Trends show fewer farms, aging population of farmers in Sask.: StatsCan

Over the last five years, Saskatchewan has lost 395 farms, according to Statistics Canada’s latest agriculture census. 

The 2021 census of agriculture says Saskatchewan now has 34,128 farms, down from 34,523 in 2016 — a 1.1 per cent drop, and part of a longer trend. In 2001, the province had 50,598 farms, Statistics Canada says.

The number of farm operators in the province is also dropping. There were 44,140 in 2021, compared to 45,350 in 2016 and down significantly from 66,275 in 2001.

“We’ve seen quite a trend to losing farms and farmers over the years,” said Cathy Holtslander, director of research and policy at the National Farmers Union.

“That’s the wrong direction. We want more farmers to be working on the farms, not fewer.”

The Statistics Canada report says “trends identified in previous census cycles, such as industry consolidation and aging of farm operators, have continued in 2021.”

Across Canada, “smaller and mid-sized farms are declining … impacting the rural landscape and profile of Canadian regions,” the report says.

A graph compares the number of farms in Saskatchewan between 2016 and 2021 based on total operating revenues. Overall, the number of farms in the province dropped over that period. (Statistics Canada)

Holtslander says that’s evident in the statistics from Saskatchewan.

While the number of farms overall has dropped, the number that are over 3,500 acres — the largest classification in the agriculture census — has increased over the last 20 years.

There’s also an increasing trend toward more land being rented, said Holtslander — a change driven by the cost of land and farm debt.

“In 2020, the farm debt had gone up by $4 billion in Saskatchewan. That’s a lot of debt the farmers are carrying,” she said. “In 2021, it will likely be even higher, especially with interest rates going up.”

About 60 per cent of land is owned and 40 per cent is rented, she said.

‘Emerging crisis’ as farmers age

The average age of people working on farms is increasing, Statistics Canada says. 

Nationally, the proportion of farm operators 55 and older grew to 60.5 per cent, up from 54.5 per cent in 2016, according to the latest report. Meanwhile, the share of operators under 35 was 8.6 per cent, down slightly from 9.1 per cent in 2016.

Saskatchewan’s numbers are similar to the national averages.

A graph compares 2016 data and 2021 data on the number of farm operators in Saskatchewan by age. More than 60 per cent of operators in Saskatchewan are 55 years aged or older. (Statistics Canada)

Holtslander said that trend is concerning for Saskatchewan, where the average age of farmers is now 55.8 years — up from 55 in 2016, and from 50.5 in 2001.

“We have a retiring generation of farmers and there’s nobody there to take their place. It’s a big big concern,” she said.

Cathy Holtslander, the director of research and policy at the National Farmers Union, said that Saskatchewan is seeing a retiring generation of farmers, with fewer younger farmers taking their place. (National Farmers Union)

There’s been a dramatic drop in the number of farmers under 35 — from 8,135 in 2001 to 4,305 in 2021.

“The loss of farmers under 35 is partially a cultural trend as well as economic. Our potential [number of] people who will be 55 in 20 years are much lower than they were in the past,” Holtslander said.

“We have an emerging crisis in terms of farmer populations.”

Cathy Holtslander, director of research and policy at the National Farmers Union, said the census revealed some concerning trends especially around the declining farms and aging farmers. (Submitted by Cathy Holtslander)

Holtslander said many young people aspire to become successful farmers, but are “unable to find a way in because of high input costs.”

Rob Stone, a farmer near Davidson, is seeing that first-hand.

He is facing prices for key crop protection products, including herbicides like glufosinate, 2,4-D and MCPA, that have recently tripled and quadrupled.

Stone is facing $1,300 a tonne for nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers. His equipment costs have increased significantly due to supply chain disruptions.

“In 2020, fuel was costing us $6.75 an acre to run the whole farm. Right now, we’d be looking at about $23 an acre. It’s significant,” Stone said.

High interest rates and increasing seed prices are also impacting farmers’ profit margins, he said.

On top of that, Stone said his area is in its fourth year of “well below average precipitation.”

“Agriculture is always risky, but now we’re at the highest level of risk that I’ve seen with the amount of money that we’ve got to dump in the ground to make this crop grow.”

Rob Stone, a farmer near Davidson, said seed, fuel and fertilizer prices are increasing. (Submitted by Rob Stone)

More women entering the sector

The census data  does show, however, that nationally, the number of female operators has increased for the first time since 1991.

In 2021, 30.4 per cent of farm operators in Canada were female, up from 28.7 per cent in 2016.

In Saskatchewan, there were 735 more women in the agriculture sector in 2021 than in 2016 — but men still account for nearly 73 per cent of operators in the province.

Shilow Bennett, who has been a farmer for eight years in west central Saskatchewan, said though farming has been a male-dominated field, that is changing.

“We’re able to run every piece of machinery and are present for conversations when it comes to farm making decisions,” she said. 

“Farming has been following that trend of inclusiveness of the female presence on a professional level.”

Close to 73 per cent operators in Saskatchewan are men, but the number of female operators nationally has increased for the first time since 1991, according to Statistics Canada. (Census of Agriculture)

Bennett said the actual number of women working on farms is likely higher than the census data indicates, since many women have other jobs in addition to their farm work.

“I’m a farmer but I have another job. On census, I won’t be a farmer since my main income comes from the agricultural industry outside farming,” she said.

But she said she has also seen the shift in farming over the years away from family-owned operations.

According to the census, in 2021 there were 7,494 family employees working on Saskatchewan farms, which was a drop of 4,963 from 2016.

“It’s no longer that mom and pop shop deal,” she said.

“Farming is now run like a business. That emotional family type appeal has been taken away and large corporations are taking over.”

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