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Big farms – and small farms – are growing

Agricultural census watchers have seen farm numbers dwindle ever since the 1940s. They fell from almost 247,000 in 2001 to about 193,500 in 2016, when the last census was taken (it’s taken every five years).

It was alarming to see the country lose more than 50,000 farms in just 15 years.

Meanwhile, big farms were growing. Their numbers escalated from 6,155 farms in 2001 to almost 9,100 in 2016.

Statistics Canada tried to explain that farms had become increasingly sophisticated businesses and had grown to scale.

Then last week, results of the 2021 agricultural census were released. Immediately, we were warned by the department that “comparisons with earlier census results should be interpreted with caution,” because it redefined what constitutes a farm.

Before 2021, a farm was considered an agricultural operation that produced at least one agricultural product intended for sale.

Now, a “farm” or “agricultural building” is a “unit” that produces agricultural products and reports revenues and expenses for tax purposes.

And although this makes comparisons to the past questionable, it does point to trends.

For example, overall farm numbers have dropped again, this time by about 3,500 farms in five years.

Canada is down to just under 190,000 farms of all types.

But big farms – the ones that do indeed report revenues and expenses – are still growing. Statistics Canada says in the past five years, 130 more of these units came to be, for a total of 9,120 farms.

In Ottawa, a “big” farm is one with 3,520 acres or more. In reality, that’s small to mid-sized on the prairies, where it’s normal for grain farms to exceed the 10,000-acre range.

For the census, the entire range of 3,520-acre farms is lumped together, while much smaller units are viewed in lesser increments. I’m sure this is historical, back to the days when a 1,000-acre farm was a whopper. But that’s no longer the case and needs another look by Statistics Canada for the 2026 census.

Anyway, farms from 3,500 acres and under, all the way down to 130 acres, continue on a slow decline.

But if you believe the figures – and given Statistics Canada’s caveat, there’s reason for doubt – small farms are bucking the trend.

The smallest, under 10 acres, grew by a little more than 400 farms, to 13,607.

The next biggest, 10-70 acres, held their own at about 32,000 farms.

And farms 70-130 acres saw the biggest increase of all, with nearly 1,000 more units. Those are definitely what you’d call small farms, and there’s little doubt the operators are working off farm to complement their in-farm income.

But what they’re growing could well be the local food we’re buying at farmers’ markets and at select retailers, the ones that don’t operate on volume. They’re not huge producers, but they’re targeted. And according to the census, they’re growing.

So there’s some good news: big and small productive farms are on the upswing. Those in the middle are productive too. But they’re getting hammered by the high costs of running a farm, and don’t have the volume to cover it. We’ll see what happens to them in the next five years, when we have a reliable comparison.

A little more local for your inbox.

Seven days. One newsletter. Local reporting about people and places you
won't find anywhere else. Stay caught up with The Observer This Week.

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