Statistics Canada says that farm households are doing much better than they did a generation or two ago. And that’s something to celebrate. Our cover story in our Feb. 11 issue of Farmtario looks at the broader societal trends around the dramatic increase in farm household income over the past 50 years.
Median farm income was almost half of the income of the rest of the population in the early 1970s. It’s now almost 20 per cent above the median income of the rest of the population as of 2016.
Statistics Canada numbers on farms are notoriously fuzzy because they take in a broader swath of data than most of the rest of us in the industry consider when looking at farmers.
But the national numbers are good for identifying trends, and this is a definite change.
Yes, better farm management, more stable markets due to domestic programs (like ethanol) and growing exports help. So does technology that allows more agriculture production per person. More valuable farm assets mean more borrow- ing ability and more chances to grow businesses. But much of the increase has to come from non-farm income. That means rural Canadians are earning more. That’s not something we hear every day, but that doesn’t surprise me, especially in rural southern Ontario.
Many of the empty industrial buildings now have tenants. Sometimes they have multiple tenants using chopped up space. They usually employ fewer people than the car parts and bathroom fixture plants did in their heyday, but those buildings are seeing use and generating spinoffs in their communities.
The demand for workers in trades in rural areas is also a factor, as farmers and others in their households can make a decent living with a bit of work ethic, some technical ability and some time spent apprenticing. The school and health care systems also provide well-paying jobs in rural areas.
It depends on whether you ask Statistics Canada or Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, but farm household income runs from $80,000 to close to $140,000. No one should be ashamed of that. In fact, we should be shouting from the rooftops that rural Ontario and farms are a great place to live, raise a family and there’s the potential to make a nice living doing so. It’s not going to make you rich, but you can be comfortable. And with some expenses lower in rural Ontario, especially housing, there’s extra value to be gained.
The trend could also explain why more young people are being attracted back to the farm. They see that they can make a living and their parents can have a discussion about growth and potential. That wasn’t the case for those of us growing up in the 1970s and 1980s. There wasn’t much encouragement that a farm life made sense or was even desirable.
There’s a greater need than ever for policy that supports agriculture growth, but not necessarily income — and maybe as important is the need for rural policy and infrastructure.
Closing up when the public needs to hear from dairy farmers
Something you won’t see in Farmtario is coverage of Dairy Farmers of Canada’s policy conference, which has been closed to media. The policy conference was one of the most valuable events on the yearly dairy coverage calendar. It drew speakers with insight and producers interested in the issues and in leadership. It helped me get the pulse of what was going on across the country and that meant better coverage of the dairy sector.
DFC closed the conference once before, but reopened it the next year, with some of its producer discussions closed to the media. I can understand that approach, although hearing producers debate what’s important to them is one of the most valuable learning opportunities for me and is of interest to readers.
However, this year, no one other than attendees will get to hear what Lawrence MacAulay, Canada’s minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food, Andrew Scheer, the leader of the official opposition, Lino Saputo, CEO of the leading dairy processor whose company bears his family name or Robert Coalier, CEO of Agropur Dairy Cooperative have to say to dairy farmers.
DFC has had a tough couple of years, with multiple losses on trade, the withdrawal of much of its marketing funds by dairy farmers in Ontario and significant staff restructuring. This isn’t the time to close up the doors, when support from the public and other farmers and rank and file dairy farmers across the country will be critical into the future.