King canola, fewer cows, aging producers: Digging into the agriculture census

Fewer and slightly older Canadian producers are planting more cropland on larger farms and are making relatively stable profits, according to the 2016 Census of Agriculture released Wednesday.

In Alberta, number of cattle operations is down but province still leads country in beef production

A worker carries an air filter during wheat harvest on a farm in Alberta. The 2016 Census of Agriculture released Wednesday, shows fewer and slightly older Canadian producers are planting more cropland on larger farms and are making relatively stable profits. (Todd Korol/Reuters)

Fewer and slightly older Canadian producers are planting more cropland on larger farms and are making relatively stable profits.

That's the general overview of the 2016 Census of Agriculture released Wednesday.

Statistics Canada said urbanization is reducing Canadian cropland in some areas, but farmers have been converting some land formerly used as pasture, which led to a net increase.

Canola continues to be Canada's most-planted commodity, accounting for more than one-fifth of all cropland. There are more oilseed and grain farms, but the trend in some areas is for farmers to grow a wider variety of crops.

"We actually have two success stories: soybeans have doubled over the past 15 years and lentils have tripled," said Ellen Bekkering, project manager for the census.

Alberta continues to lead cattle production

The size of beef cattle herds decreased from 2011 and the number of operations reporting beef cattle declined about 12 per cent.

Statistics Canada attributes the decline to a spike in prices that prompted some producers to sell off herds and get out of the business.

In Alberta, the number of cattle operations is down, but the province still leads the country in production because the operations are larger.

Rich Smith, executive director of the Alberta Beef Producers, said his group expected conditions would encourage people to expand their herds, as American producers have, but that hasn't happened yet.

In Alberta, the number of cattle operations is down, but the province still leads the country in production because the operations are larger. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

"People may not have sufficient labour to expand their herds. Land is expensive, there's competition for land and water resources, both between agriculture and non agriculture uses but even within agriculture, between keeping grass for cows and raising crops, so I think it's just a case of people being cautious about expansion," he said.  

Brian Perillat, manager and senior analyst at Canfax, a division of the Canadian Cattlemen's Association, said prices are strong right now, and he hopes producers start to build their herds.

"The U.S. herd has kind of grown whereas the Canadian cattle herd remains kind of flat, and hopefully, maybe it would be nice to see some expansion in the industry. You know, things are fairly lucrative and such, but we just haven't seen much expansion yet," he said.

More farms raising hens, chickens

Across Canada, the area of hay and alfalfa declined by more than a million hectares, while pasture area also went down due in part to the smaller beef herd. Some of the land has been converted to other crops.

Milk production was up — thanks to better animal nutrition, genetics and production practices — despite a decrease in the number of dairy cows.

Hog production also increased due to higher prices. There was also a jump in the number of farms raising hens and chickens.

The census report calls blueberries, cranberries and greenhouse vegetables bright spots in the horticulture sector. More land is being used to grow crops in greenhouses, especially in Ontario.

"From 2011 to 2016, Ontario saw almost no change in the number of operations in the province, but a 29.8 per cent increase in the area dedicated to greenhouse vegetables."

The census counted 271,935 farm operators, down from 293,925 in 2011. The average age of a farmer was 55, up slightly from the last census.

The new data shows slightly more women and people under 35 were making their living on the land — the first increase since 1991.

The census also shows many farm operators did off-farm work to make ends meet. Many worked an average of 30 hours a week in non-agricultural jobs.

Profits haven't changed much

Gross farm receipts totalled $69.4 billion in 2015, while operating expenses reached $57.5 billion.

The data suggests farm profits haven't changed much from 2010 when averaged out across the country.

"The stability in the expense-to-receipt ratio indicates that farms were as profitable in 2015 at the national level as they were in 2010," the report says.

Data from the 2016 Census of Agriculture suggests that farm profits haven't changed much from 2010 when averaged out across the country. (Kotylak family/Facebook)

Statistics Canada notes that this could vary depending on the type of farm and where it is located.

The census counted 193,492 farms in 2016, down about six per cent, but the average area per farm increased.

Value of land and buildings used by agricultural operations spiked by more than one-third to $428 billion.

Bekkering said Statistics Canada plans to release more detailed information about the agriculture census over the next six weeks.

With files from Elizabeth Snaddon , CBC News