Farming Small In a Big Way: It’s Canadian Agriculture’s Lifeblood

    My planting season for 2012 continues.  Last Monday, the skies opened up over parts of southwestern Ontario and there just happened to be a target on one of my farms.  1.1 inches of rain later and I am still waiting for things to dry up.  Sometimes “hurrying up and waiting”, can take forever and that’s the way I feel right now.  If I go in one day too early, I’ll pay for it the rest of the season.

In the downtime I’ve had amid the raindrops I was able to read an article published by Scott Garvey, who is the machinery editor for Grain News in Western Canada.  Scott does an excellent job covering farm machinery and when I wrote Machinery Guide for Country Guide magazine I would often look at his articles.  He recently commented on Statistics Canada’s latest report of over 200,000 farmers in Canada.  In his article, “What Do Small Farmers Contribute? Scott gave a great dissertation on how small farmers make a great contribution to Canadian agriculture.

I have been thinking about this for several years now but have never really mentioned it.  For instance as an agricultural economist I am hardwired to think about efficiency and that generally means getting bigger and bigger no matter what you do.  So if that means you have four or five 500 hp combines on your farm, it usually means that is a very good thing.  The reality of the situation of course is much different.  Canadian agriculture is a collective effort from farms of all sizes.  There are some regions of the country like Western Canada where farms are vast and in other regions of the country like Quebec where farms are small.  As a whole, they create an economic engine, which is vast.

Scott Garvey was commenting on this issue because Statistics Canada had taken much criticism regarding the number of farmers it has counted in Canada.  It gets back to the old argument, who do we make agricultural policy for, the large farmers, the small farmers or the consumers of food?  Are the large farmers more important than small farmers, I think you get the picture?  In my mind the distinction makes little sense.  Small farmers make a huge contribution to Canadian agriculture and actually make it easier for the bigger farmers.

Scott Garvey cited this statistic.  “Of the 24,101 agricultural tractors sold in Canada last year, more than 18,000 were under 100 horsepower. Those machines typically go to small and lifestyle farmers. Of the 4,321 rigid-frame tractors above 100 horsepower sold, many of those are likely to have gone to small and medium sized operators as well”. (Scott Garvey)  He also made mention that only 1300 articulated four-wheel-drive tractors were sold in Canada last year.  Those were powerful stats.  It is completely obvious that smaller farmers are having a huge economic impact on this country, just in from equipment purchases alone.

I really appreciated reading Scott Garvey’s viewpoint because after writing about Farm machinery for many years as Machinery Guide editor, I have felt the same way.  For instance, there are not many of us that can afford some of the newest farm equipment, so we buy the used stuff or the smaller stuff and this creates millions of dollars of economic activity for the Canadian agricultural economy.  However, sometimes when you read farm management theory, it’s all about getting bigger, which in many cases across Canada is not true.  You can be successful in Canadian agriculture and be a small farmer.

Key to this is where you farm.  For instance, if you farm in Saskatchewan or in many other parts of Western Canada the lower fixed cost of land creates bigger opportunities.  At the same time, the higher fixed cost of land in Ontario and Québec limits expansion like we see in Western Canada.  Within this agricultural economy where ever you find yourself, one can be very successful.  So criticism that Statistics Canada may not be counting the right farmers falls on deaf ears here.  Canadian agriculture is a juggernaut, supported equally from farmers of all sizes.

This rang a bell with me recently when I read about Monsanto paying $210 million for Precision Planting of Illinois.  Precision Planting is a company in Illinois, which has pioneered precision planting technology.  When I heard about this, I wondered why they bought this planting company.  Needless to say, it’s about merging the planting technology with Monsanto’s scientific agricultural biotechnology to produce something that I can hardly imagine.   It’s also about control.  It had big farmer written all over it, but after reading Scott’s piece about small farmers, I’m not so sure.  I think everybody will surely take up the adoption of some of this mind-blowing technology in the future.

So is bigger better?  So is using GPS technology to plant until 4 o’clock in the morning to get over those big acres a growth industry?  Or can you do it all on smaller acres with smaller equipment?  Clearly, in Canadian agriculture there is a very important role for small farmers to play.  It surely will continue in a big way in the future.