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Canada’s disappearing ‘average farmer’ means one-size-fits-all policies no longer work

Canada’s agriculture industry has been undergoing significant changes over the past 45 years. Since the 1970s, the number of farms has been steadily declining, but not all farms have been impacted equally — mid-size farms have been hit the hardest, as the number of small and large farms increases.

The mid-size farm category used to cover the majority of agricultural operations. These tended to be operated by a single farmer working on a full-time basis to support a single farm family. Now, a range of farm sizes exist, with small ones often being operated by farmers with off-farm employment, and larger ones being run by several farmers.

While mid-size farms used to be the average farm, it is now difficult to define what the average farm is. This has implications on determining the need for policy intervention and what that policy will look like. It’s clear the one-size-fits-all approach to policy-making no longer works.

Changes in farm size

The changes in farm size over the last two generations are illustrated in several ways. The first is through the decline in the total number of farms in Canada. The number of farms has fallen by 44 per cent to 189,874 farms in 2021 from 338,552 farms in 1976.

Secondly, there was a significant decline in the amount of mid-size farms. While the total number of farms has fallen, the decline is particularly evident among mid-size farms. In 1976, most farms were mid-size, but by 2021 that number had declined 59 per cent to 21,587.

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