Farm Size Matters

Farm & Countryside Commentary by Elbert van Donkersgoed

Editor's NOTE

This column was adapted from one of Elbert van Donkersgoed's weekly radio chats, called Corner Post, which are aired weekly on CFCO Radio in Chatham and CKNX Radio in Wingham, Ontario. Elbert is the Strategic Policy Advisor of the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario, which is working hard to create a more satisfying and sustainable model for farming in the province. If you'd like to receive a transcript of Elbert's Corner Post address each week, send an email to evd@christianfarmers.org with SUBSCRIBE as the message.

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March 28, 2003: In the business of agriculture, does farm size matter? The speakers at the Size Matters conference in Shakespeare late last month agreed that size matters. Finding agreement on why farm size matters was a different story.

Fred Taite from Hogwatch Manitoba made a plea for farm families to be able to enjoy what they had worked for all their lives-some peace and tranquility in the countryside of their choosing. The arrival of large hog facilities in Manitoba has meant the loss of enjoyment for many.

He also took issue with those who paint the animal welfare and environmental movements as a cause of concern for farmers: He asked, "When did you have your last major loss from animal welfarists or environmentalist versus your last major loss from the marketplace?"

Chris Bedford from the Humane Society in the United States described farm size as a symptom of a profound change in agriculture. He expressed discomfort with the industrialization of raising animals, with cookie cutter hogs and with reducing animals to reproducible units just like a factory assembly line.

He cautioned that US contract farming was turning farmers into predictable factory workers while their overall farming system was recreating a Soviet-style agriculture reminiscent of the 60s and 70s, run by corporations rather than by the state.

Barry Wilson, a journalist from Ottawa, pointed out that European farm policy is guided by their desire to maintain vibrant rural economies. Their approach is to keep many farmers--meaning smaller farms--on the land. Europe's
common Agricultural Policy pays them to keep green spaces groomed, tended and populated.

Wilson also reported that the typical Canadian federal economist thinks there are too many farmers--meaning farms are too small.

One can imagine an economist's argument: margins and profits in farming are too sliver thin to support so many families. Reduce the number of farms and those who survive will have decent incomes.

There's a hitch: Canadian agriculture has been in exactly this pattern for half a century and more. Every farm census shows fewer bigger farms. Between the 1996 and 2001 census the number of farms in Ontario declined by 11.5 percent. The average farm size was up 10 percent. Those who remain still
find it tough to make ends meet. Why?

New, innovative and bigger technology is a magnet for farm profits when it increases productivity by lowering input costs or reducing labor requirements. Small size is not the problem. Farmers do not have the market clout to keep the benefits of productivity gains down on the farm. Ever-fewer larger farms with ever-more technology and no market clout erodes
farm incomes.

For more on the myths about hunger and the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, a Christian response to hunger visit


Corner Post can be heard weekly on CFCO Radio, Chatham and CKNX Radio, Wingham, Ontario. Corner Post is archived on the website of the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario: www.christianfarmers.org. To be added to the electronic distribution list of Corner Post, send email to evd@christianfarmers.org with SUBSCRIBE as the message. To remove your name, send email with UNSUBSCRIBE as the message.