What do small farmers contribute?
A couple of weeks ago, Statistics Canada released their latest agriculture census. Since then, a lot of page space has been taken up in a variety of farm publications discussing the findings. And there has been a lot of criticism of the Stats Can data. Key among the points some people have taken offence to is the overall tally of farms across the nation being well above 200,000. The count, many say, is skewed by how census takers have defined farms.
Several editorials have pointed to the obvious trend toward very large operations, particularly in the west. They suggest if the census doesn't show large farms as the dominant type, then the data must be faulty. And the reason Stats Can got it wrong, they say, is because those pesky small and lifestyle farmers were included in the count. The belief dominating the industry seems to be unless you're big you're not really a farmer. And you're not making a useful contribution to the ag sector as a whole
The way I see it, that line of thinking is flawed for several reasons. Here are a few of them.
Of the 24,101 ag tractors sold in Canada last year, more than 18,000 were under 100 horsepower. Those machines typically go to small and lifestyle farmers. Of the 4,321 rigid-frame tractors above 100 horsepower sold, many of those are likely to have gone to small and medium sized operators as well.
In fact, very-high horsepower tractors used on large farms account for just a small percentage of total sales. Only a few more than 1,300 articulated, four-wheel drives were sold in the country. That's a pretty small number. The large-scale, “professional” farmers buy relatively few tractors compared to the little guys, although those few big tractors do account for very high dollar values compared to small machines. Even with the price difference, though, a market demand of less than 1,500 units likely couldn't support the existing sales network the five different four-wheel drive tractor manufacturers currently operate.
Those sales numbers suggest to me that without the small farmers, a lot of people in the ag machinery businesses would be out of a job. That includes everyone from assembly line workers to service technicians and salesmen at local dealerships. Large farmers need those services too, and small farmers help keep them in existence.
Then, of course, there is the used equipment market. Many large, professional farmers are interested only in new machines, and they turn over their fleet every couple of years. Without the smaller players to buy the second-hand equipment shed by big farms, the cost of machinery ownership would be very different than it is now.
One other interesting fact the census turned up is there is a strong trend toward grain and oilseed cropping. It's easy to understand why. That segment is very profitable and doesn't involve nearly as much work as livestock production. That likely explains why the census shows large operations are moving in that direction.
Despite that, the census also shows beef operations are the second most common farm type, which means the medium and small operators are heavily involved with cattle. So they seem to be picking up the slack in that sector.
And without the smaller farmers helping populate the rural countryside and keeping many small towns viable, those operating large farms would have to travel much farther to get their groceries, health care and machinery parts.
I think we need to look at Canada's farming industry a little like we would an ecosystem. If you drive a small species to extinction in nature, there is a knock-on effect all the way up the food chain that jeopardizes larger animals. The same is true in agriculture. Without the smaller farms contributing in their unique way, the big guys would find it much more difficult to operate.
Did Stats Can get it right? Do small farms deserve to be included in a census of agriculture? Absolutely!
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