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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!

Scott

About the author

Contributor

Scott Garvey

Scott Garvey is a freelance writer and video producer. He is also the former machinery editor at Grainews.

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