Farmland concentration: is it really a problem?

Concerns certainly exist regarding the growth of mega farms and the concentration of farmland control. But how many of the concerns are just envy and how many are actually valid?

Darrin Qualman of the National Farmers Union is lead author on a new report called Concentration Matters: Farmland Inequality on the Prairies. This is certainly a relevant and important topic and it’s healthy to have an informed discussion.

Unfortunately, the statistical analysis is undermined by the left-wing bias of the authors. Farms are quickly getting bigger and the analysis is quite revealing in that regard. However, the reasoning on why big is bad is poorly supported.

Working with Statistics Canada and using 2016 data, the report determines that based on Saskatchewan farms larger than 5,000 acres, 38 percent of the province’s farmland was operated and controlled by just eight percent of Saskatchewan farms — just 2,433 operations.

To their credit, the authors of the report omitted data from farms with gross revenues below $20,000 per year. Without this adjustment, the eight percent number would have been even lower. On the other hand, it could be argued that the $20,000 threshold could actually be significantly higher, which would cause the eight percent number to increase.

In Alberta in 2016, six percent of farms were larger than 5,000 acres and they controlled 40 percent of the land. In Manitoba, four percent of the farms were larger than 5,000 acres and they farmed 24 percent of the land.

Many observers don’t consider 5,000 acre farms to be that large anymore. Moving up to the 10,000 acre and larger category, across the three prairie provinces, 19 percent of the land was operated by the roughly three percent of farms in that category.

The level of farmland concentration is a bit startling when expressed in these terms. Unfortunately, that’s about where the usefulness of the report ends.

While large farms have more gross income and more net income before depreciation, the report is unable to determine definitively whether large farms are more profitable.

In fact, the report seems to argue that large farms “farm a lot of land a little” while simultaneously showing that farm inputs per acre tend to be higher on larger farms.

According to the authors, smaller farms can help solve climate change while large farms are just part of the problem. For some reason, having more farms would make it easier to manage and adapt to climate change.

Organic, low-input agriculture is touted as the way of the future. Apparently, the report authors missed the fact that many large organic operations exist on the Prairies.

Small-scale, diversified, ecological, local production, and less emphasis on export market should be the aim and big farms are the enemy.

“Farmland concentration makes it harder for young and new farmers to enter agriculture,” argues the report.

While this statement is true, it has always been difficult for young people to enter agriculture unless they had significant family assistance.

Some concepts raised in the report are worthy of debate. For instance, should there be more caps or lower caps on farm support payments to any one farm entity? Should there be more incentives for young producers?

Other ideas in the report are more controversial, including a limit on farmland ownership and the public or community purchase of farmland. The report fails to provide evidence to support this level of interference in the marketplace.

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