The agri-food industry has been losing farmers for decades, yet that doesn’t distract most producers from doing the job they do, in spite of what federal Census of Agriculture numbers indicate. The fact is agriculture continues to drive excellence in quality, in volume and in encouraging investment in infrastructure and technology, even if the number of farms and the total acres farmed have dropped since 1996.
It’s true across the country. No province saw an increase in either category between 1996 and 2016, yet agriculture is one of the country’s most important economic industries, with expansion in the use of farm products and increasing demand in human resources. Processors and manufacturers are finding more ways to use what’s being grown in Canada, regardless of declining numbers.
That is particularly true for farming in the Atlantic provinces. Farm acres in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland account for an admittedly small area — a combined 2,397,200 acres (see Table 1 below), according to the 2016 census — but don’t tell producers in the region that their farms don’t make a difference. In terms of self-sufficiency and interest by industry stakeholders, agriculture in the four provinces has never been more important, or more recognized.
Every two years, Moncton, New Brunswick, hosts the Atlantic Farm Mechanization Show. The 2019 event boasted 185 exhibitors, including Case IH, Bayer, Corteva Agriscience, Kubota Canada, Canadian Grain Commission, Farm Credit Canada, Royal Bank and TD Bank. In even years, the same company that organizes this show also hosts the International Potato Technology Expo in Charlottetown, P.E.I., with at least 76 exhibitors, including many of the same names as the Moncton show, along with BASF Canada and Syngenta Canada, plus a full complement of potato-focused businesses.
Other examples of interest in expanding ag interests in Atlantic Canada include:
- A November 2019 announcement by McCain Foods detailing an $80 million expansion to add a potato specialty production line at its facility in Grand Falls, New Brunswick.
- A 2017 report that the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador would make 158,000 acres of Crown land available to farmers in a bid to increase self-sufficiency in the province to 20 per cent by 2022.
Again, it’s in spite of the numbers from Statistics Canada that Atlantic agriculture is thriving, something that Brad McCallum has noticed in the past 15 years. Farmland in the region dropped 230,300 acres between 2011 and 2017, but he’s positive about the industry’s future.
“For the most part, we’re seeing relatively good, stable prices, excluding a couple of industries like blueberries and mink farming, which are in a bit of a downturn,” says McCallum, the executive director of the Agri-Commodity Management Association (ACMA), based near Truro, N.S. “When you look at the crops sector, things are pretty stable.”
McCallum talks about new varieties of apples, including some recent arrivals that are better suited to the region, as well as improved ties with packers and processors, and good marketing to help grow the sector. But if there are positive signs in the fruit and vegetable sector, they’re there for the livestock industry too.
“Prices, particularly in cattle, have been above where they could have been expected, because we’re on the back side of a cattle cycle, based on where we were in 2014,” says McCallum. “But it’s still strong. The crop prices have been very good. Obviously, there are some opportunities for livestock folks as well as small grains like oats and barley.”
There’s also a shift in the traditional weather cycles, where spring seems to come late and fall tends to remain longer. That, says McCallum, is allowing for more cropping options for growers, as well as more challenging conditions that can make a growing season excessively dry or excessively wet.
“We have a lot of advantages, both in crop and livestock production, and most of it is climate-related,” McCallum says. “The other is our ability to produce diverse crops, and we have diverse soil conditions and diverse climate conditions within the region. There’s a definite advantage for fruits and vegetables, grass and forage for dairy, beef and sheep production.”
Always room for growth
From his vantage point in central New Brunswick, Cedric MacLeod has much the same appreciation for agriculture in the Atlantic region. He operates MacLeod Agronomics in Fredericton but also farms north of the city near Centerville in Carleton County. He agrees that fewer acres and fewer farmers doesn’t always mean that interest in agriculture in the four provinces is failing.
“In fact, in those farming hotbeds, we have more productive acres coming on,” says MacLeod, noting that grain and oilseed producers are boosting production by focusing on agronomics and high-yield goals. “I grew 169 bushels per acre of corn on my father-in-law’s farm in 2018, with a 2200 heat unit, 73- to 75-day hybrid. We’re pushing bushels through management and attention to detail.”
MacLeod went to a recent international no-till conference in Indianapolis, and some of his U.S. counterparts laughed to hear he was farming northeast of Maine. But when he told them he was routinely getting 150 bu./ac. corn and 45 bu./ac. soybeans, the taunting ceased.
“A couple of the chaps at the table were farming sand-based soils south of Chicago in dryland conditions and were doing well to pull 135-bushel corn,” says MacLeod. “It’s important for us to not limit ourselves based on historical performance because the new corn hybrids have more gas in the tank than what we have yet learned to unlock.”
He’s also selling corn for $250 and grossing more than $1,000 per acre. In MacLeod’s region, his productive land is worth $2,500 to $6,000 per acre, depending on the year and the demand for land from potato growers.
“We are putting ourselves on the map with corn and soybeans, local markets, a strong dairy market and a strong feather industry,” says MacLeod. “The other thing we’re doing is delivering #1 test weight — we’re delivering exceptional quality corn.”
