The statistical portrait

So the federal government wants to get out of community pasture management and producing shelterbelt trees. Fair enough.

There’s nothing saying those pastures can’t continue under local management or that trees can’t be produced by private nurseries. Manitoba already has two locally managed community pastures, which appear to be functioning well.

And judging from the bulldozed piles of shelterbelts scattered across the province, there isn’t much desire for trees on the land anyway.

But it’s entirely consistent with the statistical story laid out by the latest Statistics Canada 2011 Census of Agriculture.

The 2011 federal budget, which essentially turns out the lights on the once mighty Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration, combined with the latest snapshot on Canadian agriculture exposes some troubling trends on the landscape, trends which may fit the short-term economics driving them, but which don’t respect the lessons previous generations of farmers learned the hard way.

Farmers are becoming fewer and older while their farms are getting larger. Hence the lack of patience for working around shelterbelts.

Between 2006 and 2011, Manitoba saw the sharpest decline in the number of farms in the country and is next only to Saskatchewan in the percentage that farm sizes increased.

The average farm size in Manitoba as of the 2011 census was 1,135 acres, an increase of 13.4 per cent. But of course, in order for some farms to grow, others must disappear, which is exactly what they are doing: 16.7 per cent over the past five years.

The only farm categories in Canada that are growing are the three largest, starting at $500,000 in gross sales to $2 million and over. As can be expected, those farms make up a smaller proportion of the total, but they bring in the most revenue. Of the shrinking smaller categories, the mid-size farms are disappearing the fastest.

But even though more farms are achieving what is now considered an economic scale, the sector is still unable to attract replacement entrepreneurs. The 2011 Census of Agriculture marks the first time the 55-and-over age category represented the highest percentage of total operators.

In 2011, 48.3 per cent of operators were aged 55 or over, compared to 40.7 per cent in 2006. “By contrast, the Labour Force Survey reported that in May 2011, 15.4 per cent of those self-employed in the total labour force were aged 55 years or older,” Statistics Canada says.

Less than 10 per cent of farmers in Canada are under the age of 35 and that proportion is declining.

Some argue that farming is a complicated business that requires years of experience to achieve the necessary scale, but is also clear that with the small to medium-size farms being squeezed out, there will be fewer opportunities for young farmers to grow into the business.

Also notable is the decline of livestock in Canadian agriculture. In 2006, oilseed and grain farms accounted for 26.9 per cent of all farms, while beef farmers accounted for 26.6 per cent. In this latest census, oilseed and grain farms had increased to 30 per cent, while beef had declined to 18.2 per cent.

The number of beef cattle reported for breeding purposes decreased by 22.3 per cent since 2006. The number of farms reporting breeding stock decreased by 25.3 per cent.

We don’t argue the economic reasons for these declines. The meat export business is vastly more vulnerable to trade disruptions and market fluctuations than commodity crops.

Predictably, the land devoted to tame hay and alfalfa decreased by 14 per cent. Pasture lands, the closest thing to natural prairie we have left, are down by four per cent. Woodlands and wetlands decreased by 8.8 per cent.

There is some good news. For the first time with this census, no-till practices, which are less ecologically disruptive, accounted for more than half of all area prepared for seeding across the country, a shift that was caused by a 23.8 per cent increase in the area of land seeded using no-till practices. Overall, 17.1 per cent more farms reported using no-till practices than in 2006. But is having half the land protected good enough?

Another positive is sharply reduced summerfallow, down 40.5 per cent since 2006.

We don’t doubt the economic forces prompting these shifts away from livestock to crop production. But we do question their sustainability.

Livestock plays an important nutrient recycling function in agriculture. Beyond that, land sown to forage is protected from erosion, and typically it is land that is highly vulnerable. Short-term economics and budget balancing exercises aside, we can’t afford to ignore these realities.

About the author

Vice-President of Content

Laura Rance

Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at [email protected]

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