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All releases > Socio-economic characteristics of farm operators, their families and households >

Farm population: bucking the trend in a country shaped by immigrants

A study in contrasts
The urban–rural split
Where they’re from
Farm type preferences
The financial picture
Bringing it with them

Note to users:

This release refers to data from the Agriculture–Population database at the national and provincial levels. Some data are available from both the 20% sample and from the full census. For these data, there may be small differences between the two due to sampling errors. These differences are not “conflicts” but the natural consequences of sampling.

An immigrant farmer is a person who is or who has ever been a landed immigrant and who was operating a farm at the time of the 2001 Census of Agriculture. Landed immigrants are people who have been permitted by immigration authorities to live in Canada permanently; some will have lived in Canada for a number of years, while others arrived recently. Most have obtained Canadian citizenship, while others have not or are not eligible to do so. Landed immigrants must have resided in Canada for at least three years prior to applying for Canadian citizenship.



Canada is a country founded on agriculture and built largely by immigrants and the children of immigrants, but immigrants and agriculture are no longer intertwined: Immigration patterns have changed dramatically and few Canadians farm today. In Canada’s farm population, immigrants are a declining proportion of a declining population — the exact opposite of the general population.

Less than a fifth of immigrants in the general population arrived in Canada before 1961, while more than one-half arrived in the eighties and nineties. For the farm population, a third arrived before 1961 and only one-third have arrived since the eighties.

Proportion of immigrants in the general and farm populations, Canada

  Census year
1971 1981 1991 2001
Total farm population 1,589,355 1,058,780 865,900 727,130
Immigrants in farm population Number 135,380 86,410 61,970 49,295
% 8.5 8.2 7.2 6.8
Total general population 21,568,310 24,083,500 26,994,045 29,639,030
Immigrants in general population Number 3,295,530 3,843,335 4,342,890 5,448,480
% 15.3 16.0 16.1 18.4

Source: Agriculture-Population linkage database and Census of Population

For those who do immigrate to Canada and do farm, the place of birth of the majority continues to be Europe. This is true in all provinces, even British Columbia, where the largest Asian farm population lives.

Between a third and one-half of immigrant farmers from the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Germany, the three most frequent countries of birth for farm immigrants, came to Canada before 1961.

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A study in contrasts

In the first half of the 20th century, the majority of Canada’s immigrants came from Europe, mostly from the United Kingdom, Italy, Germany and the Netherlands. At the time, immigrants both on and off farms tended to be from European countries. Of course, more Canadians were also part of the farm population — in 1931, 32% of the total population was on the farm, compared with less than 3% in 2001.

Yet while Canada’s urban centres are being transformed by the changing face of the immigrant population, the farm population — farm operators and the people in their households — remains predominantly of European ancestry.

In 2001, the majority of immigrant farm operators — 77% — were born in Europe. This is equally true for those among them who arrived during the nineties: 79% of them were born in Europe; fewer than 10% are from Asia. By way of contrast, in the general population, 42% of immigrants were born in Europe, but only 19.5% of those who arrived in Canada during the nineties were born in Europe. Nearly 60% of all immigrants who arrived during that decade were born in Asia.

Place of birth of immigrant farm operators by period of immigration, Canada

Place of birth Period of immigration
Before 1961 1961 - 1970 1971 - 1980 1981 - 1990 1991 - 20011 All immigration periods
Number % Number % Number % Number % Number % Number %
Total immigrant operators in 2001 11,980 100.0 5,495 100.0 6,240 100.0 4,680 100.0 4,070 100.0 32,460 100.0
United States 595 5.0 1,190 21.7 1,025 16.4 465 9.9 255 6.3 3,525 10.9
Europe 10,995 91.8 3,660 66.6 3,950 63.3 3,290 70.3 3,215 79.0 25,110 77.4
Asia 210 1.8 375 6.8 705 11.3 545 11.6 345 8.5 2,185 6.7
Africa 40 0.3 40 0.7 110 1.8 40 0.9 60 1.5 285 0.9
Caribbean, Central and South America 110 0.9 155 2.8 340 5.4 260 5.6 125 3.1 990 3.0
Oceania and other countries 30 0.3 80 1.5 105 1.7 90 1.9 65 1.6 365 1.1
1. Includes data up to May 15, 2001.

Source: Agriculture-Population linkage database

Over half of the immigrant operators enumerated in the 1971 Census (the first census for which we have an Agriculture–Population linkage database) came from the United States, the Netherlands, Germany and the United Kingdom. These four countries are still the countries of birth of the majority of all immigrant farmers. More than one-quarter of all immigrant farmers who came to Canada in the nineties were born in the Netherlands alone.

