Small farms fading away, Statistics Canada says
Statscan census shows that agriculture is thriving in Canada, even if Canadian farmers aren't
By Patrick Brethour
Thursday, May 16, 2002  Print Edition, Page A7

CALGARY -- Canada's small family farm, for generations the mainstay of agriculture, is rapidly disappearing as mega-farms and organic operations sprout up, says the latest census from Statistics Canada. According to the agricultural census released yesterday, more than one out of every 10 Canadian farms shut down between 1996 and 2001 -- nearly seven times more than in the previous five years.

And all of the vanished farms were small operations, with less than $250,000 in annual revenue. After paying for seed, fertilizer and other expenses, a farming family would be left with less than $50,000. Years of drought and falling commodity prices have dried up profits for farmers in the West, and rising day-to-day expenses have tightened the squeeze further.

Shannon Story and Brian Gamble were one of thousands of families who have given up their farm since 1995, having lost money in three of the past five years. Ms. Story said she had been farming since marrying Mr. Gamble in 1990. But when her husband left their 480-hectare (1,200-acre) operation west of Saskatoon, he was forced to abandon a decades-long history of farming in his family that survived the Dirty Thirties. "They got through the Depression, but we didn't get through this," said Ms. Storey, who currently works at the University of Saskatchewan. Her husband now drives a truck

As smaller farmers walk away from their fields, the average size of Canadian farms has grown substantially, now sitting at a record high of 270.4 hectares, from 243.2 hectares in the 1996 census. A century ago, the average farm was just 49.6 hectares. Similarly, farming corporations not owned by families have increased in number since 1991, even as all other kinds of farms decreased by 12 per cent. Yet the Statscan census also shows that agriculture is thriving in Canada, even if Canadian farmers aren't.

"Farms are getting bigger, and they're producing more," said Steven Danford, senior analyst for the 2001 Census of Agriculture at Statscan. The number of cattle is at record levels, as is that of other livestock such as chickens and hogs. And the number of hectares under cultivation rose to 35.96 million between 1995 and 2000. Mr. Danford said farmers are facing much the same choice as other areas of the economy: get a lot bigger and turn a profit from volume, or focus on a smaller niche with higher-quality production, such as organic foods.

Some family farms are adapting by growing larger, noted Robert Wilson, academic vice-president at Olds College, an agricultural postsecondary institution north of Calgary. And he said farmers raising livestock don't face the same kind of price pressure that grain growers do, explaining the substantial rise in the number of cattle, hogs and chickens since 1996.

Statscan said there were 2,230 certified organic producers in Canada in 2000, the first time it has measured the niche sector. Stewart Wells, president of the National Farmers Union, said he made the jump to organic production in 1999 to alleviate the pain of falling commodity prices in a liberalized trade environment. But Mr. Wells said farmers also need help from the federal government, including a restoration of rules that allowed producers to average out good years with bad when calculating tax bills.

Without such changes, he said, smaller farmers will be unable to ride out bad weather and cyclical downturns. The 48-year-old said 2001 was his worst year in his 30 years as a farmer -- but that looming drought could mean this season is even more miserable. "It was a terrible year, and this one is turning out to be worse," he said. Prince Edward Island saw the largest decrease in farms, at 16.8 per cent. The smallest decline was in British Columbia, at 7.1 per cent.

The changing face of agriculture

The number of farms in Canada has been falling for the past five decades. Since 1996, it has fallen by 10.7%, reflecting the rapid changes in technology and increasing productivity.

Family downturn

Percentage change in industrial and family farms, 1991-2001:

Industrialized farms...+2.9%

Family farms...............-12%

 

Who's organic?

Out of Canada's 246,923 farms, one per cent are considered to be organic.* A regional breakdown:

Atlan........74

Que.......372

Ont........405

Man.........90

Sask......773

Alta........197

B.C........319

* Organic farming is where farmers who report that at least some of the products on their operation were certified organic.

 

Who's up, who's down

Includes farms with gross farm receipts of $2,500 or more

.................% change.....1996-2001

Dairy.....................................-23.9%

Cattle (beef)..............................+0.4

Hog...........................................-11.3

Poultry and egg.......................-9.1

Wheat.......................................-48.4

Grain and oilseed

(except wheat)...........................+2.1

Field crop

(except grain, oilseed)..............+6.4

Fruit.............................................-7.7

Vegetable................................-19.9

Miscellaneous speciality.......-1.4

Livestock combination........-19.7

Other combination..................-6.7

ALL FARM TYPES..............- 8.9%

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