Average Farm Size Has Stopped Growing
By Reanna Braeker and Alfons Weersink
Average farm size in Canada has fallen! In the 2021 census it was only 809 acres, down from 820 acres in the previous census in 2016.
Steady increase in farm size before last census
The decline is the first observed in the last 100 years as illustrated in Figure 1. Average farm size was only 200 acres in 1921 and steadily increased with each census until the most recent one. The average farm grew by nearly 10% between every 5-year census period since 1921 with especially large increases during the 1960’s.
Biggest increases in size over time in Prairies
The trends in average farm size noted nationally are generally observed at the provincial level. The largest farms are in the Prairies and the smallest are in Eastern Canada (see Table 1). Not only are the farms larger in the Prairies, but the rate of increase is also much larger. For example, average farm size in Saskatchewan was 845 acres in 1971 and 50 years later it had more than doubled to 1,177 acres. By contrast, in Ontario, the average was 169 acres in 1971 and grew by less than 50% to only 243 acres in 2021.
In all provinces, average farm size fell from the high in the 2016 census to the latest census. The greatest declines in average farm size were noted in Newfoundland (-17.4%), Quebec (5.7%) and Alberta (4.3%).
Trends in average farm size depends on sector
Measuring average farm size by area is appropriate for crop farms but not as relevant when measuring livestock operations, however the same general pattern is generally seen when using livestock numbers. For example, average herd size in 1976 was 21 cows for dairy and 27 for beef. This average increased steadily over the next 40 years to a herd size of approximately 70 cattle per farm. In the latest census, average dairy herd size increased significantly to nearly 90 cows while average beef herd stayed steady at about 70 head.
What is the average farm?
The recent trends in average farm size seem at odds with what is observed in the countryside— increasingly large equipment used by farmers to work increasingly large amounts of farmland in their operation. Given total cropland area has remained relatively constant, this would suggest the average farm size should also increase.
Focusing on the average farm size hides the changes in the distribution of farm size. As we recently discussed in a previous article, the the number of farms increased in the last census compared to the previous one. If the increase is due in part to an increase in small operations and not just an increase in the large farms noted previously, then it is possible for the average to fall. In future installments, we will examine the change in farm size distribution over time and its impact on several structural issues including average farm size.
Recommended citation format: Breaker, R., and A Weersink. "Average Farm Size Has Stopped Growing". Food Focus Guelph (130), Department of Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of Guelph, August 23, 2022.