The story out of British Columbia is very different. Provincially, one in four people were immigrants, the same as in Ontario. But Ontario has drawn 93% of its immigrant farm operators from Europe and the United States, a much higher percentage than in British Columbia, where just over three-quarters of immigrant operators were born in Europe or the United States. Only 3% of immigrant operators in Ontario were born in Asia, while British Columbia draws a fifth of its immigrant farmers from Asia, mostly India. Their roots are firmly established in the province, the majority having arrived in the sixties, seventies and eighties.

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The urban–rural split

Nationally, over 18% of the entire 2001 population — or one in five people — was foreign-born, the highest proportion since 1931. In urban Canada, home to 80% of Canadians, changing immigrant patterns are responsible for making Canada one of the most multicultural nations in the world. Only Australia, with 22% of its population born outside the country, has a higher proportion of foreign-born residents than Canada. In the largest cities, notably Toronto and Vancouver, about 40% of the population is foreign-born.

In rural Canada the picture is different. Consistency is the hallmark of this community.

The “other 20%” of Canadians make up the rural population. The rural population has two distinct parts: those who farm and those who live in the country, but commute to city jobs or have jobs as teachers, police officers, firefighters, servers or cashiers in the businesses that serve the rural community. Of the two groups, the non-farm group is by far the largest: 9 in 10 people living in rural Canada don’t farm.

In all of the rural population, both farm and non-farm immigrants represent about 6%. British Columbia differs from this norm: In its rural population, 13% are immigrants. In its rural farm population, the proportion is 18%.

Both the farm and the rural immigrant populations show similar proportions of immigrants born in Europe. Each is close to 70%. By contrast, only 40% of the urban immigrant population was born in Europe. Very few farm and rural immigrants were born in Asia: 7.8% of farm immigrants and 6.2% of rural immigrants. By contrast, nearly 40% of the urban immigrant population is from Asia. Two factors explain this phenomenon: Since the seventies, the majority of all immigrants have come from countries outside Europe and most have settled in large cities.

Place of birth for immigrant populations, farm, rural and urban, Canada, 2001

Place of birth Farm population Rural population Urban population
Number % Number % Number %
Total immigrants 49,295 100.0 369,910 100.0 5,078,570 100.0
United States 6,450 13.1 52,645 14.2 185,275 3.6
Europe 35,935 72.9 258,440 69.9 2,029,115 40.0
Asia 3,855 7.8 23,055 6.2 1,966,125 38.7
Africa 380 0.8 6,085 1.6 276,520 5.4
Caribbean, Central and South America 2,070 4.2 25,215 6.8 573,480 11.3
Oceania and other countries 595 1.2 4,465 1.2 48,055 0.9

Source: Agriculture-Population linkage database and Census of Population

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Where they’re from

The Dutch are a significant presence on immigrant Canadian farms and have been for many years. Fully 23% of immigrant farm operators were born in the Netherlands compared with 2.2% of immigrants in the general population.

Half of Dutch farm operators came to Canada in the post-war influx of the late 1940s and the 1950s, and nearly two-thirds of them settled in Ontario. During the nineties Alberta rivaled Ontario as Dutch immigrant farmers’ destination of choice.

Top places of birth of immigrant operators, Canada, 2001

Place of birth 2001
Number %
All immigrant operators 32,460 100.0
Netherlands 7,460 23.0
United Kingdom 4,405 13.6
Germany 3,785 11.7
United States 3,525 10.9
Switzerland 2,125 6.5
India 1,030 3.2
Italy 870 2.7
Poland 840 2.6
Portugal 745 2.3
Belgium 700 2.2
Other countries 6,975 21.5

Source: Agriculture-Population linkage database

Although one-third of immigrant farmers born in Germany live in Ontario, the newcomers from that country are increasingly choosing British Columbia and Alberta instead of Ontario, by a ratio of about three to one. More than two-thirds of Swiss immigrant farmers are in Ontario and Quebec, usually in the dairy industry, although many newcomers are choosing the four western provinces to set up business. Unlike other Europeans, a very low proportion of Swiss arrived in Canada before 1971; nearly 85% arrived later.

The Swiss franc began its climb to a very favourable exchange rate in the early seventies, making Canadian land a bargain by comparison. Swiss farmers in Canada report that Canada’s topography is much more conducive to farming than their native country, operating costs are much lower and restrictions governing farms are far less stringent. For those from countries with a tradition of dairy farming, the Canadian supply management system established in the early seventies in this sector may have been another incentive. And for those who speak English, French or both, Canada is very attractive indeed.

The United States has historically been one of the top five countries contributing farmers to Canada. The number of immigrant farmers from the United States, however, dropped off with each decade after the sixties, and now rests at 3,525, about one-third their number in 1971. Of the immigrant farmers who came to Canada in the sixties and seventies, almost a fifth came from the United States. This coincides with a period of political upheaval in the U.S. associated with the Vietnam War. Over 70% of all immigrant farmers from the United States are in the western provinces.

