Farm Numbers in Canada Continue to Fall but the Trend is Slowing
By Reanna Braeker and Alfons Weersink
Farm numbers in Canada have been falling since the Great Depression and the numbers continue to fall according to the latest census. The changes in farm numbers over the last 50 years are illustrated in Figure 1. In 1971 there were over 366,000 farms, however, by 2016 there were approximately half that number. While the numbers continue to fall, the rate of decrease has slowed in recent years.
What is a Farm?
When looking at the stats on farm numbers, it is important to note the broad definition used by Statistics Canada to define a farm. Until 2016, anyone who indicated that they had the intent of producing agriculture products for sale was deemed a farmer and they were asked to provide information on their farm. It did not include a requirement for a minimum sales amount— only the intent to sell. The most recent census changed the definition of a ‘census farm’ to be “a unit that produces agricultural products and reports revenues or expenses for tax purposes to the Canada Revenue Agency”. This definition is slightly more restrictive but still means many operations are counted as a farm even with minimal sales or expenses. The point to note is that the number of farms reported consists of more that just the commercial farm operations that most consider as farms— these are just a subset within the broad, all-encompassing definition of a farm.
Ontario has the most farms
The change in number of farms by province is listed in Table 1. Ontario has the most farms in the country. There were approximately 95,000 farms in 1971 and this has dropped in half to just over 48,000 in 2021. These totals still represent one-quarter of all farms in the country. In 1971, the nearly 77,000 farms in Saskatchewan were the second most in the country. However, the number of farms in 2016 is 44% of the total 50 years earlier and Saskatchewan has dropped to third regarding farm number in Canada. Alberta now has the second highest number of farms at 41,505; two-thirds of the number that existed in the province in 1971.
Rate of decline has slowed
The rate of decline in farm numbers over the last 50 years and between the last census periods are also listed in Table 1. On average between census periods, there has been a 7% decline in farm numbers nationally. As illustrated in Figure 1, the rate of decline has slowed over time and the drop was slightly less than 2% between 2016 and 2021. The Ontario numbers echo national trends in this regard.
Biggest declines in the Maritimes, smallest in the West
The relative increase in the share of farms in Alberta is due to its smaller average decline over time. Farm numbers in Alberta have fallen by 4.4% on average between census periods and actually increased by over 2% in the last census. Quebec farm numbers also increased by a similar percentage between 2016 and 2021. This uptick represents a significant change in the declines experienced in Quebec particularly prior to 2001.
Farm numbers in British Columbia were relatively flat for much of the last 50 years in contrast to other provinces. However, farm numbers fell by nearly 10% between 2016 and 2021. The only other provinces with similar drops in farm numbers were the Maritime provinces. Unlike BC where the recent decline is a deviation from the relatively constant 20,000 farms it had for much of the 50 years, the recent declines in the eastern provinces are even bigger than the average percentage drops over the same period. This suggests that while the loss of farms is slowing at a national scale, this trend is not true in the Maritime provinces.
Which farms are leaving or staying?
The decline in total number of farms in aggregate is a continuation of long-term trend but there are significant regional differences with some provinces seeing an increase in farm numbers since the last census while the decline has accelerated in other regions. In future pieces, we will look further behind the aggregate numbers.
Recommended citation format: Breaker, R., and A Weersink. "Farm Numbers are Continuing to Fall But the Trend is Slowing.". Food Focus Guelph (128), Department of Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of Guelph, July 12, 2022.