Take a stroll down any rural road in Waterloo Region and it’s clear that farming is thriving.
A recent Agriculture Research Project Report by the Workforce Planning Board of Waterloo Wellington Dufferin shows Woolwich and Wellesley townships both experiencing significant growth in farm employment.
Woolwich saw a 36.2 per cent increase in farm jobs from 2008 to 2014, while Wellesley’s rose by 46.2 per cent in the same timeframe.
The planning board’s executive director Carol Simpson says they’ve been doing some work on the agriculture sector for a number of years and noticed a shift in the number of businesses and the types of businesses in agriculture.
Using Statistics Canada data, voluntary surveys, and conversations with local industry experts, they discovered how the sector has changed, and how those changes differ from provincial trends.
“Certainly from Woolwich’s perspective, there’s a bit of a shift away from animal combination farming, which generally means they do pork and dairy. So maybe they specialize, one decides to go dairy versus pork. It seems to be a little bit more specialized you could say. They’re certainly bucking the trend in things like beef and dairy, where we’re seeing a fair amount of growth in the number of businesses,” Simpson said.
She says it would be interesting to look at the breakdown of some of those businesses and where there are new opportunities opening up to support any new markets. For example, Woolwich has seen an increase in sheep and goat farms. From 2012 to 2014 they added five new sheep farms and four new goat farms, while there were 70 fewer animal combination farms.
“A lot of people living here are from the Middle East and the Caribbean. Those are much more important to that demographic than say beef would be. You’ve got that shift in demographic and people taking advantage of that,” Simpson said.
Wellesley’s data isn’t as promising. The report indicates 175 animal combination farms disappeared from 2012 to 2014, along with 72 dairy cattle and milk production farms and dozens of feedlots, pig farms, and crop farms, for a total loss of 369 farms.
But that might not tell the whole story.
“The numbers were quite dramatic to say the least for Wellesley. Some of the people I spoke to felt that it was because of the large Mennonite population because maybe they’re passing off farms or not reporting those kinds of things. I still think it warrants a bit more detail and in-depth research into that,” Simpson said.
She says it could also be affected by people who stop farming and amalgamate with their son or daughter’s farm next door. So while the actual number of businesses is declining it doesn’t mean that land’s not being farmed.
Geoff VanderBaaren, Wellesley Township’s director of planning, agrees the numbers don’t paint an accurate portrait of the township.
“It’s hard to reconcile the numbers because what we have seen from our building permits is that farmers are certainly building new barns, they’re improving their farm facilities, so why the report is showing a drop in farms and farm employees, I don’t have a definitive answer for that,” VanderBaaren said.
He says it’s true that Mennonite farmers may not have answered the survey and the township isn’t experiencing a dramatic reduction in farms.
“We certainly are seeing growth on farms, in terms of farmers adding more livestock buildings, barns. They are doing improvements to their farms. They’re certainly still actively farming. We’re not seeing a lot of farm consolidations, like you might in other municipalities, where there are some larger farmers,” VanderBaaren said.
The workforce planning board gathered the data from senior levels of government, provincial data and national data and township staff had an opportunity to review a draft of the report and provide any comments, he adds. They’ll review the report and see if there’s anything they need to change in their planning documents to facilitate growth in farming.
“I think it’s a good snapshot of where agriculture is heading in terms of you’re getting more diversification in farming, as you see there’s more sheep farmers for instance and there’s more goat farmers and there’s more of that specialized agriculture, like they note in the report about people growing specialized crops now. I think that’s a trend that we will see going forward,” Simpson said.
For all of Waterloo Region there were 316 fewer agricultural businesses when comparing 2012 to 2014. Dairy cattle and milk production farms saw the largest hit. The region also added 18 soybean farms, seven of which are in Woolwich. Woolwich also added 36 beef cattle ranching and farming, including feedlot farms, and 23 dairy cattle and milk production businesses.
Simpson notes they’re seeing across the region more young people getting into agriculture, specifically sheep and goat farming for products like artisanal cheese and wool. There’s also a lot of demand for specialty advisors, like a green advisor or a sales advisor – people who can help farmers tap into the Toronto market or sell their goods online.
“It’s exciting to see because people look at the manufacturing sector or the construction sector and how technology is changing how that industry works. But there hasn’t been a lot of attention paid to how that technology is impacting the agriculture sector,” Simpson said.
The full report can be found below or at www.workforceplanningboard.com.
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