Carleton County is also a hotbed in the Maritimes for the transfer industry. Access to the U.S. Eastern Seaboard is phenomenal, thanks to Interstate 95 (I-95) rolling right up into Woodstock, New Brunswick. That makes it easier to export products from the farm, including blueberries and potatoes.
Another aspect of farming, particularly in the Maritime provinces, is a different attitude among farmers. On one hand, MacLeod says there’s a lot of “old money” in the region, with some growers on P.E.I. working on third- to fourth-generation succession plans. Those operations began frugally with smart land purchases, working the soils and building the farm’s equity to a level that gives a grower an opportunity to grow.
“Our land prices are up, which is providing strong and sustained balance sheet growth, but at the same time, it hasn’t grown to the extent it has in other regions, like Ontario, and we’re competing in the same market,” says MacLeod. “That creates a competitive advantage for the region, if we’re willing to seize it.”
On the other hand, there’s the younger generation of farmer that sees things a little differently, and he’s working with them as well.
“They’re sharp-as-a-tack operators and they’ve recognized that they’re stronger together than they are going head-to-head,” adds MacLeod. “They all have unique skillsets that they can leverage when they come together as a peer group to share ideas, share equipment and share investments.”
Growers might not be able to afford a new drill on their own but together, spread over a larger number of acres, it begins to make sense. MacLeod believes that the die-hard independent nature of agriculture — at least in the Atlantic provinces — is showing signs of evolving and favouring collaboration in return for solid profitability.
And those growers are hungry for information and training, attending Dalhousie University’s Agricultural Campus in Truro, University of Prince Edward Island (UPEI) in Charlottetown or Memorial University in St. John’s — and bringing that education back to the farm. Many are also heading west, to University of Guelph, University of Saskatchewan or Olds College and returning — and sharing all they’ve learned.
“It all comes down to that recognition of strengths and weaknesses, and the really successful managers are going to focus on their strengths” says MacLeod. “If you dilute yourself trying to overcome your weaknesses, your strengths are diminished. The guys who’ve learned that are driving success and those are the growers I want on my team, and I want them to invite me to be part of theirs in return. Lasting success comes when you realize that if you give a little, the rewards are exponentially greater.”
In spite of the small number of acres across the Atlantic provinces, McCallum insists there’s plenty of room for farm expansion, although some of the land prices in Nova Scotia are higher in light of competition from city developers. Prices aren’t as expensive as in parts of Quebec or southern Ontario, but there is demand for land between Truro and Halifax, where commuters are looking for a home on a quiet country road, 30 to 45 minutes outside of the city.
“Then you go to other places in Nova Scotia along the North Shore from Antigonish all the way to the New Brunswick border,” says McCallum. “There’s good farmland there but what’s happened in a lot of cases, it’s being under-utilized or not utilized because of fractured ownership.”
The same is true in New Brunswick, where most farmland is along the St. John River basin. There are large swaths stretching northeast from Grand Falls to Bathurst and down through Miramichi to Moncton that are under-developed or Crown land. McCallum notes that there are only four counties in Nova Scotia that have land-use plans and bylaws.
“A lot of it depends on the concentration of agriculture in the region,” he adds. “There is some dairy, a lot of beef farms and sheep, and their need for grains isn’t as great. But we can grow crops here, especially corn, given the new hybrids with the heat units that we could never grow before. There are folks up in Cape Breton growing corn for dairy and beef cattle that even 10 years ago wasn’t possible.”
It’s one more example of Eastern Canadian growers benefiting from the migration of corn and soybean acres to Western Canada. Breeding and development efforts by seed companies and their breeders are generating hybrids and varieties that are suitable for conditions in Atlantic Canada.
Even if they don’t have the volume of corn and soybean production that other regions boast, there’s still a focus on self-sufficiency, which is why McCallum calls for widening marketing opportunities. It’s not a matter of selecting just one market for beef cattle, it’s recognizing that there are multiple markets, just like roads between cities.
“Not having those fixed, volume-based commodities and more of a local or direct-sell market opportunity makes more of the Atlantic agri-food sector flexible in terms of establishing new directions,” says McCallum. “It’s important for farmers to understand that you can start towards one market, then realize there are multiple ways to get to a destination. There are multiple marketing opportunities, whether that’s provincially, locally or nationally.”
It’s also important to McCallum that more be done to encourage youth to consider agriculture — not necessarily as a farmer — but as a career opportunity.
“It’s always, ‘go be a teacher, a doctor or a lawyer,’” he says, referring to the kinds of careers that many parents encourage their children to enter. “It’s never ‘go be an agronomist or soil scientist or a chemist to make new products.’”
There are many jobs outside of the traditional farming culture yet they’re involved and invaluable to the industry’s continued prosperity. He maintains the people who can work the land will continue to do so. But as the sector’s reach continues to expand, more people are needed for the industry to continue building and stabilizing.
“As an industry, I know our local federation has done a lot of work in the past, and even our department in the past year has done work in profiling non-farmer ag-related jobs,” says McCallum. “In the future, we’re going to see fewer farmers but we’re going to see bigger farms, and we’re going to see those farms that need very specific advice and people working for them.”