Statistics Canada
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Chapter 1

Agriculture is growing and evolving

The 2011 Census of Agriculture showed that gross farm receipts grew by 3.9% (at 2010 constant prices) between 2005 and 2010 in Canada, and that this growth occurred primarily on larger farms. The number of census farms with gross farm receipts of $500,000 and over grew while the number of farms with gross farm receipts less than $500,000 decreased (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Number of farms by gross farm receipts (at 2010 constant prices), Canada, 1981 to 2011

Farms with $500,000 and over in gross farm receipts accounted for 11.5% of farms in 2011, and 67.9% of the total gross farm receipts in Canada (Figure 2). In 2006, they represented 8.6% of farms and 60.1% of gross farm receipts.

Figure 2: Proportion of gross farm receipts and farm numbers by receipts class, Canada, 2011

A snapshot in time

The 2011 Census of Agriculture is the most recent measure of the overall state of Canadian agriculture and its wealth of data provides a valuable snapshot of the sector. The census program provides a data continuum stretching back to 1921, while agricultural data has been collected since the first Census of Canada in 1871.

Since the previous Census of Agriculture in 2006, fluctuating commodity prices in certain sectors as well as changing costs of fertilizers, fuel, seed and livestock feed affected the farming community. The residual effects of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) and avian influenza were also issues.

During the time the census was being collected in 2011, many farm operators were confronted with challenges related to flooding and exceedingly wet conditions in some regions of the Prairies and Quebec.  However, many changes have since ensued, including favourable commodity prices in some sectors as well as continued evolution in global economic conditions, and some of these factors have benefited the Canadian agricultural sector. At the same time, many farm operators continue to adapt their production and farming practices to become more efficient and to respond to market factors and consumer demands.

These developments, as well as the dynamic and complex nature of the Canadian agricultural industry, are an important reminder that the Census is a snapshot of the agricultural sector that captures its state at a point in time, and does not measure the annual fluctuations between census years.

Number of farms in 2011

For the Census of Agriculture, a census farm (agricultural operation) is any operation that produces agricultural products with the intention of selling them. This includes a variety of farms, from those operated by people who choose farming for lifestyle reasons, to those who farm for economic reasons, with or without off-farm work.

In 2011, Canada had 205,730 census farms, a number representing a decrease of 10.3% (or 23,643 farms) since the last census.

Historically, the total number of census farms in Canada began to decline after 1941 followed by the accelerating urbanization of the 1950s. The largest 5-year decline on record was from 1956 to 1961 when the number of farms fell by 16.4% or about 94,000 farms (Figure 3). Total farm area reached a high in 1966 of 174.1 million acres, and in 2011 was 160.2 million acres.

Figure 3: Number of farms and farm area, Canada, 1921 to 2011

The Canadian agricultural sector continues to restructure as many farms expand in scale of operation, consolidate, draw on technological innovations to enhance productivity, and augment their sales. This trend, consistent with the economies of scale characterizing parts of Canadian agriculture, is evident when examining farm numbers by gross farm receipts class between 2006 and 2011 (Table 1).

Table 1
Number of farms by gross farm receipts (at 2010 constant prices), Canada, 2006 and 2011
Gross farm receipts 2011 2006 Percent change, 2006 to 2011
Number of farms
Source: Statistics Canada, Census of Agriculture, 2006 and 2011
Less than $10,000 43,954 45,749 -3.9
$10,000-$24,999 32,853 36,971 -11.1
$25,000-$49,999 25,764 30,227 -14.8
$50,000-$99,999 25,455 31,119 -18.2
$100,000-$249,999 31,670 40,382 -21.6
$250,000-$499,999 22,455 25,108 -10.6
$500,000-$999,999 13,977 12,499 11.8
$1,000,000-$1,999,999 6,304 4,614 36.6
$2,000,000 and over 3,298 2,704 22.0
Total 205,730 229,373 -10.3

Across the country, Nova Scotia was the only province showing an increase in farm numbers at 2.9% in comparison to the number in 2006 (Table 2). In contrast, in Prince Edward Island and the Prairies, the drop exceeded the national average. Although other provinces lost farms, their rates of decline were much lower, such as British Columbia at 0.4% and Quebec at 4.0%.

