Not too long ago I had a coffee with a new friend and, during that getting-to-know you phase, she asked about my farm – is it really like what you see on TV?
I have to admit that my first reaction was to be quite defensive – of course not! After talking about the layers, chicks, average farm size in Canada and where I fit in, I had some time to reflect when I got home. Realistically speaking, how many people know what farms now-a-days look like? Most people only know about farms and agriculture by what they hear and see on TV and radio and, increasingly, through social media.
My friend’s questions fall into two categories – farm size and intensive production. I’ll try to tackle both issues:
Most people realize that there are fewer farms and less people involved in agriculture, but do they realize the pace that these changes are happening? Here are some quick facts from the most recent Statistics Canada study in 2011:
- Only 2.2% of Canada’s total population are classified as the farm population
- The total number of family farms in 2011 was 205,730, which is a decrease of 10.3% from the previous census
- The average land size of a Canadian farm increased from 728 acres to 778 acres, a growth of 6.9%
- The average age of farmer operators continues to increase and currently is around 55 years of age
- There are about 27.7% of farm operators in Canada that are female – yes, one of those is me!
So, this data accounts for the fact that we have larger farms with fewer people involved. But what do these farms look like and why? Yes, farm size is increasing and we have a growing number of people to feed with fewer farms. Farms are becoming more intensive, due to operating costs that continue to increase and farmers’ need to maximize their operations to become more efficient. In this way, farms aren’t any different than any other types of business.
Consumers generally don’t want to pay more for their food and, in most types of farming, producers don’t set the actual price they receive, as they receive commodity pricing. In the egg industry, I’m extremely fortunate that supply management takes into account the actual costs of production and uses those costs to determine a price that we receive from the grader or processor. The price consumers pay in the grocery store is set by the retailer.
What I would like Canadians to understand is that the overwhelming number of farms in Canada are family farms, not corporate farms. Moms and dads, grandparents and grandkids work together to produce fresh, high quality food. Yes, some farms also have outside help, but their employees are crucial to getting the work done every day! Unfortunately, many people have a perception that all farms are like the huge conglomerate types of farms seen on TV, where many of those farms have hundreds of thousands or even millions of chickens in a single location. That simply isn’t the case in Canada.
So my friend asked if all the chickens are kept in small, confining, crowded cages. She was surprised to learn that many farms in Alberta (around 20% or so) don’t even raise their chickens in conventional cages, including my own farm; I have a free-run barn with 7,000 hens free-run barn. There are also farms where birds are housed in aviaries or free-range housing systems. Many producers are moving to colony housing, where up to 60 birds are grouped together and have nest boxes, perches and scratching areas.
My friend was amazed when I told her that our industry is always looking for ways to do things better for the birds, and how much farmers genuinely care about the animals they raise. I’m using social media to show her and other people outside of our industry what farming is all about, while also trying to do some myth-busting!
I’d be really interested to hear about some of the myths you have about farming! Share a comment and I’ll gladly answer all your questions in a future blog post.