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May 16, 2012

The Census of Agriculture: facts behind the numbers
By Doug Chorney, president, Keystone Agricultural Producers

The recently released 2011 agricultural census shows that the number of farms in Canada has decreased by 10.3 per cent, while the average farm size has increased by 6.9 per cent.

This by no means should be construed as an indication that family farm operators are getting out and leaving farming to corporations with little interest in sustaining the land and the communities that have been a vital part of western Canadian agriculture since the 1800s.

Rather, it means that families are consolidating – combining their operations – in order to take advantage of economies of scale, a necessity that has resulted from the competitive and protective environment of global agriculture.

The Statistics Canada report, in fact, notes that 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."

The term "corporate farming" is often used in a derogatory fashion by those who don't understand these realities. The fact is that farmers must be astute business people if they are to succeed in this current agricultural climate, and incorporation is a good way to address both tax and succession planning.

So when the census report indicates that 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," it is referring to the fact that family farms are moving into a legal entity which provides certain managerial advantages.

Family corporations, in fact, accounted for 87.8% of all farm corporations in 2011, according to the report. These families live on their farms and contribute to their communities. They have a vested concern for the soil, the ground water and the surface water which support their livelihoods.

In addition, they tend to buy locally – which means support for local agri-product retailers, seed dealers, equipment dealers, fuel suppliers, construction companies and a variety of other local businesses. They also make family purchases at the local level – including groceries, clothing and household items.

This adds up to local jobs that are the basis of rural sustainability.

Reading between the lines of the census, however, one can see that this sustainability is being threatened. The report indicates that a little above 48 per cent of farm operators are over the age of 55, compared with just over 40 per cent in 2006 and 32 per cent in 1991. The farming population is growing older because fewer young people are taking up the call of the land.

Farm and rural de-population is an unfortunate reality, and Keystone Agricultural Producers is working to address it. We actively engage young farmers, inviting them to join committees and participate in KAP's decision - making process. We reach out to them in their agricultural studies at the University of Manitoba and Assiniboine Community College.

Most importantly, we create policies and lobby government for programs that will benefit young farmers.

I would be remiss if I didn't say that governments listen and recognize the importance of this new generation of farmers. They have and they do, both provincially and federally, and have responded with a variety of programming.

Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives, through the Manitoba Agricultural Services Corporation, has created the Bridging Generations Initiative which provides financing options that position young farmers to succeed the retiring generation – among other programs it offers to young farmers.

Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives, through the Manitoba Agricultural Services Corporation, has created the Bridging Generations Initiative which provides financing options that position young farmers to succeed the retiring generation – among other programs it offers to young farmers.

Federally, there are also programs aimed at young farmers that include a number of low - cost loan options through Farm Credit Canada. Most recently, a new Young Farmer Loan was announced to offer added support for young farmers who need to purchase land and buildings.

I also applaud the efforts of the former minister of state for agriculture, Jean - Pierre Blackburn, who engaged young farmers and moved them to the forefront of agricultural discussions.

The synonym for farmer is "eternal optimist," and as a farmer, I am optimistic that all of our efforts – both current and future – will help young people come back to the farms. I am equally optimistic that KAP and other organizations like ours across the country will succeed in busting the myth that farm corporations are owned by outside interests, and not local farm families.

Doug Chorney is a farmer from East Selkirk, Manitoba, and president of Keystone Agricultural Producers, Manitoba's largest general farm policy organization. It represents over 7,000 farm families and 22 commodity groups throughout the province.