Farm numbers dip, but organic farms up: Statistics Canada

According to the Report on Agriculture, released by Statistics Canada in May 2012, the number of certified organic operations has continued to grow across Canada. Organic farms numbered 3,713 in 2011, which was 1.8 percent of Canadian farm operations overall. This is up from 1.5 percent in 2006 and 0.9 percent in 2001.

Growth in organic operations has slowed, with an increase of four percent from 2006 to 2011. The increase in the previous five-year period was 67 percent. But even meagre growth in organic farm numbers is impressive when you consider the overall trend in agriculture.

Statistics Canada recorded a decline from 2006 to 2011 in total farm numbers that was consistent across all provinces, and a decline in every new census since 1941.

The Prairies are home to about 40 percent of the organic farmers in Canada. According to Statistics Canada, there were 1,015 organic operations in Saskatchewan in 2011, 169 in Manitoba, and 290 in Alberta.

Saskatchewan is a traditional leader in organic production, in both farm numbers and farm size.

Lately, the number of organic farms in Saskatchewan is down 14 percent, while the total number of farms in the province is down 17 percent.

Why is Saskatchewan no longer leading the organic boom? Statistics Canada reports that in Saskatchewan 98 percent of organic operations grow field crops or hay. The global recession hit organic commodity markets hard in the United States and Europe.

Organic prices are on the rise again in 2012, but the damage may be done.

Comparison with Manitoba and Alberta shows that commodity prices don’t tell the whole story. All the prairie provinces have high percentages of farms growing field crops and hay (88 percent in Alberta and 91 percent in Manitoba).

Manitoba shares Saskatchewan’s losses, with a 14 percent loss of organic farms and a 17 percent loss of farms overall. Alberta, on the other hand, is a bright spot for organics in 2011. Organic farm operations increased 26 percent. This is especially encouraging in contrast to a 13 percent loss in farming operations overall in Alberta.

Becky Lipton, executive director of Organic Alberta, suggests Alberta organic farmers have more options in terms of off-farm jobs over the winter.

During the period of poor markets, Alberta organic farmers headed to the oil fields or to work in the bush.

Another answer lies in the weather. The unprecedented flooding of 2010 and 2011 prevented seeding of many acres in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. This may have been the last straw for producers already suffering from poor markets.

Much of the growth in organic farm numbers is now fuelled by Eastern Canada. Statistics Canada shows that organic operations are up 14 percent in Ontario and 26 percent in Quebec over the last five years.

Quebec, with 963 organic operations, is rapidly gaining on Saskatchewan. Organic industry statistics suggest Quebec may already have surpassed Saskatchewan in organic farm numbers.

According to Statistics Canada, organic operations represent 3.5 percent of the all farm operations in Quebec. This is nearly double the Canadian average.

Like Quebec, British Columbia has provincial organic regulation, and an emphasis on horticulture. But B.C.’s farm numbers have not increased dramatically since 2006.

Much of Quebec’s growth in organics comes from maple syrup and herb, spice and garlic production.

Nationally, the growth of organics is encouraging. For many in Eastern Canada, organics are booming.

Personally, and locally, I find it hard to put a positive spin on a 14 percent loss. It may be less than the provincial average, but it’s still a severe and personal tragedy for many of those involved.

For those who remain, I congratulate you on your dedication, innovation, and perhaps even stubbornness. May the next five years be better.

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