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Snapshot of agriculture presents sobering picture

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The latest census of agriculture contains few surprises. Farms are becoming fewer and larger, farmers are getting older, fewer farmers are raising livestock, and canola has continued its meteoric growth to surpass wheat as the most dominant crop.

But at the same time, these ongoing trends raise some niggling questions about the sustainability of this industry's path in the context of big-picture issues, such as global population growth, rising energy prices and climate change.

Despite the continued consolidation of land holdings into fewer and larger operators, a trend that has been in play since the 1920s, and despite the relative good times the sector is currently enjoying, farming has not yet found its fountain of youth.

The average age of Canadian farmers continues to grow at a vastly disproportionate rate to the general working population. The 2011 Census of Agriculture marks the first time the 55-and-over age category represented the highest percentage of total operators.

In 2011, 48.3 per cent of operators were aged 55 or over, compared to 40.7 per cent in 2006. "By contrast, the Labour Force Survey reported that in May 2011, 15.4 per cent of those self-employed in the total labour force were aged 55 years or older," Statistics Canada says.

Fewer than 10 per cent of farmers in Canada are under the age of 35 and that proportion is declining. In short, there are a lot more people on the way out than there are coming in.

Will the scale of farming in Canada increase to the point where the few young farmers who do take up the call will be able to take on the massive operations acquired by their retiring seniors?

This latest census showed significant declines in livestock numbers and the acreages devoted to producing livestock feeds.

The number of beef cattle reported for breeding purposes decreased by 22.3 per cent since 2006, totalling 4.5 million head in 2011. The number of farms reporting breeding stock decreased by 25.3 per cent to 63,515 farms. Pigs on farms are down almost 16 per cent and the number of farms raising them has declined by nearly 36 per cent.

There are good economic reasons behind these declines. Cattle prices have partly recovered from the BSE-related collapse of 2003. As soon as some of the senior farmers saw an opportunity to recoup some of their lost equity, they took it. The hog industry is still digging its way out of a market collapse in 2008-09, which saw government dollars used to downsize and restructure the industry.

Both of these sectors pinned their export hopes first on the United States and now on emerging economies, namely China. The thinking was, its rapidly growing economic wealth would create a demand for meat protein. And because of its population density, and relatively scant feed resources, it would import the meat rather than grow it.

So far, China seems predisposed to buying feed to build its own livestock sector. So instead of being a customer for meat, it has become a competitor for feed grains. But how long will that last, given what we know about zoonotic disease in areas densely populated by humans and livestock?

What the numbers don't articulate is livestock plays an important nutrient-recycling function in agriculture. As livestock disappears from the equation, more of the nutrients used by annual crops, which are exported with the crop, must be bought back in the form of commercial fertilizer -- the cost of which is directly related to energy prices. They seem to rise more than they fall.

And what about the land? With the decline of livestock, the area of land in Canada devoted to forage crops is falling as those areas are converted into the more profitable annual cash crops.

The problem is, many of those lands are marginal for crop production and highly vulnerable to erosion. As for canola versus wheat, it has been well-documented that farmers, tempted by high prices, are courting an agronomic wreck by squeezing their canola rotations. How long can that continue?

On a more positive note, for the first time with this census, no-till practices, which are less ecologically disruptive, accounted for more than half of all area prepared for seeding across the country, a shift that was caused by a 23.8 per cent increase in the area of land seeded using no-till practices. Overall, 17.1 per cent more farms reported using no-till practices than in 2006.

That's significant progress. But is having half the land protected enough?

The census is simply a snapshot in time. But this one raises more questions about the state of the industry than it answers.


Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 792-4382 or by email:

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 12, 2012 B6

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