How much land do you farm? For some reason, it’s socially acceptable to ask a farmer this question.
Asking a business person a comparable question about financial capacity or asking a person on a salary or wage about their income level might seem like prying into a personal matter. But, as farmers we tend to wear the size of our operation on our sleeve.
Whenever you tell someone that you’re a farmer, often as not the followup question is about the number of acres. And most producers will give a straightforward answer without batting an eye.
On the Prairies, 1,000 seeded acres has become a small farm, while in Ontario it’s still a sizable holding. Each acre grows more grain in Ontario and the value of land is also much higher.
There’s also a difference in farm sizes within Saskatchewan. For instance, farms tend to be larger in the southwest as compared to the east-central region.
In general here in Saskatchewan, if your farm is in the 1,000-acre range, you’re probably at the beginning or nearing the end of your farming career. Either that or you’re farming part time, while running another business or working at a separate job.
Typical grain farm operations in Saskatchewan are now somewhere between 2,000 and 5,000 acres. Off-farm income may still play a role, but the farm’s expenses and gross returns are large relative to most off-farm paycheques.
Increasingly, there are operations with 10,000 or even 20,000 acres. On large farms, it’s more likely that a significant percentage of the acres are rented rather than owned. In fact, the majority of land is sometimes rented.
Farms that are smaller or larger than the typical size range tend to elicit some predictable reactions.
If you have a small farm, you are often dismissed by the general public and fellow farmers. You’re viewed as a hobby farmer or someone who isn’t a serious player in the industry.
Large farms run into a different mentality. Large farms mean fewer farmers, so some will consider you a liability to the rural lifestyle. And there’s the element of jealousy. Some within society hate any business that’s large.
The largest farms in Saskatchewan are nowhere near the scale of the agribusinesses that sell farm inputs and market grain. Somehow, it’s all right for all other businesses to grow larger, but some people want farms to remain quaint.
Personally, I have no difficulty with large farms, but I don’t appreciate the big farmer attitude you sometimes encounter. While most of the proprietors of large operations are just regular down-to-earth folks, a few think they should be treated like royalty.
What’s the future of small-to mid-size grain operations? Will they be able to compete or will they fade away, gobbled up by the large players?
Certainly the trend is towards larger farms, but it appears there will be a healthy mix of all size categories for the foreseeable future.
Lots of people love to farm. They’ll work off-farm to make it happen. They’ll start small in the hope of building up their operation. They’ll continue to farm past normal retirement. They’ll partner with family members or neighbours to make it work.
If all farms were small, the industry wouldn’t be sustainable. If all farms were large, the rural landscape would look a lot different. Having all sizes and configurations makes for a healthier industry.
Kevin Hursh is a professional agrologist and farmer based in
Saskatoon. He can be reached at [email protected]