Who is a Farmer? A Crucial Question for Creating Farm Policy


When University of Guelph agricultural economist Alfons Weersink told me he was tackling the question “Who is a farmer?”, I immediately thought of the late Paul Harvey.

He’s the broadcaster whose 1978 Americana classic, “So God Made A Farmer,” was brilliantly revived in a 2013 Super Bowl ad for Dodge trucks.

In it, Harvey praised farmers for many things, but mostly for their work ethic. Dodge liked the parallels with its trucks. The segment turned into one of the most successful Super Bowl ad campaigns ever and resonated for months after.

University of Guelph agricultural economist Alfons Weersink.
University of Guelph agricultural economist Alfons Weersink.

Weersink has a different mission. He’s not pursuing a philosophical line of thought; rather, his focus is on trying to figure how farmers can be identified for census purposes. When he asks who is a farmer, it’s to help count heads for the 2016 census. The agri-food sector, governments, planners, statisticians, and economists alike need to know who is, and isn’t, considered a Canadian farmer, and be clear on how that’s decided.

God knows the answer is a matter of interpretation is some people’s minds. You know you’re a farmer. You’ve got the land, the machinery, the livestock, the family history, the marketing plan, the environmental farm plan, the farm safety plan, the pesticide applicator’s certificate, etc., to prove it.

However, a new generation of farmers has arisen, thanks mainly to the local food movement and society’s growing interest in food production.

They’re not farmers like you, quantity and commodity wise.

But they self-identify as farmers.

And if they answer yes to the question “Do you have the intent to sell agricultural produce?” they are considered a farmer by Statistics Canada. They’re then directed to complete the Census of Agriculture on their farm operation.

So that means Canada’s definition of a farmer and a farm is based on the potential ability and desire to sell agricultural products.

And Weersink thinks we should all have our eyes wide open such a broad or wanting definition of a farm, especially if we’re trying to draw conclusions about what the numbers mean, and create farm policy that supports them.

For example, if recent trends prevail, he predicts the 2016 census will reveal a total of about 10 per cent fewer farms and farmers over the past five years (since the last census). That means less than 200,00 farms, and 275,000 farmers.

But within those numbers are three key items.

First, a big drop is expected in smaller commercial operations, the ones that have been disappearing steadily through the years. Weersink says that due to the significant increase in productivity and the small margins for commodity agriculture, the continued pressure for consolidation has forced these farms to either get bigger or exit the sector.

For similar reasons, growth is likely to be seen in commercial farms with sales greater than $250,000. As consolidation continues they’re actually get bigger – they’re the ones buying smaller commercial operations – and their number is expected to increase to approximately 50,000.

And finally, very small farm operators – those who make less than $10,000 a year on agriculture – will probably increase as well. Farmers in this category typically work off the farm, too, and enter and exit the sector as their personal circumstances dictate.

“I suspect an increase in their numbers due to growing interest in local produce and the fact that agriculture is cool,” says Weersink.

So, in Canada, big farms are getting bigger, smallish farms are dwindling, and very small farms are on the rise. That’s a yellow flag for those creating farm policy to meets everyone’s needs.

“The all-encompassing definition of a farmer requires us to be cautious when interpreting the total numbers and averages associated with those numbers,” says Weersink.

“There is no value judgment associated with the growing disparity in farm size, but it makes it difficult to use a uniform one-size-fits-all when you have farmers selling $10,000 worth of goods and others selling 100 times that,” he says. “Who should be targeted and how?”

None of this means that today, Paul Harvey is wrong. Farmers of all types still work hard and deserved to be recognized.

But when it comes to farm policy and census, hard work is not the bottom line.

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