Rural communities in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island are losing jobs, wages and community leadership as farms’ profit margins drift further into negative numbers, according to a new study on farm economic viability.
GPI Atlantic, a Nova Scotia non-profit research group drafting new measures of progress for that province, on Thursday released a report on the economic, social and environmental contribution of farmers to rural communities, describing them as “anchors” of their communities.
Real wages (adjusted for inflation) paid by farmers have more than doubled in the last 35 years, reaching $96 million in Nova Scotia and $67 million in P.E.I., marking a “significant contribution to rural economies” even as farm incomes decline, GPI said.
GPI’s previous installment from this series of reports, released in August, had noted that the two provinces’ farmers are “now earning less than at any time in the last four decades.”
Over the last 20 years, farmers’ wage bills have risen sharply as a percentage of total farm expenses, now 20 per cent of total farm expenses in Nova Scotia and 17 per cent in P.E.I., both above the national average of 11 per cent, GPI said.
Nova Scotia farmers now produce $4.77 in cash receipts for every dollar spent on wages, compared to about $8 in the early 1980s, a decline of about 40 per cent, the new report said. P.E.I. farmers now produce just $5.74 in receipts for every dollar spent on wages, compared to about $10 in the early 1980s, a decline of about 35 per cent.
“But other costs like fuel and fertilizer have also risen, so that farm income no longer covers expenses,” GPI said in a release Thursday.
Farms have thus had to cut costs and sell farmland, choices which affect both the number of on-farm jobs and the bottom line for “upstream” local businesses such as veterinarians, mechanics and feed suppliers and “downstream” businesses such as food processors.
Since 2001, jobs in agriculture have dropped by 36 per cent in Nova Scotia, to 4,700, the lowest ever recorded, while in P.E.I., the sharpest job loss in agriculture occurred “somewhat earlier,” falling 36 per cent from 1986 levels to just 3,900 today, GPI said.
Lead author Jennifer Scott said in the release that the proportion of young farmers in both Nova Scotia and P.E.I. is now at its lowest level in recorded history, with only seven per cent of Nova Scotia farmers and nine per cent of P.E.I. farmers today under 35, less than half the proportion just 15 years ago. Meanwhile, she said, 45 per cent of Nova Scotia farmers and 39 per cent of P.E.I. farmers are 55 or older.
Low farm product prices, due to Canadians’ increasing reliance on imported food produced with cheap labour and under questionable safety and labour conditions, take some of the blame, Scott said.
Canada now imports nearly all its fruit and 54 per cent of its vegetables, whereas 40 years ago only 22 per cent of vegetables were imported, GPI said. Meat and poultry imports have jumped more than sixfold, though Canada has the capacity to be self-sufficient in both, the group said.
Thus in Nova Scotia, only about seven per cent of the consumer food dollar is returned to farmers, down from 10 per cent in the 1990s, the group said.
Scott said she finds hope in the growing demand for locally produced food, a demand she said is fuelled by rising concerns over the safety and questionable food value of imported food.
“This is ironic,” she said. “Just as local farming is unravelling, Canadians and Maritimers are increasingly interested in buying locally grown food. This raises the challenging question: Do we have the capacity to meet the demand and to produce the local food that people want?”
The GPI report “strongly” recommends tracking indicators of local food consumption which it said are not now monitored properly or consistently, such as:
- percentage of the consumer food basket consisting of locally produced food;
- percentage of retail food product procurement from local suppliers;
- percentage of local food ordered by hospitals, schools, universities and government agencies; and
- the proportion of the consumer food dollar returned to local farmers.