Farm size was an interesting topic of conversation when I was in Europe. On one occasion, we were just not making sense, and eventually I realized why. In Canada, farm size can be viewed in various ways, including revenue, by acreage, by livestock units and more recently, by environmental impact. Statistics Canada measures farm size by revenue and by acreage. For me, farm size relates to revenue and the number of employees, perhaps because once, I was a small farm on 189 acres.
Let’s think about farm size. In one acre, there are 43,000 square feet. If you had a row of vegetables every foot, and each foot of that row generates $1, such as 1 foot of carrots, that acre can generate $43,000. When rows are wider, its $2 per foot of crop and so on. If 8 out of 12 acres are in production because, of course we are doing our rotations, we are looking at revenues of over $300,000. Is this 12 acre (5 hectare) farm a small farm or a large farm?
The Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario (CFFO) put out a discussion paper a few years ago titled ‘A Place for All: Addressing the Policy Implications of Farm Size’ (http://www.christianfarmers.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=68&Itemid=70). It states that the Institute for Agri-Food Policy Innovation placed the large/small divide at $250,000 in gross sales (2006), which is the point where “most farm operations were considered large enough to support a family comfortably.”
According to Professor Miguel Altieri and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, who promote agroecology:
• Small farmers may hold only 24.3% of farm land, but they make up 84.4% of all farms and feed 50% of the world population.
• They employ three times as many people as does agribusiness, and
• In Cuba, they use 1kCal of energy to produce 30kCal of food energy (compared with industrial agriculture 1kCal -> 1.5kCal of food energy).
Most often, when you own a farm here in Ontario, you own at least 100 acres and likely about 200 acres. (In the prairies, average farm size is over 1000 acres). In Europe, that is a sizable piece of land. Here, a 100 acre farm parcel does not translate into the number of acres in production. In Europe, the amount of land one owns is productive land and one farmer can own several parcels of land scattered around where they live. I noticed this in particular in countries like Austria and Romania.
They also use land very efficiently, whereas, we take land for granted here. For example, right now, the sides of rural roads in Ontario are being clipped of their tall grass. In some parts of Europe, they would be baling that grass! There is so much more land that we could put into production here.
When CFFO ran workshops for the above mentioned paper, farmers in these workshops “often used the words ‘small’ or ‘large’ to refer to ownership differences rather than size,” where ‘small’ is an integrated family-based operation and ‘large’ is an industrial enterprise. Although acreage and revenue are relevant, the issue is as much a qualitative one as a quantitative one. Actual size is secondary. Traditionally, a farm increased in size over time through hard work, whereas ‘large farms’ today are often created by an immediate investment of large amounts of capital.
Number of farms by gross farm receipts (at 2010 constant prices),
Canada, 2006 and 2011 (Source: Statistics Canada, Census of Agriculture)
Gross farm receipts 2011 2006
Number of farms Number of farms
Less than $10,000 43,954 45,749
$10,000-$24,999 32,853 36,971
$25,000-$49,999 25,764 30,227
$50,000-$99,999 25,455 31,119
$100,000-$249,999 31,670 40,382
$250,000-$499,999 22,455 25,108
$500,000-$999,999 13,977 12,499
$1,000,000-$1,999,999 6,304 4,614
$2,000,000 and over 3,298 2,704
Total 205,730 229,373
Large farms: 22.4% 19.6%
It is argued by some that Canadian agricultural policy is catering to less than 25% of farms (those with receipts exceeding $250,000). I need to understand what it would be like to be a 25 year old taking over the family farm and managing 600 to 1000 acres. Who is kidding who here? Are we headed in the right direction?
In Agriculture 3.0, it is not just about economics anymore
If a farmer is going to make money year after year and hand over a productive farm to their son or daughter, there are many other aspects to be considered. I quote one of my favourite writers on small farm economics, John Ikerd.
The small farm economics of today is about making enough profit to meet the material requisites for a desirable quality of life while:
- building healthy relationships within farm families and with employees, customers, neighbors, and society,
- taking care of the land and farm animals that support them and being good stewards of nature,
- meeting the agricultural needs of human society.
The new farm economics treats farming as a business, but more importantly, as a way of life.