by BETTER FARMING STAFF
The newest farm census makes a case for two different approaches to farm policy, one for big farms and one for smaller farms, says George Morris Centre researcher Al Mussell.
According to 2011 census figures released this week, five per cent of all farms in Canada in 2010, 9,602, earned more than $1 million in gross farm receipts, a 31 per cent increase from five years previously. Those $1 million grossing farms generated 49 per cent of the sector’s gross farm receipts. The high earning farms were more likely to be incorporated and family owned. Farm and farm operator numbers are continuing to shrink and a greater share of the sector’s gross farm receipts are being generated by a few high-income operations. (The number of farms grossing more than $2 million also increased by 22 per cent.)
“If you take those numbers seriously, we should realize that while we have quite a number of farms, in practice, the bulk of the production of farm products is really in relatively few hands,” says Mussell. That reality, he says, is not the view that’s taken when policy discussions take place. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about safety nets, regulatory or various services that are provided to farmers - it’s one size fits all,” he says of policy development.
Mussell allows that trying to create two different sets of policies would be extremely “challenging. You’d worry about there being a stigma being attached.”
The census indicates oilseed and grain farms accounted for 30 per cent of all farm types in Canada in 2011 compared to 27 per cent in 2006. Beef farms dropped to 18 per cent of all farms in 2011 from 27 per cent in 2006.
Mark Wales, president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, says struggles with diseases like BSE and HINI in the livestock and poultry sectors, the many challenges that have faced the hog sector and a rise in grains and oilseeds prices are likely behind the shift the census noted to field crops and away from livestock.
Wales says data about paid labour – collected in the census for the first time - is accurate but does not reflect arrangements where family members work on the farm for a share of the proceeds. It’s difficult to collect that data, he adds, because there would be so many different types of arrangement. The census indicates 34 per cent of Canadian farms reported the use of paid labour.
Lorne Small, president of the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario, calls the 10 per cent drop in overall farm numbers between 2006 and 2011 “perhaps healthy.”
“You’re seeing the baby boomers slowly retiring,” he says, while referring to a 1968 Ontario agriculture and food department study that indicated there were too many farmers involved for the production generated at that time. Consolidation is happening throughout all industries, Small says. “If we want to be competitive in the world economy we have to improve our productivity.”
The census reveals Internet access remains difficult: less than half of Canadian farms report access to a high-speed service. However, the number of farmers using the Internet grew to nearly 56 per cent in 2011 from 35 per cent in 2006. Wales says more farmers use it for tracking down equipment, fertilizer, chemicals and other inputs as well as obtaining weather reports and using GPS systems in the field.
Wales would like to see the census measure the adoption of new technology on farms and vacancies in agricultural employment. He sits on the Canadian Agriculture Human Resource Sector Council and estimates there are about 30,000 jobs in agriculture available across the country.
In an email, Ann Slater, Ontario coordinator for the National Farmers Union takes note of the reduction in livestock operations and of the growing size of Ontario’s farms (Ontario’s average farm size in 2011 was 244 acres, a nearly five per cent increase in size over 2006). She connects growing farm sizes with the rise in farmers’ average age, noting fewer farms leave “fewer opportunities for new farmers to start into agriculture.” The census indicates the average age of farm operators in Ontario is now nearly 55 years, a jump of about two years compared to 2006 and slightly higher than the national average.
Slater calls the nearly 26,000 acre decrease in total area of vegetables grown in Ontario fields “disappointing” in light of consumers' growing interest in local food. The decrease “is directly related to the loss of processing capacity,” she states, adding that the opportunities for farmers to supply “Ontario consumers with Ontario food” have also disappeared.
She notes that organic farm numbers are small but growing in Ontario. BF