Farmers take stock of new markets
The face of agriculture is changing as traditional family farms in demise
By JILL MAHONEY
Thursday, May 16, 2002  Print Edition, Page A1


Like his ancestors who built the homestead he now tends, Grant Rigby is a pioneer in a brave new world of farming. Although he still grows typical Prairie grains, he jumped into the raspberry market 15 years ago and has made a name for Rigby Orchards as a producer of fine raspberry wine. Eager to partly reinvent himself again, the 46-year-old farmer is now going organic. "I like the challenge because I have to figure out how to farm again instead of merely reading the advertisements in the farm magazines," he said yesterday from his 110-year-old farm near Killarney in southwestern Manitoba.

On farmsteads across Canada, many producers are adapting to the ever-changing marketplace by turning away from traditional crops and livestock. The result, outlined in yesterday's release of the 2001 Census of Agriculture by Statistics Canada, is a patchwork quilt of old-fashioned and newfangled, successful and failing.

One theme is constant: The number of farms is dropping, continuing a long-term trend of the collapse of the family farm and a rise in large-scale operations. Although weather, prices and farmers' choice of product vary immensely, the data give rise to clear regional trends.

British Columbia still tops Canada for tree fruit, berry and nut farms, but they now account for a smaller share of the province's total number of farms than in 1996, when the last census was taken, while cattle farms are on the rise.

B.C. producers have embraced ginseng, and grew 50 per cent more in 2001, which accounts for 36 per cent of the country's crop. The land area devoted to grapes doubled, greenhouse area grew by 60 per cent and the number of meat chickens increased by 45 per cent.

Prairie farmers are moving away from traditional wheat in favour of hay, durum wheat, oilseeds and pulse crops such as lentils, soybeans and dry field peas. The shift represents farmers' business acumen: Many alternative crops have lower input costs or increase farmers' per-hectare revenues, answer the demands of the growing cattle sector and grow better in dry or wet weather conditions. "People are trying whatever works," said Denise Treslan, executive director of the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association, who has long farmed grains and oilseeds in Saskatchewan, but has recently branched out into coriander.

Alberta still has the most beef cows in Canada, but its barns now have more pigs and sheep. As well, there has been a threefold increase in the numbers of bison, llamas and alpacas.

In Saskatchewan, the number of hectares used to grow dry field peas and lentils more than doubled between 1996 and 2001. The province took honours for having the highest number of organic farms, with more than one-third of the Canadian total.

"The predominant product that's being produced [nationally] is field crops, rather than fruits and vegetables," said Lynda Kemp, a senior Statscan census analyst, noting the agency measured organic farming for the first time in 2001.

In Manitoba, the number of hectares used to grow soybeans and white beans has soared. Farmers are also jumping into the hog, sheep, bison, goat, llama and maple syrup industries.

Ontario dominates Canada's soybean market, with 84 per cent of total cropland, and also leads in grain corn, with 62 per cent of the total area. The tally of pigs has jumped by 22 per cent, and hens and chickens have increased by 23 per cent. Sheep and lamb -- which are up in all provinces -- have skyrocketed by 46 per cent. The province also has nearly half of Canada's total area of greenhouses.

Quebec remains Canada's top pig producer, with a 24-per-cent increase in the number between 1996 and 2001. The province surged ahead in deer farming, jumping from being the fifth-largest producer in 1996 to the largest in 2001. The total number of hectares devoted to corn for grain increased by 31 per cent, the area devoted to soybeans grew by 53 per cent and sheep farming jumped by 68 per cent.

Nova Scotia, Canada's largest blueberry producer, grew 23 per cent more blueberries than it did in 1996. The province experienced an increase in its total fruit-growing area, but the number of hectares producing apples dropped. Christmas-tree area also declined.

In New Brunswick, fruit growing -- especially blueberries -- prospered, increasing by 30 per cent in terms of total hectares in use. The pig herd expanded by 84 per cent and the number of sheep grew by 32 per cent.

Prince Edward Island still has Canada's largest potato-growing area, but the number of potato farms dropped by 28 per cent, and 1 per cent less land was cultivated compared to the 1996 census.

Newfoundland and Labrador, with just 643 farms in 2001, is dominated by vegetable and greenhouse operations.

Economic Straits