Ag census shows more young farmers than ever in B.C.

The numbers aren’t all rosy for British Columbia, which saw a drop in the number of farms since 2011

SUMMERLAND, B.C. — For the first time in two decades, British Columbia is seeing an increase in the proportion of young farmers setting up shop in the province.

The 2016 census of agriculture, released last month, shows that in the period since the last census in 2011, farmers in the youngest age group of 35 and younger made up 6.9 percent of farmers in the province. In 2011, they accounted for 5.4 percent.

“It was a neat census to see all the changes. Particularly, it was neat to see in terms of operator age,” said Eric Dorff of Statistics Canada.

Dorff said the overall trend of an aging farm demographic still applies in B.C. and in Canada as a whole. The oldest operators, reported as those aged 55 and older, increased to 58.6 percent of all farmers in B.C. from 54.1 percent in 2011. The middle age group, farmers aged 35 to 54, fell to 34.6 percent of the total from 40.5 percent in the previous census.

“But for the first time in 20 years, we saw that youngest age category, those under 35, increase in proportion, said Dorff.

Overall, the census paints a familiar picture of the B.C. agriculture. It is a province sprinkled with a vast assortment of mainly small, diversified farms that can vary widely depending on geography from rangelands in the interior to the horticultural areas of the south.

“You’ve got a neat combination of smaller farms, as well as those really cool ones producing that wide variety of horticulture products,” Dorff said.

And all farms aren’t necessarily small, he pointed out.

“If you go up into the Peace (in the northeast), you see something more in line with what you see in prairie type agriculture with crops, livestock —larger type operations.”

Dorff said one figure that stands out in the census is the decline in B.C. farm numbers.

They declined nationally by 5.9 percent, which was the lowest decline in 20 years, but in B.C., farm numbers fell 11.3 percent with 17,528 recorded farms.

The province also reported the largest proportion of small farms with gross receipts of less than $10,000 at 41.6 percent. Nationally, small farms account for 17.7 percent of all farms.

Total farm area in the province fell by .8 percent to 6.4 million acres. Total farm area encompasses land owned or operated by an agricultural operation and includes cropland, summerfallow, pasture, woodlands, wetlands and all other land including idle land and land on which farm buildings are located.

Meanwhile, average farm size grew to 365 acres from 327 in 2011.

The 2011-16 period also saw shifts in what B.C. farmers are growing.

Farmers moved away from hay and some horticultural production (sod farms and nurseries) and worked more field crops, fruits, berries and nuts.

Field crop acreage rose 9.6 percent to 483,957 acres with field peas leading the way with an increase of 379.2 percent since 2011 to 49,073 acres. The change was attributed to high prices and crop rotation advantages.

Spring wheat, canola and oats remain on top in terms of overall acreage leaders in field crops.

The total area in fruit, berries and nuts in B.C. rose to 65,679 acres, which is a 3.6 percent increase from 2011.

Blueberry area especially took off, rising 13.1 percent to 23,585 acres. Apples were next at 9,689 acres, followed by grapes at 9,652.

B.C. led the nation in the number of farms that reported growing fruits, berries and nuts. The province accounted for more than one-third of the national total of farms growing those crops at 36.1 percent.

On the issue of income, B.C. farmers saw their gross farm receipts climb more quickly than operating expenses. Gross farm receipts were $3.7 billion in 2015 while operating expenses were $3.2 billion. Operating expenses ate through 85 percent of gross farm receipts in 2015 compared to 89 percent in 2010.

The expense-to-receipt ratio varied among farm types. In 2015, operations classified as dairy and milk production continued to have the most favourable ratio of .79 (79 cents for expenses from every dollar of gross revenue).

Beef and feedlot operations reported the greatest improvement in the expense-to-receipt ratio, falling to .86 in 2016 from 1.02 in 2011.

“So that’s a fairly significant shift,” Dorff said. “Also of note in line with that, while the cattle herd, beef herd declined in most of the country, most of the provinces, it was only Alberta and B.C. that bucked that trend and had the cattle herd actually increase.”

He said the increase is likely due to the large cattle processing plants in Alberta, which are within reasonably easy shipping distance for B.C. producers.

Conversely, the ratio for hog and pig type operations showed the largest deterioration, rising to .97 from .93.

B.C. was the sole province to record an increase in dairy cows, up 2.9 percent to 75,853 head. However, the number of farms having dairy cows was down 7.2 percent, reinforcing the trend of larger, fewer, more efficient farms. Dairy yield also increased 8.7 percent.

“Part of that, (producers) became more efficient in the yield per animal, which is something we saw across the country, but they added to the herd as well,” said Dorff.

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