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Editor’s Take: Riding the tide

Will the farm of tomorrow be larger than the farm of today?

Most farmers and people familiar with the industry would likely answer that question with a resounding ‘yes.’

After all, it’s been the pattern we’ve all observed for decades. Since the end of the Second World War, we’ve seen farm size grow, farm numbers fall, and farm margins grow ever tighter.

Today, the prevailing wisdom goes, it’s all but impossible to become a farmer unless you were born one, although there are notable exceptions: farm operations that have started without the benefits of ancestry. The massive amount of startup capital required, the low rates of return, both seem to guarantee that farms will continue this trend. There will be very few new farmers, it would seem, unless they’re the proverbial lottery winners who intend to farm until their millions are gone.

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It is whether this trend is inevitable that’s the subject of a new report issued by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

This primarily urban group, with input from author and former National Farmers Union researcher Darrin Qualman, have correctly identified the trends, and some of the issues surrounding them, as Allan Dawson reports in our front-page article of the Dec. 3 issue of the Co-operator.

Farm numbers have been falling since roughly the start of the Second World War, as farm size has climbed. In Manitoba, farm numbers peaked in 1941, at 58,024, and an average size of 291 acres. By 1966 there were just 39,747 farmers in the Keystone province. By 2016 that figure had fallen to 14,791 — but the average farm size was 1,193 acres.

There’s no arguing with the numbers. A lot of farms and farm families have disappeared from rural Manitoba. But the farms that remain are very productive, and they’ve grown into their current form shaped by the market, economic and natural forces they’re subjected to season after season.

There have certainly been attempts to halt these trends, such as the Manitoba and Saskatchewan land banks, neither of which were ultimately successful.

As agriculture economist Derek Brewin, of the University of Manitoba, told Dawson in the article, not even supply management has had a significant slowing effect. Those farmers are all but guaranteed their margins, yet even they inexorably — and seemingly unstoppably — grow larger.

The report argues for different public policy to address this issue. Proposals include imposing limits on how much farmland one entity can own, modifying farm support programs and tax law to offset market forces and developing land access programs for “young and new” farmers and “redirecting research away from industrial models toward organic production, small scale, diversified, agroecological, local production, and similar approaches and generally restructuring Canadian agricultural policy toward a focus on maintaining the maximum number of farmers… “

While one can understand the motives of the authors of the report, it’s hard to see how practical these recommendations will be.

It all comes back to that undeniable fact that farms are the ‘shape’ they are because of the forces that shape them.

Labour shortages will continue to push for more mechanization, and ultimately automation. Slim margins will continue to push for greater economies of scale. And as the wired farm begins to become a reality, there’s likely to be even more incentive for farms to grow larger, in an effort to spread those costs over the most acres possible.

And while small-scale local food might make for great headlines and photo ops, it’s simply not the economic model for most of Canada’s farm sector. As Brewin points out, Manitoba could likely feed its entire population on one per cent of its farmland.

Throw in the massive acreage — and relatively low population — of Alberta and Saskatchewan into the mix, and it quickly becomes apparent that our historic role as one of the world’s great breadbaskets remains fundamentally unchanged since the first European settler pulled a plow through the virgin sod of the Red River Valley.

The farms of tomorrow can — and almost certainly will — continue to improve. Many farmers — especially younger farmers — have a growing interest in issues like soil health, regenerative agriculture and other natural systems.

But to suggest that these techniques will only be exercised on the half-section farm of yesterday is unlikely to be how it plays out.

Far more likely is that new information tools are married to these biological philosophies for better results on an even larger scale, over time. And to try to halt that process seems, on the face of it, to be a very difficult problem. Not even the greatest market interventions of the past decade have managed it.

It would be a mistake, to paraphrase U.S. political pundit William F. Buckley to ‘stand astride history, shouting stop.’

About the author

Editor

Gord Gilmour

Gord Gilmour is Editor of the Manitoba Co-operator.

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