As society, technology advances, so does agriculture

Farms are getting bigger, farmers are educated, using high-tech equipment, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t family farms

The exodus of people from farms to urban centres over the past 80 years drove social and economic change that few people recognize, says agriculture economist Al 
Mussell.


“There’s a story that we’re not telling, and it’s a pretty amazing story, I think,” said the Agri-Food Economic Systems research lead from Guelph, Ont. “We managed to transfer just under three million people off farms and into urban work and life, and we did it while increasing farm cash receipts, decreasing farm prices adjusted for inflation, keeping food prices essentially at the rate of inflation and fuelling tremendous economic growth in Canada.”


Mussell said much of this was driven by technological advancement.


This helped develop an increasing professional farm segment, but it also benefitted urban people, and they don’t always recognize that, he said.


A lot of new Canadians at the dawn of the agricultural era discovered that farming wasn’t for them but that educated workforce was able to take their diversified talent and put it to work developing cities and a post-Second World War manufacturing sector.


There were hiccups and mistakes along the way, but farmers and industry learned to adapt. For example, soil erosion that occurred early because of cultivation has been managed by minimum or zero tillage.


Mussell said people who are multiple generations removed from farms need to understand how society developed and the role that rural and farm people played.


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“This story of Canadian social development based on agricultural transition is not tangible to them, and perhaps not even known,” said Mussell’s policy note. 


“That progress leading to a much smaller, more professional farming segment of the Canadian economy has significantly influenced the Canadian economy and society more broadly may come as a genuine surprise.”


Farmers and the industry have been focusing on “telling our story” to counter claims from food activists and others, but he said they need to tell the bigger story, too.


Those who decry industrialized or commercial farming must realize that fewer farmers are feeding more people, and they need technology to do that.


No one wants to work on the typical American Gothic image of a farm, Mussell said, where standards and processes might not be the best.


“I think you want the best technology, the best people, and that comes with an increasingly professional farming segment,” he said.


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