Friday, May 11, 2012

Stats Canada shows we are heading the wrong direction with Agriculture

This small farm no longer exists but Stats Canada figures won't tell you why.

Every newspaper in Canada today includes a small and unremarkable article tucked away in the national news section, announcing new figures on the nation's farms and farmers. The data comes from the latest Stats Canada figures, which were released yesterday.

We yawn and turn the page, but, given that this is about the way we feed ourselves and treat our land base in the process, we should be choking on our corn flakes at some of the alarming numbers.

How's this one? Across Canada the number of farms dropped by 10.3% from 2006 to 2011. In the last five crop seasons, we lost 23,643 farms!! In Saskatchewan, where we like to lead the way in agricultural dysfunction, the figures are much worse. The total number of Sask. farms dropped by 16.6% during that five year period. We lost almost eight thousand farms by going from 44,329 farms down to 36,952.

Not to worry, though. That loss of farmers and farms was compensated for by big farmers getting even bigger. The average size of a Canadian farm increased 6.9% from 728 acres to 778 acres. In Saskatchewan, once again leading the nation in the move to big ag, the average farm size increased 15.1% to 1,668 acres, which represents the largest increase in the country.

Sifting through the data for a silver lining, I couldn't find much, other than a modest increase in the percentage of Canadian farms that are organic. That figure rose from 1.5% of all farms in 2006 to 1.8% in 2011.

Saskatchewan, however, did its best to knock that number down a notch by actually losing 14.6 per cent of its organic operations since 2006. In the last five years, we have lost more than 1,100 organic operations, because they shut down, left the province or turned back to conventional farming.

No surprise that the number of beef farms in Canada declined sharply while farms growing oilseed and grains increased.

That shift away from pasture agriculture to cropped agriculture is of course bad news for biodiversity, but what about the rest of land use on Canadian farms? How has that changed since 2006? Stats Canada breaks it down into cropland, pasture land, woodland and wetland, and other. "Pasture land" and "woodland and wetland", the categories that allow wildlife to co-exist, both declined. The amount of woodland and wetland on Canada's farms declined by 8.8% in the five year window.

Still on the subject of land use, no-till practices accounted for more than half of all area prepared for seeding across the country. This shift was the result of a 23.8% increase in the area of land seeded using no-till practices. Overall, 17.1% more farms reported using this practice than in 2006. No-till does conserve soil and soil moisture, but it requires a level of chemical use and a scale of equipment that expunges habitat on and around cropland, turning farms into industrial food factories.

This is the kind of rig that makes it uneconomical to leave sloughs, bush, or scraps of pasture on farmland

There are two sets of figures that are missing from the report, even though they represent two primary forces driving all of the other changes. One is the level of hydrocarbon input on the average Canadian farm and the other figure conspicuously absent is the per-unit price of produce when it leaves Canadian farms.

Since the late 1940's, these two trends--the first rising sharply and the other declining--have been driving farmers out of business, consolidating small family farms into massive agribusiness enterprises, and turning on-farm wildlife habitat into a liability.

Nonetheless, these figures released by Stats Canada should wake us up to what is really happening on the public trust of our nation's farms. If we look at these figures with hearts that care about what happens to farmers and to farm community, about the quality of our food and the wellbeing of the native plants and animals who try to survive on Canadian farmland, we will see that we must start heading the other direction.

We must start paying food growers prices per unit that reflect the costs of growing food in ways that are healthy for people and wildness, and we must help farmers to reduce their dependency on hydrocarbons, whether it is to cultivate the land, handle pests, or deliver the goods to market.

To help that happen, we not only have to start meeting the people who grow our food and doing our best to buy local and support more sustainable farm practices. We must at the same time become vocal activists in the political sphere--voting, running for office, protesting and exposing big ag wherever it damages ecology and human community, and talking to one another about the choices we make both in our families and in our corporations and governments.

Tomorrow is Saturday. If you have a chance, get out to your local farmer's market, and buy something healthy for your family, the farmer who harvested it, and the land that grew it.


  1. Nettie Wiebe once told a gathering in which I was present that she witnessed the retiring CEO of a big farm implement manufacturing firm apologizing during his farewell speech for introducing the 4-wheel drive tractor to Canadian prairie farming.

    Why? Environmental destruction. This machine and the rigs it can pull are the ones for which all the sloughs are being dried and the wind breaks being cut down, etc etc etc. It was quite a powerful experience hearing that.

  2. Thanks Pete--that is a powerful story. Once a technology is let out of the box there seems to be no way to put it back again no matter what we learn about its effects on us.

  3. Hi Trevor
    I couldn’t agree more with your blog. As grain prices have been really good we see huge tracts of lands completely clear cut, all the bush stockpiled and burnt in order to make the lands suitable for grain farming. I am not opposed to grain farmers expanding however I would love to see that a certain amount of “nature” is left as wildlife corridors, edges and ditches are left wide enough to create some “green” space around fields. These corridors and green areas will help maintain some biodiversity, safe corridors for wildlife to move through and provide some protection again erosion and wind damage.


  4. All very well put, Louise. Thanks you. Always good to hear from someone who is out there on the land trying to make a living growing things.


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