Over the past five years, Saskatchewan has lost 395 farms, according to Statistics Canada’s latest agricultural census.
the Census of Agriculture 2021 says Saskatchewan now has 34,128 farms, down from 34,523 in 2016 — down 1.1% and part of a longer-term trend. In 2001, the province had 50,598 farms, according to Statistics Canada.
The number of farm operators in the province is also down. There were 44,140 in 2021, down from 45,350 in 2016 and a significant drop from 66,275 in 2001.
“We’ve seen a trend of losing farms and farmers over the years,” said Cathy Holtslander, director of research and policy at the National Farmers Union.
“This is the wrong direction. We want more farmers working on farms, not fewer.”
The Statistics Canada report says “trends identified in previous census cycles, such as industry consolidation and aging farm operators, continued in 2021.”
Across Canada, “small and medium-sized farms are in decline… impacting the rural landscape and the profile of Canadian regions,” the report says.
Holtslander says it’s evident in the Saskatchewan stats.
While the overall number of farms has declined, the number over 3,500 acres – the largest Census of Agriculture classification – has increased over the past 20 years.
There’s also a growing trend toward more leased land, Holtslander said — a shift driven by the cost of land and farm debt.
“By 2020, farm debt had increased by $4 billion in Saskatchewan. That’s a lot of debt for farmers,” she said. “In 2021 it will likely be even higher, especially with rising interest rates.”
About 60% of the land is owned and 40% is leased, she said.
‘Emerging crisis’ as farmers age
The average age of people working on farms is increasing, according to Statistics Canada.
Nationally, the proportion of farm operators aged 55 and older has risen to 60.5% from 54.5% in 2016, according to the latest report. At the same time, the share of operators under 35 was 8.6%, down slightly from 9.1% in 2016.
Saskatchewan’s numbers are similar to national averages.
Holtslander said this trend is concerning for Saskatchewan, where the average age of farmers is now 55.8 — compared to 55 in 2016 and 50.5 in 2001.
“We have a generation of farmers who are retiring and there is no one to replace them. This is a big concern,” she said.
There has been a dramatic drop in the number of farmers under 35 – from 8,135 in 2001 to 4,305 in 2021.
“The loss of farmers under 35 is partly a cultural trend as well as an economic one. Our potential [number of] far fewer people will be 55 in 20 years than they were in the past,” Holtslander said.
“We have an emerging crisis in terms of farmer populations.”
Holtslander said many young people aspire to become successful farmers but are “unable to find a way in due to high input costs”.
Rob Stone, a farmer near Davidson, sees this firsthand.
It faces prices for major crop protection products, including herbicides like glufosinate, 2,4-D and MCPA, which have recently tripled and quadrupled.
Stone faces $1,300 a ton for nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers. Its equipment costs have increased significantly due to supply chain disruptions.
“In 2020, fuel was costing us $6.75 an acre to run the whole farm. Right now we were looking at about $23 an acre. It’s important,” Stone said.
High interest rates and rising seed prices are also impacting farmers’ profit margins, he said.
On top of that, Stone said his area is in its fourth year of “well below average rainfall.”
“Farming is always risky, but now we’re at the highest level of risk I’ve seen with the amount of money we have to pour into the ground to grow this crop.”
More women entering the industry
Census data, however, shows that nationally the number of female operators increased for the first time since 1991.
In 2021, 30.4% of farm operators in Canada were women, compared to 28.7% in 2016.
In Saskatchewan, there were 735 more women in agriculture in 2021 than in 2016, but men still make up nearly 73% of operators in the province.
Shilow Bennett, who has been a farmer for eight years in west-central Saskatchewan, said while farming has been a male-dominated field, that is changing.
“We are able to operate every piece of machinery and are there for the conversations when it comes to farming decisions,” she said.
“Agriculture has followed this trend towards the inclusiveness of the female presence at the professional level.”
Bennett said the actual number of women working on farms is likely higher than census data indicates, because many women have other jobs in addition to their farm work.
“I am a farmer but I have another job. In the census, I will not be a farmer since my main income comes from the agricultural industry apart from agriculture,” she said.
But she said she has also seen the evolution of farming over the years away from family farms.
According to the census, in 2021, 7,494 family employees worked on Saskatchewan farms, down from 4,963 in 2016.
“It’s not the thing between mom and pop-shop anymore,” she said.
“Farming is now run like a business. That family-like emotional appeal has been removed and big business is taking over.”