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Time to Tell Our Story

February 15, 2015 9:19 AM | Columns

By Kate Jackman-Atkinson, myWestman

While Canada began with an agriculture-based economy, that has changed over the last century. Today, most Canadians have lost their direct link to the farm, but that doesn’t mean that farmers are any less vital to Canadians.

In 1921, one million Canadians were employed in agriculture. It was the single most common occupation and accounted for one-third of the country’s jobs. Since then, the country has grown, but the number of farmers has shrunk. In 2008, just 1.8 per cent of the labour force, or 327,000 people, cited their primarily employment as “agriculture.”

While most Canadians no longer call the farm home, we are all dependent upon Canadian farmers. We all enjoy the food they produce.

While those of us who live in rural Canada know the importance of agriculture, the 81 per cent of Canadians who live in urban centres don’t. The problem is that since many Canadians are two generations removed from the farm, they have no idea what modern-day farming entails. The farms of two decades ago, the ones Canadians’ parents and grand-parents left to find opportunity in the city, look nothing like today’s farms. Yesterday’s farmers were frequently living a hardscrabble life characterized by hard work, gruelling hours, low income and a lack of household amenities. This is the picture many Canadians continue to hold.

I grew up in urban Canada, about three generations removed from the farm. My perceptions of farming were coloured by these outdated images. Growing up, I didn’t know any farmers, my perception of the industry was shaped by stories of previous generations and the media.

As previous generations left the farm to seek their fortunes, the number of Canadian farmers has declined and the size of Canadian farms has increased. According to Statistics Canada, between 2006 and 2011, the average size of Canadian farms increased from 728 acres to 778 acres. While a century ago, a whole family would have farmed 160 acres, today, that land and much more can be farmed by a single person. Today, farmers have been able to leverage technology to replace labour.

The biggest reality urban Canadians fail to recognize about modern farming is the scope of the operation. The majority of today’s farmers are running a highly specialized businesses. They run their business with machinery and equipment often worth millions of dollars. They must manage the land they own or rent as well as their facilities and equipment. Depending on the type of operation, they manage seeding, harvesting, grazing, stock reproduction and marketing. They manage cash flows involving expensive inputs and uncertain sales income. While they may drive a tractor instead of a desk, they are first and foremost skilled entrepreneurs.

In 2009, Canada’s total farm cash receipts totalled $44 billion. Crudely calculated, that’s an average of $136,000 in cash receipts for each Canadian farmer, but the average hides the fact that many are handling far more in sales than that.

Most of the farmers I know are well educated about their industry and they are using technology to manage their business, they have to. Far from being isolated in some back woods, they are using their smart phones to find the best prices and connecting with buyers, sellers and other farmers from across the country and around the world.

The average Canadian just doesn’t know the realities of farming in 2015, but it’s not their fault, they just don’t have first hand experience. In her remarks at the Manitoba Beef Producers’ annual general meeting, general manager Melinda German stressed the need for producers to tell their stories to the public and to promote their profession as food producers. Canadians want to know about the food they eat and the people who produce it. It’s up to Canadian farmers to tell their story. It’s a good one and no one else will do it for them.


Tags: Manitoba