Reaping what we sow — major shifts continue in Canadian agriculture

Tim Lougheed
August 31, 2022

Canada has less farmland than it did in 2016, but the amount of land dedicated to crops has increased during this same period.

That seemingly counterintuitive result is among the findings from Statistics Canada’s 2021 Census of Agriculture, which was released in stages during May and June. At the end of July, the non-profit Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute (CAPI) mounted a webinar to discuss the implications of the latest additions to the Census database.

“Changing land use, even if you can’t see it, is having an impact on sustainability issues within Canada,” said Ellen Goddard, a professor in the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Agricultural, Life, and Environmental Sciences and one of three panelists commenting on the Census.

She said more farmers are now planting crops on what had been pasture and grass lands, a conversion that explains how the area occupied by crops could increase even as farms overall occupy less land. This move also reflects a decision by farm operators to maximize the return on their acreage by farming more of it.

Al Mussell, CAPI’s director of research, added that this conversion could be driven by another Census finding — the increasing value of farm land. The growing demand for commodities such as canola makes it highly attractive to raise as much of these crops as possible.

These might qualify as rational business decisions, but both speakers warned that the outcome would negatively affect the biodiversity supported by formerly uncultivated land. In addition to the lost habitat for bird or insect life in any given region, converted grasslands no longer retain carbon, which works against efforts to address climate change. At the same time, the Census showed a growing dependence on irrigation in some parts of the country, which Goddard took as a worrying sign that climate change should not be ignored.

“We’d better be doing some of those Living Labs in Alberta to make sure that we’re handling the right water pricing and access, to make sure we’re prepared on that front,” she said. “Because we have so many lakes and rivers around, we underestimate the impact it will have on agriculture as we get successively drier and hotter in the future.”

The Census of Agriculture also revealed an ongoing consolidation within this sector of the economy. Sébastien Larochelle-Côté, StatsCan’s assistant director of Social, Health, and Labour Statistics, explained that the number of paid employees on farms declined by 13.7 percent from 2016 to 2021. At the same time, some two-thirds of people working in agriculture are on farms with at least $1 million in revenue, a 47 percent increase since 2016.

Mussell responded that such shifts are fundamentally altering the character of this sector.

“One of the things that we take for granted is agriculture as a community, a commonality of interests,” he explained. “I worry that over time, the way we’re evolving, this is fragmenting. We’re in a position where, as a matter of fact, the production of farm products is in a relatively small number of hands. But, moreover, we have this dichotomy between a relatively small number of farms accounting for a very high proportion of farm sales, yet most of the farms are very small farms. What’s disappearing is what’s in between.”

He added that this loss would also be reflected in a growing inability of younger farmers to move into this business, since there will be fewer smaller properties available for them to acquire at the beginning of their careers. The Census indicated that the average age of Canadians in farming has been steadily increasing, with more than two-thirds of them now older than 55. Goddard pointed to the fact that while the stereotypical farm operator is a single person — often typecast as a white male in overalls — the growing size of agricultural operations means they function more like major business enterprises.

“They’re not really managed by one person anymore,” she said. “We need to find a way of describing the management team a little more broadly and that might pick up a little more diversity in who’s managing our farms.”

Larochelle-Côté also noted that agriculture was among the industries that experienced the fastest growth during the pandemic, which included a 15 percent increase in farm cash receipts in 2021. According to Goddard, much of this increase took the form of direct sales by farmers to consumers, as opposed to the usual channels of grocery stores or restaurants. She speculated that these buying habits may continue even as the rest of the economy recovers from pandemic restrictions.

“Food is a very personal thing, so we often have personal relationships develop,” she said. “When people are looking for local suppliers, they have a tendency to know who those people are. And once you develop a personal relationship, you often don’t give that up, even if it becomes slightly inconvenient in the future.”

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