“It’s a shame when a 65-year-old rancher has to wake up at three o’clock in the morning and have that overwhelming feeling of loss. It’s a sad day. I can get emotional about it,” says Pete Bonter. “I have nobody to succeed me.”
Bonter is a third-generation rancher whose six children have all decided to pursue other, more lucrative career choices than agriculture.
“Three generations of effort comes to a halt when I close my front gate and that’s sad because you have to ask yourself… what is the inevitable outcome of three generations of life. I mean three generations worked hard on this place of mine and, now, what was it for?”
Census data from Statistics Canada indicates that Bonter, who’s also the president of the South Cariboo Cattlemen’s Association, may be far from the only person struggling with succession. The data shows the number of farms (which includes cattle ranches), the number of cattle and the number of farm operators have all sharply declined in the South Cariboo from 2011 to 2016. Nationally, similar decreases took place albeit much less severe.
In the South Cariboo (Cariboo area G, Lac la Hache to 93 Mile excl. 100 Mile House, Cariboo area H, just north of 100 Mile House to Mahood Lake, and Cariboo area L, Horse Lake, Interlakes and Deka Lake), total farms decreased from 267 to 191; a 28 per cent drop (compared to a six per cent decrease nationally and 11 per cent in B.C.).
Additionally, while in Canada and B.C. the number of farms 3520 acres and over increased, in the South Cariboo, the number of farms 3520 acres and over decreased from 12 to 11.
Consequently, the South Cariboo also saw the number of operators drop by 25 per cent from 395 to 295.
This is a trend that’s been going on for decades, according to Wayne Caldwell, a professor at the University of Guelph, who focusses on the future of rural communities in the areas of planning, community development, agricultural land preservation and rural land use.
“Really what we’re observing is a trend that’s continued pretty much unabated since the end of the Second World War in many ways, where we find that increasing capitalization on many farms leading to larger farms, fewer farm operators and yet if we look at things from a production perspective the total value of production [and] the total volume of production tends to be fairly consistently increasing over that time period,” says Caldwell. This general push where “if you’re a little bit larger, you tend to be a little bit more viable from certain points of view and it really is a challenge for some communities in farm numbers which sometimes means there’s a decline in employment on the farm as well.”
He adds that ultimately it really comes down to economic viability.
“The key thing that we all want, I think, is we want people to be making good livings in farms and on agriculture. And I think there’s a sweet spot there, if I can put it that way, where you need to be large enough to be able to cope and yet in many small communities you want the scale to be set so that there’s a reasonable proliferation of farms as well.”
In the South Cariboo, however, it may be a slightly different story as not only did the number of farms over 3520 acres decrease, unlike Canada and B.C., the South Cariboo also saw a steep drop in the total number of cattle and calves from 13,731 to 9,541; a 31 per cent drop.
Bonter says that large ranches prefer to operate in areas other than the South Cariboo.
“Historically, we have smaller ranches in the South Cariboo anyhow but the demographics of it is that we’re all getting older and this is a particularly hard area to ranch in,” says Bonter. “The shift right now is from smaller to larger holdings. We see that provincially, and I think in my estimation of it, the issue that we’re seeing in the South Cariboo [is that] very few large ranches want to be involved with the cost of producing beef in the South Cariboo. I mean, we’re high elevation. We are limited in the types of crops that we can grow. Basically, the South Cariboo is a grass growing part of our province and so when you see the shift from small to large, the large are operating in areas other than the South Cariboo. So there are some extenuating circumstances to all of that but primarily a lot of our producers are just retiring.”
The average operator age in 2016 was 59.5 in area G, 57.4 in area H and 59.8 area L, nearly five years higher than the national average which stands at 55.
Bonter says that the input costs are so high that it eats up too much of the income for ranchers.
“That doesn’t leave enough for young people to be attracted to the industry,” says Bonter. “We have six kids and there are none of them that are interested in resuming where I leave off because of the dollar value.”
As ranchers start to retire, there are really only a few possible scenarios, says Caldwell.
“As someone gets to 60, 65, 70 or 75 even, if there’s not someone to take the farm over, it either then is going to get swallowed up by a large operation… you got to have new people to coming in or take over the farms or the farms, … depending again on the quality of soil and the quality of the farming environment, run the risk of going out of production.”
The larger Cariboo area fared better in all categories with total farms decreasing by 16 per cent, farms over 3520 acres increasing from 66 to 77 and total cattle and calves increasing by 2 per cent with operators decreasing by 13 per cent. The average operator age in the wider Cariboo area was 57.1.
Ultimately, Bonter says he’s worried about the future of ranching in the South Cariboo and about Canadian food production.
“It’s not a pretty picture and ultimately, we have to have a solution. What is that solution and what will it look like? I don’t know.”
He adds that it’s not easy for ranchers to give up what they and their families have often worked on for generations.
“When you are the third generation, you are tied emotionally. I mean my grandfather worked on this piece of ground. My uncles worked on this piece of ground. I’ve worked on it along with my whole family and it’s not something that you just readily give up. So I am tied emotionally to this ground and I don’t plan on leaving it.”
Bonter hopes that he can find someone to take over his ranch but as the data shows, at least in the South Cariboo, he would be one of the lucky ones.
“I would love nothing better than to devote the rest of my days to having one of my children make it in ranching… but that opportunity is not going to be afforded to me. I want to be part of some young person making it on my place and that will be my dying goal” he says. “I guess unless I’m starving to death my dying goal will be to see some young person have an opportunity on my place.”