Valerie Ehrenholz is busy on the family farm.
Her to-do list varies with season, but last Thursday included tending livestock, erecting an electric fence, tending a barbed wire fence, and helping her father, who sowed a seed for a grain field.
If time permits, she tends her garden, which contains potatoes, lettuce, carrots, peas, tomatoes, and eggplant. There are also Saskatoon berries, blueberry bushes, and raspberries, but they were planted last year, so they haven’t harvested much of them yet.
It’s so much fun,” said Ehrenholz, a third-generation farmer who runs Ehrenholz Farms in Barhead, Alta. “That’s what I’ve known all my life. It’s not something I have to learn all at once.
“At the same time, there is a lot of pressure, if something goes wrong, it’s not just me who let me down. There are a lot of family members who – they will not blame me, but it will be frustrating for them if the farm fails.”
Statistics Canada collects and releases information about the country’s farms and the farming industry every five years. The 2021 agricultural census data was released last month.
There are 57,200 farmers in Alberta, down 405 from 2016 – and about 19,000 fewer than in 2001.
However, the proportion of female cultivators has increased over the past twenty years.
In 2001, females made up about 28 percent of all Alberta farmers. Now about one in three farmers is a woman.
The number of women farmers increased by 765 to reach 18,525 in the last census period.
Historically, women have worked in agriculture in different ways, said Elaine Goddard, an agricultural economist at the University of Alberta, but the increase indicates that more women are being recognized for their role.
“The job itself is changing its definition,” Goddard said. “It probably means that it’s more convenient for everyone, and that more families are recognizing the contribution of more than one large family member.”
The trend may lead to more innovation in the industry, as women tend to try new things more often than their male counterparts, said Tom Johnston, associate professor of geography at the University of Lethbridge, whose focus is on local food systems.
“It’s a really cool thing,” Johnston said.
“The more diversified we are in the industry, the more likely we are to adopt these innovations.”
Ehrenholz, who took over her father in 2017, said there is often extra pressure on women who run farms.
“We want to prove we can do that, so we’re not asking for too much help,” she said. “We forget that our parents asked the neighbor for help.”
Lack of agricultural land with skyrocketing value
There are more farms in Alberta in 2021 than there were five years ago, but it’s not a clean comparison.
The data shows the number of farms in Alberta is 41,505, up 867 from 2016. But StatsCan changed the definition of “farm” or “farm property” to the last census, so previous years can’t be compared accurately.
Previously, a farm was defined as “agricultural production” that produced at least one agricultural product destined for sale, according to StatsCan’s website.
It now refers to “a unit that produces agricultural products and reports revenue or expenditures for tax purposes to the Canada Revenue Agency”.
Although it appears that there are more farms, the data shows that the total area of agricultural land has decreased from about 20.3 million hectares in 2016 to about 19.9 million hectares in 2021.
This may indicate that farms are becoming more efficient by requiring less land to produce the same amount of crops, Goddard said.
Meanwhile, Johnston is concerned about what that could mean for land prices.
Data show a decrease in the number of farms and the total area from 2001 to 2016, but the average farm area increased by 108 hectares.
In that time, the value of Alberta’s farmland and buildings increased from about $38.9 billion to about $118.3 billion. In 2021, those assets were valued at approximately $160.9 billion.
“Even after taking into account the effects of inflation – which weren’t that significant until recently – this is a pretty big jump,” Johnston said.
As a result, it can make it difficult for young people to break into the industry – something he says is badly needed.
The average farmer is getting old
Data show that the average Alberta farmer continues to age, coinciding with a general population aging driven by baby boomers.
In 2021, the average age of a farmer was 56°C.
The data shows that the number of farmers under the age of 35 has grown by hundreds since 2011, but farmers over the age of 55 are exceeding that demographic, increasing by nearly 5,000 in that time.
The number of farmers between the ages of 35 and 54 is down, down by about 24,000 since 2001.
“I’m really worried,” Johnston said. “It’s not like we didn’t know this was happening.”
Goddard, of the University of A.
Another aspect that has been emphasized during the COVID-19 pandemic, Johnston said, is supply chains: Local farmers allow individuals and businesses to more easily access food, rather than relying on trade.
Data shows that 5,800 “farm operations” in Alberta have a written succession plan, the vast majority of which involve one or more family members. Approximately 10,400 other operations have an oral plan.
However, there are more than 25,300 operations in the province without a succession plan.
Ehrenholz, 30, doesn’t yet have a plan to inherit the farm in Barhead, but it’s something she thinks about often.
“It’s not urgent at the moment,” she said. “But on the farm, you always think a little bit ahead.”
Ehrenholz has no children, but she has several cousins. So during the summer, if one of the kids reaches a certain age, you’ll offer them to go out to the farm to get to know her.
“If they show interest later, maybe I can pass the farm on to one of them,” she said.
Another option: When you’re 60 or so, you find a small farmer without a farm and ask them to take over.