Table 2
Number of farms, farm area, and average farm size by province, with percent change since 2006, Canada and the provinces, 2011
Province Number of Farms Area (acres) Average Farm Size (acres)
2011 Percent change, 2006 to 2011 2011 Percent change, 2006 to 2011 2011 Percent change, 2006 to 2011
Source: Statistics Canada, Census of Agriculture, 2006 and 2011
Newfoundland and Labrador 510 -8.6 77,349 -13.5 152 -5.0
Prince Edward Island 1,495 -12.1 594,324 -4.1 398 9.0
Nova Scotia 3,905 2.9 1,018,075 2.2 261 -0.4
New Brunswick 2,611 -5.9 937,829 -4.0 359 2.0
Quebec 29,437 -4.0 8,256,614 -3.5 280 0.4
Ontario 51,950 -9.2 12,668,236 -4.8 244 4.7
Manitoba 15,877 -16.7 18,023,472 -5.5 1,135 13.4
Saskatchewan 36,952 -16.6 61,628,148 -4.1 1,668 15.1
Alberta 43,234 -12.5 50,498,834 -3.1 1,168 10.7
British Columbia 19,759 -0.4 6,452,867 -7.9 327 -7.4
Canada 205,730 -10.3 160,155,748 -4.1 778 6.9

Average farm size increased

The total farm area in Canada in 2011 was 160.2 million acres, down 4.1% since 2006.

Despite the overall decrease in farms and area, the average size of farms increased since the previous census. Compared to 2006, the average size of a Canadian farm increased from 728 acres to 778 acres, a growth of 6.9%.

The character of agriculture differs from one province to the next, with climate and soil types influencing the commodities produced. Farm size also differs from region to region, from Newfoundland and Labrador having an average farm size of 152 acres, to sprawling operations in the Prairie provinces, such as Saskatchewan which had the largest average farm size in the country, at 1,668 acres. Saskatchewan also had the greatest increase in average farm size, at 15.1% (Table 2).

A shift in production

The North American Industrial Classification System (NAICS) provides a framework for classifying farms based on the commodities they produce and the value of these commodities. The farm types presented in this document are derived based on this system.

Canada’s agricultural sector is resilient and flexible as it continues to adapt to changing conditions. Crop production and beef farming have long been the backbone of Canada’s agriculture industry and in 2011, oilseed and grain farms once again represented the greatest number of farms across the country. However, they widened the gap with other farm types, representing 30.0% of all farms, up from 26.9% in 2006 (Figure 4). Beef farms, while declining in number since 2006, were still the second most numerous farm type in 2011. Beef farms were historically a close second as they comprised 26.6% of all farms in 2006, yet this sector experienced many challenges since the BSE outbreak in 2003 and as a result in 2011 accounted for 18.2% of all farms.

Figure 4: Proportion of all farms by farm type, Canada, 2006 and 2011

Only three farm types increased in number: "other crop", "oilseed and grain", as well as "sheep and goat" farms. The category "other crop" includes establishments primarily engaged in hay farming, maple syrup and maple products, or combinations of fruit and vegetable or other crops.

Farms more generally categorized as livestock-based comprised 41.6% of farms in 2011, compared to 50.9% in 2006. Conversely, crop-based farms accounted for 58.4% of farms, up from 49.1% in 2006 (Figure 5). This shift underlies many of the other results found in the 2011 Census of Agriculture.

Figure 5: Livestock-based versus crop-based farm types, as a proportion of all farms, Canada, 2006 and 2011

How much land was devoted to agriculture?

Total farm area reported on the 2011 Census of Agriculture accounted for 7.2% of the total land base in Canada. As a percentage of total land area in each province, total farm area ranged from 0.1% in Newfoundland and Labrador, to just over 42% in Prince Edward Island and Saskatchewan (Figure 6).

Figure 6: Total farm area as a proportion of total land area, Canada and the provinces, 2011

More farms were incorporated

There were 114,006 farms operating as sole proprietorships in 2011, a decrease of 12.9% since 2006. By contrast, the 40,714 farms operating as family or non-family corporations represented an increase of 11.2%. Family corporations accounted for 87.8% of all corporations in 2011. The historical trend shows an increase over time in the proportion of farms which are incorporated, and a decrease in the proportion which are sole proprietorships (Figure 7).

