Q&A with Alfons Weersink talks with Alfons Weersink, a professor in the Department of Food, Agriculture and Resource Economics at the University of Guelph, about trends in farming.

Ontario professor on the latest farming trends

Farmer Glenn Annand is seen against a setting sun as he drives his tractor near Mossbank, Sask., in May 2002. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

In less than a lifetime, the number of Canadians living on farms has fallen to about one in 46 from one in three.

Farms have grown in size, as the number of farm operators has fallen, and farmers have grown older.

Some farmers are searching for niche markets as they look for a way to succeed, while others are turning to organic production. talked with Alfons Weersink, a professor in the Department of Food, Agriculture and Resource Economics at the University of Guelph, about these trends, what they mean for the food we put on our tables and what the farmer of the future looks like.

In 1931, the percentage of Canadians living on farms was 32 per cent. It was two per cent in 2006. The number of farms has fallen but the size of farms has increased. Can you explain why we've seen this happen?

It's basically technological-change advances that allow one individual to produce much more than … in the past. And so it's specialization that's allowed those individuals to produce more and the others to consequently move off [the farm]. Because if you look at total production, total production for the most part has increased significantly.

What do these trends mean for the consumers who eat the food that these farms produce?

It has meant that most of the benefits accruing to these technological advancements have accrued to the consumer; that we have lower food prices as a result of these efficiency gains, and yes, so the consumers are the largest beneficiary of these advances.

Are we eating what's produced on the larger, more specialized farms? How is the global marketplace playing into this?

Canadian agriculture is export-reliant for the large part. Some exceptions would be the supply-managed sectors of dairy and poultry, but most of the other sectors rely on export markets. Now … we produce domestically as much as we need for some of those products, and then we trade and bring in some fruits and vegetables largely.

One of the things that has changed just in terms of the consumer and food is that the percentage of our income spent on food has dropped dramatically, and it's approximately 10 per cent of disposable income is spent on food now.

How has that changed?

It's dropped … from, well, maybe you know in some of the poorest countries of the world, they'll spend upwards of 60 per cent of their income on food.

When we walk into the grocery store, it's easy to see strawberries that are from California year-round or garlic from China at 99 cents for the five-pack. How does the Canadian farmer compete with that?

Yeah. It's difficult. I think one of the things that we have seen is that they're either competing on commodities such as just plain Durham wheat or No. 2 yellow corn, plain commodities like that. Or else they're personally trying to differentiate their product by perhaps going organic, perhaps a local food market, so trying to find a premium of some sort for their goods.

Statistics Canada has started to record organic agricultural production. To what extent will organic production play a role in the future of Canadian agricultural production?

It's a growing segment and I think it depends somewhat on the economy. There will be a segment of the population that will buy it and pay a price premium just because the workload in producing organic agriculture is greater than with conventional produce, just more labour required, more management required. How big the market is — it's a significant market. It's difficult to know how much it will grow. I think a large portion of the population will still be looking for the cheapest food possible and if it's organic, that's fine, but otherwise they will just go for whatever the lowest price is.

Particularly when you think of the economic straits that we're in right now, what becomes the motivating factor in a person's choice for food, price or the desire to buy local or that 100-mile diet?

That's interesting. We had a study done here at the University of Guelph … on what consumers valued when it came to buying organics. And most of them, what was important was that it was local, they assume that was embedded in organic. But that's what they were willing to pay a premium for.

Do you think that those kinds of things will change?  We hear so much about organics. Is this something that will rise?

I think our concern for the environment often is correlated with the economy. If people are financially secure, then they can worry about the environment. If they're more worried about their job and their financial well-being then their goals tend to more short term rather than long term which is associated with more for the environment. I think it's going to be a significant portion of the market and a growing one, but whether it will — it hasn't taken off to the extent I think that maybe some had thought it would.

In B.C., 16 per cent of farms recorded some kind of organic production, whereas somewhere like Alberta it was about five per cent.

At first glance, you might think that was due to political attitudes, but I think a lot of it has to do with [location]. These organic farms are going to be best suited towards having a local market close by [with] a population base. So that's why I think you would see more organic farms close to an urban area than further away. Quebec will have a number partly because of attitudes, but I think also to population bases and similar to Ontario, whereas Saskatchewan and the Prairie provinces in general, just given the large geographic expanse, will have fewer organic farms.

Who will be the farmers of the future?

It will be the next generation within the family. I think one of the things that has changed over time is that the skill set required to farm has changed significantly, and it's become I think a more attractive business as a result. It's not necessarily the one with the strongest back and who works hardest who is going to succeed. The skill set required to manage a farm today is much different than 50 years ago. The technical knowledge is pretty straightforward, but the marketing is what is going to differentiate one individual from the next — financial management, human resource management, finding out where the markets are and how to obtain the premiums, how to negotiate those sorts of contracts. It's a much broader and tougher skill set. In some ways, it's I think more attractive to go back to the farm now than it might have been 50 years ago, when it was very labour-intensive [with] hard work, hard physical work for sure, too.

What does the farmer of the future look like?

I think it's going to be really diverse — a real split between [a] lifestyle farmer and a commercial producer. And in terms of the commercial producer, I think you're going to see two different groups there, one group that produces large volumes of a commodity that's sold at relatively low margin, so they're going to have to be fairly large, and then another set of commercial producers that will be selling into a differentiated market of some sort whether it be organic, whether it be local, whether it be food-grade soybeans for the Japanese tofu market or corn with specific properties for making popcorn.

What will that mean for the consumer? What will that mean for the cost of food?

.... Prices will continue to be relatively low.

Even though some people might argue that they feel their grocery bills are rising?

I think that was ... a temporary blip at the peak of the food crisis earlier this year, when grain prices went up and some bakery products went up. But really overall, if most consumers take a hard look at their expenditures on food compared to everything else, food has not risen .… As a percentage of their income, it continues to fall.

But it does likely mean, and [consumers] will be the ones demanding it, more differentiated products, if they do want organic, if they do want to know that their beef is coming from John Smith's farm in Fergus, then if they're demanding that then there will be a group of farmers who will supply that. I think there's going to be more choice, and the base commodities as a percentage of disposable income it will continue to decline.