Farmland concentration a growing problem in Canada, warns report

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Farm tractor sitting in a field. Image credit: Nathan Lugo/Unsplash

The first months of a new year are a good time to reflect on where we have been and how to do things differently going forward. And of course, being in the midst of the second wave of this pandemic should also help put a few things into perspective.

As part of this exercise, you may want to consider reading a report recently published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA).

Titled Concentration Matters: Farmland Inequality on the Prairies, it is filled with important data regarding the loss of family farms and increasing land concentration on the Prairies.

COVID-19 has brought to light huge gaps in our food system, particularly in the conditions of migrant farm labour, but also in the meat processing industry. These examples of extreme concentration have been documented in this column, and are also mentioned in the CCPA's new report.

Concentration Matters argues that the vulnerabilities this pandemic has highlighted in the Canadian food production system are a wake-up call, one that should lead to policies that discourage land concentration and its serious impact on the production and control of food.

The authors note:

"COVID-19 is giving us the opportunity to, once and for all, move away from a bigger is better, production-maximizing, export-oriented, input-overdependent and climate-change-generating agriculture. Instead, now is the time to get on with the important task of building food sovereignty by creating more diversified, resilient, people-centred food systems that foster local/regional supply chains, close ties between farmers and eaters, more equitable distribution of food producing resources, and ecological sustainability."

The paper goes on to detail the ever-increasing concentration of land on the Prairies, and how, while the loss of family farms is constant and occurring rapidly, the concentration of land is happening even more quickly than the loss of family farms.

The report details the changing ownership and control over Prairie farmland, and how this restructuring of Prairie agriculture is increasing inequality. Just as over the past decades many small businesses have disappeared and given way to big box stores often owned by distant, transnational corporations, the same is now also happening to land owned by family farmers. Concentration Matters makes important links between concentration of farmland and rural depopulation -- if not directly, definitely by implication.

More than 70 per cent of Canada's agricultural land is located in the three Prairie provinces -- Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba -- where the loss of family farms is most evident. That said, all provinces have seen a marked decline in farms since 1966, with Canada having lost close to half of its farms since then.

Meanwhile, the really telling story at this point in our agrarian history is that even these startling numbers actually understate the immensity of the loss.

According to the authors of Concentration Matters:

"These farm-loss rates, rapid and concerning as they are, actually understate the magnitude of the problem because the rate of farmland concentration is running ahead of the rate of farm loss. Since 1966, Canada has lost half of its farms, but the number of farmers who control the vast majority of land is far smaller than the numbers above suggest."

In other words, the real story of land concentration is only told when you analyze the size of farms* alongside the loss of farms operations. For example, in Saskatchewan in 2016, 45 per cent of smaller farm operations (those under 1,000 acres) farmed less than 10 per cent of the land. Meanwhile, eight per cent of larger farm operations (those over 5,000 acres) farmed 38 per cent of Saskatchewan farmland. The average farm size of that eight per cent of farm operations was more than 9,382 acres -- or around 15 square miles -- but many were much larger. The figures show very similar trends in Alberta and Manitoba.

Not surprisingly, the larger Prairie farms are also collecting a much larger share of farm income, with smaller farmers struggling with much smaller amounts. For example, farms larger than 10,000 acres had average net incomes of $820,000 (before depreciation of equipment, buildings, etc.). These farms make up two per cent of all Prairie farmers, but take home 15 per cent of the net income. Meanwhile, farms smaller than 1,000 acres had average net incomes of $34,000 (before depreciation). These smaller farmers make up 53 per cent of all Prairie farms, but take home only 18 per cent of net incomes or revenue. Averages can be deceiving, so while some net incomes were well above $820,000, other net farm incomes were well below $34,000.

But land concentration also has impacts that many might not consider initially. The report details these as well. For example, most younger farmers or new farmers start with smaller farms. How does the decreasing numbers of small farms affect the future for farm entrants?

Can new small farmers compete with those who own much larger farms and receive a much larger share of farm income? Do farm operators backed by large land holdings or by private or corporate investors borrow more easily and have the ability to drive up the price of land with their purchasing power? Does investment or purchasing of lands by larger operators or outside investors drive up the price of land, making it doubly hard for new farmers to gain a toehold?

The answers to these questions in part lies with the loss of young farmers in Canada. In the three Prairie provinces, fully 70 per cent of young farmers have been lost since 1991. As the report notes, "the reduction in the number of small farms, the concentration of farmland and farm income into fewer and fewer large operations, and barriers to entry created by rising land prices all make it more difficult for young and new farmers to enter agriculture."

The report also analyzes statistics from across Canada. The authors estimate that less than three-tenths-of-one-per cent of Canadians -- about 94,000 people -- own half of this country's (privately owned) food-producing acreage. Those farms may be operated by family farmers -- but they are a very small percentage of family farmers.

Concentration Matters is filled with important data, explanations related to the structure of Prairie farmland, and the impact of losing farms and land concentration on communities and consumers. While it does not contain specific policy solutions to address land concentration, hopefully in the future there will be a sequel to this report that does.

The report does, however, have a few stark reminders. One is that agricultural land ownership is not just a farm issue; it is an issue that affects us all because it affects food supply, how our population is distributed across the country, employment, and much more.

Concentration Matters calls for "an extensive public debate about access to and control over farmland."

The report concludes:

"Federal and provincial policies that ensure a more equitable distribution of access to and control of Canada's food-producing lands can form part of a larger effort to counter income and wealth inequality, help retain local democratic control of our economy and polity, tackle the climate crisis head-on, and build stronger and more resilient food systems that can better survive in times of pandemics and other disruptions."

I couldn't agree more. This report is well worth the read… as this pandemic gives us food for thought in 2021.

Lois Ross is a communications specialist, writer and editor, living in Ottawa. Her column "At the farm gate" discusses issues that are key to food production here in Canada as well as internationally.

*How large is large? Well...

I think back 30 years ago when I interviewed farmers across the Prairies for my book Prairie Lives: The Changing Face of Farming. The trends were clear then….and even more so now. At that time, I interviewed a farmer who had amassed 36 sections of farmland -- or more than 23,000 acres. If those land masses are hard to calculate, just imagine driving 36 miles one way -- then imagine one person owning that stretch of 36 miles -- then imagine driving 36 miles in each direction, and driving in a square -- in each direction -- and now imagine one family owning all of that 36-mile square of land. I still remember that farmer making fun of smaller farms as he ate lunch and surveyed the harvest, while seated on the hood of his dusty Cadillac.

Image credit: Nathan Lugo/Unsplash

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