When folk singer Stompin’ Tom Connors sang about Canada’s Poor, Poor Farmers back in 1973, he probably wouldn’t have envisioned how modern agriculture would evolve over the next 40 years or so.
Today, grain and oilseed farmers on the Canadian Prairies are bigger, more productive and more heavily invested than ever.
However, based on the value of their capital investments in agriculture, they’re anything but poor.
Erik Dorff, an analyst with the Census of Agriculture, said the 2016 farm census points to a continuation of a trend that began nearly 75 years ago.
Farm numbers are shrinking but the farms that remain are getting bigger.
“We’ve seen a long-term trend toward consolidation in farm numbers and that’s been going on since 1941,” he said.
Consolidation in the industry is illustrated by both the value of capital assets used by today’s farmers, as well as gross annual receipts.
The value of farm assets in the prairie provinces was estimated at $280 billion in 2016, up from $171 billion in 2011. Those assets generated gross receipts of $38.3 billion last year.
The amount of land used to produce crops also increased significantly between 2011 and 2016.
In Manitoba, the amount of land used to produce crops other than hay increased to 11.5 million acres, up from 10.7 million acres five years earlier.
In Saskatchewan, cropland area rose to 40.5 million acres, up from 36.4 million in 2011.
And in Alberta, the area dedicated to crop production rose to 25.3 million acres, up 24.1 million in 2011.
All told, the amount of prairie farmland that was used to grow crops rose to 77.3 million acres, up 8.6 percent from 2011 census.
Dorff said the increase in cropped area suggests that farmers are dedicating less area to hay production, pasture and summerfallow.
“We saw cropland increase significantly within the Prairies and that came from a number of factors,” he said.
“In 2011, when we had the last (ag) census, we caught the Prairies — particularly Manitoba and areas of Saskatchewan — in pretty wet conditions.”
Alberta and British Columbia were the only provinces that saw an increase in cattle numbers over the past five years, he added.
Todd Lewis, a farmer from Gray, Sask., said prairie farmers are producing more grain than ever.
To some extent, that’s because less land is being dedicated to livestock production.
But other factors are also at play, such as continuous cropping, improved agronomic practices, better equipment and the adoption of new technologies.
“What used to be considered a huge crop is getting to be the new normal,” Lewis said.
“I think that’s proof that we are producing more, and certainly with the new technology that’s available now … some land that was deemed as marginal a few years ago maybe isn’t considered marginal any more.”