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    Categories: Agriculture

Old MacDonald gets older

Alberta farms and farmers are getting fewer, bigger and older, suggests a new Stats Canada study – and live Christmas trees may be going out of style.

Statistics Canada released the first results from the 2016 Census of Agriculture last week. Done every five years, this nationwide survey tracks the state of Canada’s farms using a variety of metrics.

Some of the results will be of no surprise to anyone who’s followed the consolidation of farms in the last few decades. The number of farms in Alberta dropped about six per cent, continuing a downward trend from 1941, while the average farm size grew to 1,237 acres from 1,168.

Those still on the farm are now fewer and older, the study found. There were about 7.5 per cent fewer farm operators today than there were in 2011, and those operators were generally about 55 years old – a year older than they were in 2011.

Small farm operators struggle to keep their kids on the family farm, which makes for a lot of older farmers, said Lynn Jacobson, president of the Alberta Federation of Agriculture. Farmers need about $10 million nowadays to start even a small 5,000 acre farm, which makes access to loans vital.

Still, the study also found that people under 35 were making up a growing proportion of farmers, with the absolute number of such operators in Canada rising last year for the first time since 1991.

That’s because farming has actually been pretty profitable in the last 10 years, as evidenced by all the new big machines you see in the fields, Jacobson said. Decent crop prices and a fall in off-farm jobs (e.g. in the oil patch) have also encouraged more youths to check out farming.

“As long as agriculture can stay profitable, you’re going to see the younger generation move into it.”

Tree trends

The study found that tree nurseries had shrunk by about 17.8 per cent in the last five years due in part to changes in landscaping and a move towards multi-unit dwellings from single-detached homes.

Debbie Cherdarchuk said her First Choice Tree Nursery near Morinville had shrunk by about half in the last five years, and that she was getting into cut-flowers and u-pick crops as a result.

“A lot of it is big-box stores,” she explained.

“Where I’m sitting, I’ve got five (of them) 20 minutes away.”

While Stats Canada found that live Christmas tree farms shrunk 16 per cent due to the popularity of artificial trees, Anne and David Gouldson say they’ve seen no drop in demand on their tree farm near Legal.

“Every year we’ve been selling more trees” and making more money, Anne said, especially since they started advertising online.

She said she suspects many parents come out to relive their experiences as kids when they went out with their dads to pick a tree. Their farm offers marshmallows and hot dogs to roast over a fire to enhance the experience.

David said high sales and recent droughts mean that they’ve been selling trees faster than they can replace them, which means they’ll likely see a seven or eight year gap in the near future as they wait for their new trees to grow up.

Like about half of Alberta farmers, the Gouldsons say they both work off-farm jobs to supplement their income. They’re a bit of an outlier, though, as their farm is more of a side-job for them. Alberta farms were slightly more profitable last year than they were in 2010, incurring about $0.01 less in expenses (84 cents) per dollar in gross farm receipts.

Jacobson said farmers in his region southeast of Calgary are starting to look more into renewable power, with a few of his associates already having off-grid homes. Still, it was a relatively obscure investment, with just 4.7 per cent of Alberta farms having renewable power systems in 2015, Stats Canada reports.

Reports on the census of agriculture can be found at statcan.gc.ca.

Kevin Ma: Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.