In Canada as a whole, only 7% of all immigrant operators were born in Asia, primarily India. Seventy percent of these 2,200 Asian farmers are in British Columbia. And while over half of the immigrants born in Asia currently in the general population arrived in the nineties, only 16% of farm operators born in Asia arrived during that decade.

For the most part, immigrant farmers, like all farm operators, are an aging group: In fact, as a group their average age of 54 is a full five years higher than non-immigrant farm operators. East Indian and Swiss immigrant farmers — the two groups who made their greatest impact in the seventies and eighties — are comparatively younger, with average ages of 48 and 47.

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Farm type preferences

Swiss farmers are a good example of immigrant operators setting up business in a farm type common to their homeland: 50% are on farms typed as dairy. The Dutch are the largest immigrant group in dairy, pigs, poultry and greenhouses. Farmers born in India are the largest single immigrant group in fruit farming. Belgians show up as the largest immigrant group in tobacco.

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The financial picture

Immigrants accounted for 9.4% of farm operators in 2001. By comparison, immigrants accounted for almost one-fifth of the entire Canadian work force aged 15 and over in 2001. Among the self-employed, the group most comparable to farm operators, 24% are immigrants.

Immigrant farmers may be a declining proportion of a declining population, but they are significant contributors and their impact is large.

Previous data released from the Census of Agriculture demonstrated that farms with $250,000 or more in gross farm receipts is the only category where farm numbers are actually growing. These farms can exploit economies of scale, thereby improving their expenses-to-receipts ratio, one indicator of a farm’s profitability.

Nationally, 16% of all farm operators have farms with $250,000 and over in receipts, while 22% of immigrant farmers operate farms in this class. But three groups stand out: about 40% of Dutch, Swiss and Belgian farmers operate farms with more than $250,000 in receipts, twice the percentage for all immigrant groups, and well above the average for all farm operators.

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Bringing it with them

Canadian farms are becoming fewer in number, and larger in size. As farms become larger, the average capital value has also increased, making it more expensive to buy a farm. Nearly one in every four non-immigrant farmers had operations with capital values over $1 million in 2001.

But it would also appear that some immigrant farmers who arrived in the nineties came to Canada backed by considerable capital, enabling them to enter a partnership with an already-established operator in Canada, or buy the assets of an established farm.

When examined according to the decade in which immigrant farmers arrived, the eighties mark a changing point. About a third of immigrant farmers who arrived in that decade operated high-value farms in 2001, more than the quarter of those who had arrived in the sixties and seventies. For those who arrived in the first half of the nineties, 40% had farms with capital assets over $1 million in 2001; for those who had arrived in the last half of that decade, the share climbed to 44%. Most of these high-value operations are operated by people born in the Netherlands, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and Germany. Over half are dairy farms. Restrictions on farming in these and other European countries are similar to those Swiss farmers face.

Under the current system, farm operators are able to apply for permanent residence in Canada as economic immigrants who are selected for skills or other assets that will contribute to the Canadian economy or as family class immigrants if they are sponsored. Economic immigrants include, among others, self-employed persons who must show that they can and intend to create their own employment in Canada and contribute significantly to the Canadian economy.

For more information, or to enquire about the concepts, methods or data quality of this release, contact Gaye Ward (613-951-3172), Census of Agriculture, or Media Relations (613-951-4636).

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Family structure of immigrant farm population

At 2.4% of the total population and 727,125 people, the farm population is small, and its immigrant population is even smaller. The farm population includes all persons living in the households of farm operators who lived on the farm for any time in the year prior to Census Day.

In terms of family size, the farm population blends right in with the Canadian population. With 3.3 family members in a household, immigrant farm families are slightly larger than all Canadian families, where the average is 3.0. They are less likely to have young children at home. Only 26% of immigrant farm families have children under 14 at home, compared with one-third in the farm population as a whole, and 37% in the general population. Farm operators have a higher average age than workers in the general labour force, and immigrant farm operators tend to be older again, by a full five years, than non-immigrant operators.

A larger proportion of immigrant farmers tend to be married than Canadian-born operators: 3.6% more report their status as married, and there are slightly lower proportions of immigrants who are separated and divorced. The proportion of those who have never married is half that for Canadian-born operators.

Twenty-six per cent of Canadian-born operators are female, compared with 31% of immigrant operators. It may be that immigrant women have a greater tendency to include themselves as a farm operator on the Census of Agriculture than Canadian-born women.


2001 2001 Census of Agriculture questionnaire 1996 2001 Census of Agriculture About the Census of Agricuture All releases 2001 2001 Census of Agriculture

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