Thank you for the invitation to participate in your study. I am a vegetable and grain farmer from Ontario and the chair of the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council. I am also the co-chair of Canada's Agriculture and Agri-Food Labour Task Force, and together with the other 28 representatives on the task force, I have support from over 85 agricultural associations, companies, and municipal leaders for its proposals.
Ensuring that the industry remains competitive and can grow is our priority. That means figuring out ways to address the labour shortage. Driving up costs and often increasing debt, farmers have made extensive investments in labour-saving technologies including GPS combines used on grain farms, robotic milkers for daily cattle, precision seeding machinery, and drones to monitor crops and orchards.
The industry has invested much more capital per worker than have other Canadian industries, significantly more since 2009.
The industry also values productivity and, according to CAHRC's research, is the strongest performer of any industry sector in Canada. Factors affecting productivity include improvements in technology, land management, seed, fertilizers, and pest control. According to The Conference Board of Canada, this makes agriculture the star productivity performer out of the entire Canadian economy. The agriculture industry realized a 45% increase in productivity, meaning that each worker is producing 45% more today than they used to 10 years ago, due to advances in both technology and production.
Increasing productivity per worker is especially important during a labour shortage. When people can't be found, more must be accomplished by fewer employees. However, productivity improvements are limited and can be very costly especially in the agrifood industry. Machinery and technology investments are very expensive and are making modern farm operations very capital intensive. These investments are needed but increase farm debt significantly, sometimes to the point of squeezing people out of the industry altogether. Those without access to significant capital—typically newcomers to the industry and those who are younger—find it challenging to both enter and compete in the sector.
CAHRC's research indicates that agriculture is unique and that the average age of its labour force is considerably higher than the average age in all other sectors. Agriculture retirements are 60% higher than are those in other economic sectors. After accounting for the fact that workers in the agricultural sector tend to retire later than do those in other industries, the sector is still expected to see 93,000 workers retire between 2014 and 2025. That's more than one in four workers.
At the same time, there is a shrinking number of young people available to work in Canada, and unfortunately, there are fewer young people entering the agrifood industry than there used to be.
So what does all this mean? Agricultural workforce shortages impact debt, competitiveness, and growth potential for the agrifood industry. We know that the labour shortage is costing agrifood businesses $1.5 billion each year in lost farm-gate sales. We know that agriculture is a star productivity performer; however, there are limits to how much we can increase the amount each worker produces. We know that innovation and technology are important for modern farmers to help alleviate worker shortages and support production growth, yet technology and innovation are expensive and drive up farm debt.
We also know that many farmers are retiring and some are retiring sooner rather than later because they can't find enough workers. We know not enough young people are entering industry and that access to capital is harder for them to obtain.
There are important activities that need to be undertaken to reduce farm debt and also to achieve the federal government's objective of increasing agrifood exports to $75 billion in eight years. Agriculture job vacancies need to be understood, and action is needed.
The industry needs more workers, both domestic and foreign workers, and needs more training to ensure workers can keep up with the innovation and technology advances. A career awareness campaign is needed to encourage more of the Canadian workforce to consider working in the industry. As the HUMA committee recommended, what is also needed is improved access to foreign workers so job vacancies can be filled when Canadians are not interested or not available. The labour task force has proposed innovative labour programming solutions, including a dedicated Canadian agriculture and agrifood workforce program that recognizes this industry as a high-growth and high-demand sector. No changes to the SAWP, the seasonal agricultural worker program, are suggested, but many improvements to the agricultural stream and for meat and seafood processors are needed as well.
The Government of Canada needs to assist this industry to address worker shortages, debt, and competitiveness if it hopes to achieve the growth targets set in budget 2017.