OTTAWA - Canada's agricultural landscape _ once dominated by small farms and plentiful livestock _ is now characterized by larger operations that focus on crop production, new census numbers suggested Thursday.
Data from Statistics Canada's 2011 census of agriculture showed the country's farmers are consolidating their operations and shifting their efforts away from the cattle farming that was once the backbone of Canadian farming.
The number of total farms shrank 10.3 per cent since the last census release in 2006, continuing a downward trend that first surfaced in 1941. The number of farm operators also dropped 10.1 per cent over the period.
Data suggests, however, that the decline in overall numbers doesn't necessarily point to a downturn in total farming.
Although the number of farms slipped to 205,730 from 229.373 in the previous census, StatsCan said many smaller farms have been consolidated into larger operations over that five year stretch.
The total area of land being farmed slipped only four per cent to 160,155,748 acres, while the average farm size jumped seven per cent to 778 acres.
Alfons Weersink, professor of agriculture at the University of Guelph, said digging deeper into the census data reveals a sector that's in fairly robust health.
"The last several years have been good for most of agriculture," Weersink said in a telephone interview. "Profits have been up, prices have been increased quite significantly from the last census. . . . There's been a significant boost up."
Weersink cites the growing number of commercial farms as evidence of the industry's strength. StatsCan said the number of farms reporting more than $1 million in gross farm receipts soared 31.2 per cent from 2006 levels. There was also a three per cent surge in the number of farms bringing in more than $500,000, which now make up 11.5 per cent of all farms in Canada.
Total gross farming receipts climbed four per cent to $51.1 billion, a fact Weersink partly attributes to high commodity and grain prices.
That same uptick partially accounts for the shift in farm production that took place over the past five years, he said.
Canada's farming industry was traditionally sustained in equal measure by grain and beef production, according to the last census. Now, StatsCan said grain and oilseed farms make up 30 per cent of the national total, up from 26.9 per cent, while beef farms tumbled from 26.3 per cent to 18.2 per cent.
Weersink said farmers have been adjusting their focus to capitalize on the strong crop market.
The latest census data also shed light on the farmers themselves, painting a picture of a rapidly aging and heavily male-oriented population. Farmers over the age of 55 accounted for 48.3 per cent of the total population, marking the first time the older age group has led the field. Younger operators under 35 made up only 8.2 per cent of the population, about half the total registered 20 years ago. Women made up only 28 per cent of the farming population, StatsCan said.
The drop in the number of young farmers raised red flags in some quarters, notably the house of commons where liberals raised the issue in question period.
Federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz was accused of hampering innovation in the industry by cutting funding to local agricultural councils.
Ritz shrugged off the criticism.
"We have less farmers doing a far better job and producing more product than we have ever seen," Ritz said. "Innovation and efficiency has taken over."
Weersink said the relatively low number of young farmers could be a cause for concern if the agriculture industry was stagnant, but believes the strength of the commercial farming sector and the growing interest in local food and organic growing techniques will help revitalize the population.
"It would be a sign of concern if the industry was struggling and if people were not interested in continuing," he said. "That's not the situation. . . . "Given the strength of the sector, I think there's renewed interest in farming as an occupation."