Latest census reflects a changing farm face

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Whether or not you think consolidation in agriculture is a good thing, it’s continuing at a brisk pace. And nowhere is that more apparent than on the Canadian Prairies.

The latest data on farm numbers and scale based on the newly released 2011 Census of Agriculture shows the pace of farm size growth in Alberta, where the average farm size increased by 10.7 per cent since 2006, Saskatchewan (up 15.1 per cent) and Manitoba (up 13.4 per cent) running well ahead of the national average of 6.9 per cent.

As they say, they aren’t making any more land so if farm sizes are growing, it’s a sure thing the number of farmers is shrinking. In Alberta, numbers have dropped 12.5 per cent over the past five years. Manitoba led the country with a decline of 16.7 per cent, followed closely by Saskatchewan at 16.6 per cent. Again, that’s well ahead of the national average of a 10.3 per cent decline.

How big do you have to be to make a go of it farming on the Prairies? Right now, it would appear having gross sales of $500,000 and up is a good start.

One thing is clear. If rural communities are going to survive in this region, they need to intensify efforts to diversify their economic base beyond agriculture.

Given the advancing average age of farmers in this country, there is a growth industry for farm tools built with geriatrics in mind — starting with manuals written in large print. This census showed the 55-and-over age category represented 48.3 per cent of total operators. This contrasts rather starkly with the rest of the labour force, in which only 15.4 per cent of those self-employed are over age 55.

Less than 10 per cent of farmers in Canada are under the age of 35 and that proportion is declining. Consolidation and scale may make for a stronger balance sheet for the industry, but it sets up a pretty steep barrier for the next generation to buy in.

Also notable is the decline of livestock in Canadian agriculture. In 2006, oilseed and grain farms accounted for 26.9 per cent of all farms, while beef farmers accounted for 26.6 per cent. In this latest census, oilseed and grain farms had increased to 30 per cent, while beef had declined to 18.2 per cent.

The number of beef cattle reported for breeding purposes decreased by 22.3 per cent since 2006. The number of farms reporting breeding stock decreased by 25.3 per cent.

We don’t argue the economic reasons for these declines. The meat export business is vastly more vulnerable to trade disruptions and market fluctuations than commodity crops.

Predictably, the land devoted to tame hay and alfalfa decreased by 14 per cent. Pasture lands are down by four per cent. Woodlands and wetlands decreased by 8.8 per cent.

There is some good news. Summerfallow is sharply reduced, down 40.5 per cent since 2006. For the first time with this census, no-till practices accounted for more than half of all area prepared for seeding across the country, a shift created by a 23.8 per cent increase in the area seeded under notill. That’s a positive trend. But is having half the land protected good enough?

We need to keep livestock in the equation. Livestock plays an important nutrient recycling function, but beyond that, history has shown converting land that should be in forage to crops is courting environmental disaster.

Short-term economics and budget-balancing exercises aside, we ignore these realities at our peril.

About the author

Vice-President of Content

Laura Rance

Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at [email protected]

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