ratio. In reviewing these current measures, FCC suggests that they are generally in line with or more favourable than historic averages.
For farmers in general and young farmers in particular, incurring debt allows them the opportunity to undertake enterprises that could not be financed by personal wealth. The current debt reflects in part the capital cost of being a competitive farm operation in today's agricultural sector. In addition, some of the increase in debt is due to the decisions of farmers to invest some portion of their net income, which has generally been increasing in recent times, into capital investments. One of these investments has been farmland, which as you all know well, has appreciated in recent years. For example, in Ontario the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation estimates that between 2012 and 2016 the average increase was 16%. The increase in value of land does not, however, as someone recently pointed out, mean a farm is sustainable from a cash flow basis.
It goes without saying that the ability to manage any business and its debt is easier when net income flows are favourable and interest rates are low, a setting that describes the agricultural industry these last several years. The situation becomes more challenging when these flows become attenuated or interest rates rise. This issue emphasizes the importance of making productivity-enhancing investments in good times and making sure that the generation of farmers is prepared to manage the farm, not only from an operational perspective, but also from a financial perspective. We therefore rely on our credit markets to appropriately weigh the risks of lending to young farmers.
This helps to avoid the deleterious effects of incentivizing less productive investments or supporting farmers who can be profitable in good times but not in less favourable times. One challenge here is that young farmers will be more highly leveraged because of their need to make high levels of capital investments and their lower levels of accumulated assets. This implies greater risk.
Given the high capital costs of becoming a competitive farmer, you might ask how these young farmers get in the game, get up to scale, and stay in the game. There's not one answer, but borrowing money from a financial institution will most likely play a role in all of these stages. There are many ways young farmers start out to develop the wealth that allows them access to these loans. I will discuss three: off-farm income, renting in farmland, and support from parents.
On off-farm income, many young farmers, and indeed farm families in general, supplement their income with off-farm work. The average farm operator in Canada has about a 41% probability of engaging in off-farm work, and the probability for the youngest farm operators is higher. Spouses of farmers also often work off the farm.
As for renting in farmland, as noted earlier and discussed earlier, farmland is expensive. In many places, the price of farmland may be such that a moderate return on investment requires continued farmland appreciation. One option for young farmers is to scale by renting farmland or through contract farming. The farmland rental market is well established in Canada. Close to 40% of the Canadian farmland is in the rental market. A long-established exchange between landlords and tenants suggest benefits to farmers and non-farmers alike.
Now I'll talk about support from parents. Farm families help their children get into farming by developing their knowledge of farming. They transfer assets through bequests, gifts, or sale. In many cases, farm families use a combination of all of these approaches. Increased debt can complicate the situation. As an extreme example, in the event that a parent dies intestate, without a will, there may be confusion as to who is responsible for paying the debt, and they go into arrears.
Moreover, the farming operation may suffer as families attempt to clarify how the farm assets should be distributed. Importantly, the appreciation in key assets like land poses a challenge to parents who, on retirement, want to treat themselves and all their children equitably. Children who may want to continue the farm operation at the same scale as their parents have may have a difficult time purchasing farmland from their parents or from their siblings' share of inherited land.
There are presently a variety of institutions designed to support young farmers and the transfer of farms from one generation to the next. There are a variety of tax policies that influence these transfers of assets. Provincial-federal cost-share programs support succession planning. FCC has a young farmers program. Importantly, universities throughout Canada, including the University of Guelph, are actively engaged in preparing the next generation of farmers with the management skills that they will need to effectively manage a farm operation.
Finally, if you will allow me to end this testimony on a personal note, I have spent the last 13 years of my life working with young people. Many have become farmers. Many want to become farmers and many have gone on to research issues relative to our agricultural sector. I'm constantly impressed by their innovative capacity and their work ethic. I have been a beneficiary of their new ideas and our agricultural sector will benefit as well.
Our investment in youth, which needs to be a focus of a broad suite of policies, is our best chance at making the most of the good times, diminishing losses in the bad times, and increasing the likelihood that the former will characterize our future more often than the latter. No generation is better suited to address the future than is the future generation. I'm committed to that. I'm glad you're having these discussions, and I am prepared to discuss this testimony and other questions you might have.
Thank you very much.