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Ag census shows fewer total farmers, but more young ones

The typical farmer has already missed the Freedom 55 boat, but the sector is attracting more young people and women

There are fewer Canadian farmers, and those over 55 still outnumber their younger peers. But the number of operators under age 35 years has increased for the first time since 1991.

But the number of young farmers remains modest, according to the 2016 Census of Agriculture.

According to the census, there were 271,935 farmers in the country, but only 24,850 were under age 35. That’s only an increase of 730 young farmers from the 2011 census, but it comes even as the number of farmers dropped by 22,000.

The story in Alberta was similar — 4,400 fewer farmers than five years earlier, but 360 more farmers under the age of 35.

But there’s another story nestled inside those numbers. When looking at the age of farmers, Statistics Canada divides operations into two groups — one for farms with just one operator and another for those with two or more.

The entire increase (statistically speaking) of young farmers in Alberta came on one-farmer operations. Barely five per cent of young people were running their own show in 2011, but that jumped from 1,370 five years ago to 1,890 in 2016.

Total number of agricultural operations, Alberta. 1921 – 2016.
photo: Sources: CANSIM tables 004-0002 and 004-0204

For farms with two or more operators, the number slipped to 3,020 (down by 160 from 2011), although that was in line with the decline in farm numbers in that category.

Overall, the census found 23,225 farms in Alberta (versus 25,155 in 2011) with the average age of producers inching up to 56.6 years (versus 56.2 years in 2011).

“Although total farm numbers were down from five years earlier, Alberta continued to have the second-largest number of farms in Canada following Ontario,” Statistics Canada said in a news release.

For the first time since the 2001 census, Alberta reported an increase in its beef herd even though the number of ranches fell. The provincial beef herd increased by 1.3 per cent to 3.34 million head even though the number of farms with beef cattle fell by 9.0 per cent from 2011 levels. The national herd shrank by 2.4 per cent over the five-year period.

The most recent census was the first time farmers were asked if they had a written succession plan and 14.8 per cent of farms in Alberta (3,440 in total) reported having one — far above the Canadian average of 6.0 per cent.

Bigger dollars and a little less male

On the financial side, the numbers are big — and getting bigger.

In the 2011 census, 206,000 farmers provided figures for the worth of their operation (farm capital) and the total was $331 billion — for an average of $1.6 million per farm.

In 2016, the number of farms fell to under 194,000 but the farm capital number jumped to $510 billion — or $2.6 million per farm. Alberta saw a similar percentage jump but from a higher starting point — farms reported $3.5 million in farm capital (versus an average figure of $2.2 million in 2011).

Nationally, 28.7 per cent of farm operators are women, a slight increase since the last census. Alberta’s figure was slightly better than the national average at 30.8 per cent. That’s up a couple of percentage points from five years earlier. The number of women operating farms in Alberta (17,760) was virtually unchanged while the number of male farmers declined by 4,000.

Canola remained the leading field crop by area in 2016, up slightly from 2011, while spring wheat and barley area edged down.

Just under half of farm operators in Alberta reported having an off-farm job in 2015, the second-highest rate in the country following B.C.

Primary agriculture represented 1.5 per cent of the province’s gross domestic product and that number increased to 4.0 per cent when agricultural input and service providers; food and beverage processors; and food retailers and wholesalers were added in.

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