The future of agriculture is as cloudy as producers wish the skies were.
Statistics Canada released its five-year agriculture census on Wednesday, and while it shows some positive growth indicators for the sector in Alberta, there are also some major challenges.
Agriculture has a long-term future problem amid a growing global demand for food.
The average age of a producer in Alberta has gone up 1.4 per cent to 56.5 years old. There are almost twice as many producers over the age of 55 (35,515) than under (21,680) — in fact, there are only 5,115 producers across all sectors under 35, a gap that has increased in the past five years.
“Farming is not an easy job, you have to be wearing a lot of hats,” said Tara Sawyer, chair of the Alberta Barley Commission. “To me, it takes a special sort of person and mindset that makes a really good farmer that cares about farm stewardship and understands the business side. It’s a high risk for entry, the high land value, the high cost of equipment, the high cost of inputs.”
These issues are especially challenging in difficult growing seasons like the Prairies have experienced over the past several years, when weather wreaked havoc on the best-run established operations.
She said these difficult years have been a teaching point about sustainable practices, both financially and in the field, for her three children on her family farm near Acme.
There are some positives for the future of the industry, however. Despite farmland dropping by 2.2 per cent in Alberta — as well as the number of producers from 57,605 to 57,200 — the number of farms has actually increased over the past five years from 40,648 to 41,505.
There has also been a spike in succession planning, as the pandemic has forced many Alberta producers to think about what’s next, with 14 per cent of farms with a plan in place, the second-highest rate in Canada behind only Saskatchewan.
There has also been an increase in women entering agriculture, going from 17,760 in 2016 to 18,525 in 2021.
According to the census, Alberta continues to lead the country in the production of spring wheat, canola and barley through May 2021.
Erin Kumar, chief responsible for the Census of Agriculture for Statistics Canada, said there is also a change in the way farmers are selling their produce to the public during the pandemic. Many are leaning toward direct-to-consumer sales at farmers markets, online or roadside stands.
“We can’t say it’s a direct impact of the pandemic but, with pandemic-related measures, seeing the increase of direct-to-consumer sales was not surprising to us,” she said.
There are some critical short-term issues the sector is dealing with as well, notably the cost of inputs.
According to the census, oilseed and grain farmers had the best ratio in the sector at 0.76 — they had 76 cents’ worth of expenses for every dollar earned. For livestock, those margins were tighter, with beef producers and feedlots at a ratio of 0.94 for the 2020 growing season. Since then, there has been a devastating drought and geopolitical issues that have taken a toll. While commodity prices have soared, input costs have also risen significantly.
Sawyer estimates input costs for her family’s 4,600-acre farm have tripled this year.
The beef industry has been hit particularly hard, with many ranchers and feedlot operators relying on corn feed and other supplements as early as last fall due to the lack of pasture or other feed available.
This has also driven up input costs, though Brad Dubeau, general manager of Alberta Beef Producers, was unable to say how much due to the many variables each producer deals with.
Due to the time frame of the census, it is not the most accurate picture of the current situation for the beef industry. The census shows Alberta with a 5.6 per cent increase to the provincial herd; Saskatchewan is the only other province to show an increase. Dubeau says there has now been a reduction to that total due to many producers having to reduce their herds to make it through the winter, though he was unable to say by how much.
“We anticipate a continued reduction in the cow herd over time, mostly due to drought in Canada and the United States and significantly increased production costs,” said Dubeau, who ranches near Medicine Hat with his brother.
Despite these challenges, the data show an increase in the number of Alberta beef cattle ranching and farming operations, including feedlots, from 12,282 in 2016 to 14,601 in 2021.
“It shows the resiliency of beef producers in this province and the desire to continue to produce high-quality beef in Alberta,” said Dubeau.
He said beef producers were being cautious about the potential for this year. Moisture levels are relatively good in the north, while the south could be at risk of another year of drought.
Many decisions about this year will be made in the next couple of weeks, and largely hinge on rain.
Dubeau said Alberta Beef is advocating for mechanisms to improve access to feed and to lower production costs.
“This industry is resilient but there is a breaking point, and producers at every level of the production cycle must be able to have some profitability in what they’re doing and remain sustainable,” he said.