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Urban Cowboy: Researcher wants to know what draws young people to farming

Students needed to help chart farming’s future
research team - Sharada Srinivasan
This four-nation research team wants to know how young farmers manage to stay in business. Photo courtesy Sharada Srinivasan

A global research project to determine why farming is tough but possible for young people is getting underway in Canada, the third of four countries where it’s being held.

And the lead researcher is looking to recruit two University of Guelph Master’s students to help carry out the ground-breaking study.

Prof. Sharada Srinivasan, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Gender, Justice and Development at the University, wants to know what impediments face young farmers. She’s hiring two graduate students to ask them, and recruiting now. Interviews with farmers will take place in the late fall or early winter.

Srinivasan says this project, supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, is unlike other research endeavours that have tried to find out why young people leave farming.

In contrast, she wants to know why young people go back to the farm or start farming independently, and the challenges they face continuing their efforts to grow crops and raise livestock. 

“We start with the premise that they want to be on the farm, not leave it, and figure out how they’re able to stay, what they say they need and what their challenges are,” she says.  “I think the answers we find will be constructive for those who are choosing to farm.”  

The project is truly international. It’s taking place in Canada, China, India and Indonesia, with 100 farmers participating in each country. 

Srinivasan expects to see similarities and differences among countries. But she hopes that the discussion that is shared though this research project means they and others can learn from each other, and that the results will help make them stronger farmers.

The study has been underway for eight months outside of Canada. And while it’s early going, Srinivasan says two main points are emerging about why young people start farming and keep farming. 

First, she says, is quality of life. Particularly in congested countries, farming in rural areas is seen as less harried than trying to survive in a bustling city. “The country is simply considered by young farmers a better place to life, with not as many pressures as highly urbanized areas,” she says.

Second, young farmers like the autonomy of working for themselves. True, they have to answer to those who buy their commodities. But they say that’s different than working for a so-called superior, like a boss or a foreman, according to Srinivasan.

“Their hours may be long, but they like not having to work under someone, or predictable nine-to-five office hours,” she says.

So quality of life and autonomy are keeping young farmers in place in China, India and Indonesia. 

How about Canada? 

That’s what the students Srinivasan is recruiting are going to find out.

The fact this research is being done outside the usual sphere of agricultural funders, departments and colleges reflects how significantly agriculture affects not only employment, but also society and life itself in the countries studied so far, says Srinivasan. 

For example, in India, a huge proportion of the population depends on farming in rural areas, where some of the most poverty-stricken people in the world live.

There, she says, “you can’t ask questions about poverty without addressing agriculture, and you won’t find solutions to social injustice by ignoring farming.”

She believes agriculture holds “untapped potential” for young people, given how many people rely on it, and how many unfulfilled farming jobs await those with the determination to pursue them.

She hopes information gathering, which involves colleagues and students from universities, research institutes and NGOs in other countries, will be complete in early 2018, so data analysis can begin.

To get involved, contact Srinivasan at 519-824-4120 Ext. 52497 or She is also looking for young farmer volunteers, to answer questions for the students.