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Emptying rural Canada

“How far do you go forward?”

– Bert Hall

Bert Hall remembers when you only had to walk half a mile in any direction to be on a neighbour’s farm.

The countryside was full of people when Hall, 88, was a boy growing up on a farm northeast of Manitou, Man. The first national census of agriculture in 1931 showed that nearly 3.3 million Canadians – 31.7 per cent of the population, or nearly one in every three citizens – lived on a farm.

Contrast that with today. According to figures released last week by Statistics Canada, only 684,260 people lived on farms in 2006, representing just 2.2 per cent of the population. From one out of three Canadians living on a farm in the early 1930s, the ratio today is one out of every 46.

The emptying of rural Canada in less than a lifetime represents the greatest demographic shift in this country’s history.

The farm population in Canada peaked somewhere around 1936 and has been falling ever since. The Depression and the Dust Bowl may have kick-started the decline. But increasing urbanization following the Second World War propelled it.

Between the census years of 1956 and 1961, Canada lost over 94,000 farms, a 16.4 per cent decline. The long-term decline continues today, with the farm population falling 6.2 per cent between 2001 and 2006.

Perhaps most worrisome is the fact that there appears to be no way of reversing the decline. Immigrants, who represent a growing share of Canada’s overall population, are avoiding the farm.

Statistics Canada reported that between 1971 and 2006, the share of immigrants in the general population rose from 15.3 per cent to 19.8 per cent. But the proportion of immigrants in the farm population fell from 8.5 per cent to 6.9 per cent (47,155 people). The majority were born in the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States. Nearly 40 per cent of them came over before 1966.

Older and poorer

The 2006 agricultural census reveals other trends, too. Besides becoming fewer in number, farmers are also getting older and poorer than the general population.

Of Canada’s 327,055 farm operators, 40.7 per cent were 55 or older. The median age of all farm operators was 51, compared to 41.2 years of age in the overall work force.

The median total income for families on unincorporated farms was $56,412. The median income for families in the general population was $63,846.

Not only did farm families

earn less than other families, they also got only a fraction of their income from actual farming. Wages and salaries (read: off-farm income) made up 62.2 per cent of total income received, followed by income from government (10.6 per cent) and investment income (7.1 per cent). Only 6.3 per cent of money earned represented net farm income.

Although nostalgic for the days when farmers were surrounded by other people, Hall, who began farming in 1946, admits he wouldn’t go back to the way it was, especially before the war. He recalls plowing behind a team of seven horses. He also remembers farm homes with no electricity, water or plumbing. Many farmers by today’s standards were very poor, eking out a mere subsistence living.

But how far do you take progress? Hall recently met a person who farms 34 quarters of land outside Regina. That’s one producer alone in the land where several dozen families used to live.

“I wouldn’t want to go back,” he said. “But how far do you go forward?”

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