Figure 7: Operating arrangements of farms, Canada, 1981 to 2011

It is the farms in the higher gross farm receipts classes that are more likely to be incorporated, with the $2 million and over category showing more than 80% of farms incorporated (Figure 8). Both the proportion of farms operating as sole proprietorships as well as those operating as partnerships or other arrangements tend to decline as gross farm receipts increase.

Figure 8: Operating arrangements by gross farm receipts class, Canada, 2011

Shift in land use and tenure reflects trend to crops

In 2011, the area of land in crops (cropland) stood at 87.4 million acres, a drop of 1.6% since 2006. Tame hay and alfalfa, the components of cropland most closely tied to the beef sector, decreased by 14.0%. The decline in tame hay and alfalfa is linked to the decrease in the number of beef cattle. If one excludes tame hay and alfalfa from total cropland, the remaining cropland shows an increase of 2.0%.

Cropland remained the greatest component of land use, comprising 54.6% of the total farm area reported - a slightly higher share than in 2006 (Figure 9). Total pasture followed in second place at 31.2% of the total. Total pasture, which includes both tame or seeded pasture and natural land for pasture, accounted for 50.0 million acres, down 4.3% since 2006. This decrease was also closely tied to the decrease in the number of beef cattle over the same period.

Summerfallow area accounted for 5.2 million acres in 2011, a decrease of 40.5% since 2006. Summerfallow, still largely a Prairie practice, comprised only 3.2% of the total farm area (Figure 9). Reduced reliance on this land management technique has been a result of economic conditions as well as technological changes.

Woodlands and wetlands decreased by 8.8% to 12.1 million acres, while “all other land” increased by 35.8% to 5.5 million acres since 2006. In Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta, land that was reported to the Census of Agriculture in 2011 as “too wet to seed” as a result of flooding has been categorized as “other land” and not cropland or summerfallow; this land could shift back to cropland when conditions improve.

Figure 9: Land use as a proportion of total farm area, Canada, 2006 and 2011

These shifting land use patterns were due in part to a declining beef cattle sector that has encountered considerable challenges in recent years. Since the BSE outbreak, Country of Origin Labelling (COOL) regulations in the United States, the rising cost of feed, a strong Canadian dollar and weakening beef exports have all affected the sector. Consequently the number of beef cattle diminished significantly as many farmers reduced livestock production or exited the industry during the intercensal period. Stronger prices for certain field crops during this same period made the move to crop farming an attractive option. While canola prices climbed steadily and facilitated this trend in Western Canada, high corn and soybean prices drove a similar shift in parts of Eastern Canada.

These changes in land use contrast with the pattern observed in the 2006 Census when cropland and summerfallow were converted into pasture in order to meet the feed requirements of increasing numbers of beef cattle related to conditions of the BSE crisis.

Shifting land use patterns are an indication that the Canadian agricultural sector continues to adapt to economic conditions.

More renting, less owning

The majority of the total land in agriculture (including areas that were used by others) in Canada was owned by those who operate it, at 61.5%. This is followed by rented land at 21.9% and land leased from government at 13.1% (Figure 10).

Figure 10: Tenure composition of total land in agriculture, Canada, 2011

Total land area owned on farms across Canada stood at 103.5 million acres in 2011, down from 110.3 million acres in 2006. Area rented from others was 36.8 million acres, increasing from 34.1 million acres.

Farmers continued to respond to an increasingly competitive environment by changing tenure arrangements. Owned land as a proportion of total farm area has been decreasing steadily every census since 1976 (Figure 11).  

Figure 11: Land tenure as a proportion of total farm area, Canada, 1976 to 2011

Land rental was the second largest component of land tenure and has increased for the past several censuses. There were several factors contributing to this shift, such as rising land prices and an aging farm population.

Land rental is a less capital-intensive means of expanding an operation to take advantage of rising commodity prices. Also, retiring farmers may wish to retain ownership of their land and rent it out for use by other farmers. The current practice of non-farmers and investment funds investing in land and renting it out to farmers also contributes to this trend.

Since 2006, total land leased from the government decreased by 1.5 million acres, and in 2011 stood at 22.1 million acres. This decline is largely related to that of beef cattle, as the majority of this land is marginal land used for grazing animals.

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