WINNIPEG - The average Canadian farm grew to a record size in 2011, even as the number of farms shrank to a record low, as technology made it easier to manage more land, Statistics Canada's Census of Agriculture showed on Thursday.
The average Canadian farm grew about 7 percent to 778 acres in 2011, compared with 2006.
"As far as I can see, it's driven by farm machinery and the ability of individuals to keep spreading the capital (cost) over more acres," said Brian Oleson, head of the University of Manitoba's department of agribusiness.
The number of farms dropped 10 percent to about 206,000 - the lowest on record - continuing a trend since the 1950s of accelerating urbanization, Statscan said. Farmers are also getting older as they get out of the industry; their average age climbed two years to 54.
Canada is the biggest producer of canola, or rapeseed, and the top exporter of spring wheat, durum and oats. It is the third-biggest shipper of beef and pork.
The move toward bigger farms continued in 2011 as the country's agricultural sector geared for its biggest change in decades. The Canadian Wheat Board will give up its 69-year-old grain marketing monopoly in Western Canada on Aug. 1, leaving farmers to sell directly to grain handlers.
By summer, Swiss commodity trader Glencore International PLC is expected to complete its takeover of top Canadian grain handler Viterra Inc, bringing in a major new player alongside Cargill and Richardson International.
Bigger farms typically have more leverage for buying items such as seed and fertilizer, and possibly more clout in selling their harvest.
While three quarters of Canadian farms still earn gross receipts of less than C$250,000, farms grossing more than C$1 million are experiencing the quickest growth, the census data showed.
In the United States, the number of farms grew 4 percent to 2.2 million in 2007 from five years earlier, but has been trending downward since World War Two. The average U.S. farm shrank to 418 acres in 2007 from 441 acres in 2002, according to U.S. census data.
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Canada's total farmland dropped 4 percent in 2011 to a 90-year low of 160.2 million acres, from five years earlier.
The reason for the drop traces back to 2003, when the discovery of mad cow disease on a Canadian farm weakened prices and caused export markets to close, said Erik Dorff, an analyst at Statscan.
Ranchers chose to hold on to more of their cattle at the time of the earlier census in 2006 rather than sell at low prices, but improving values since then gave them an exit by 2011, he said.