Bees by the gallon, chickens by the million: Behind Canada鈥檚 other census

We know the Fraser Valley has 16 million chickens, 6,500 sheep, and 5,500 farmers thanks to the Census of Agriculture. The census's data is useful in normal times, but essential during a disaster.

By Tyler Olsen | December 13, 2021 |6:15 am

The prairie had become a lake. Water, muddy and opaque, covered much of Sumas Prairie. It obscured much of what lay below, on the bed of what once was, and was again, Sumas Lake.

But there were ways to see through the muddy waters. We had pictures. We had stories. We had memories. We also had data. The City of Abbotsford had done its own recent research on the area, increasing our knowledge significantly. But to put the scope of the disaster into context we had another key source of information: the mandatory census conducted every five years.

But not that census. Or at least, not only that census.

Painting a picture with numbers

Let鈥檚 introduce you to S茅bastien Larochelle-C么t茅. He can explain more about it.

Fields, farms, and crops all look a bit different to Larochelle-C么t茅 when he cruises through the countryside with his son en route to another hockey arena. They certainly appear different from behind the wheel on a rural Ottawa-area road than where Larochelle-C么t茅 typically encounters a farm: on a spreadsheet.

There are plenty of ways to paint a picture of agriculture in Canada: you can use watercolours; you can use oils; you can use words; or, if you鈥檙e Larochelle-C么t茅 and his colleagues at Statistics Canada, you can use numbers: cold hard data collected by the nation鈥檚 other census.

You, reader, know about the census. You will have taken part in it earlier this year, whether through the short-form count, or the long-form version. But unless you鈥檙e a farmer, you鈥檝e probably never encountered the second census that takes place at the exact same time.

Because while most are giving the names of your housemates and skipping over the question pertaining to foreign diplomats, one of The Current鈥檚 many farmer-readers may be counting sheep or chickens or hectares of blueberries or gallons of bees. (Yes, certain types of bees are measured in gallons.)

This is the Census of Agriculture, the focus of Larochelle-C么t茅, the assistant director of StatCan鈥檚 agriculture division.

The farm census is nearly as old as Canada: the first was conducted in Manitoba in 1896. Farm censuses were held in Alberta and Saskatchewan in 1901, although it was another 55 years until the entire country began to take part.

It鈥檚 aim was, and is, to count鈥攂ut not only to count. The numbers give a comprehensive, point-in-time picture of an industry and a country. They show how things are and, in doing so, how farming life is changing. They also reveal how important the industry remains in Canada.

鈥淚 do find it fascinating,鈥 Larochelle-C么te told The Current. He says it shows that, if there was a time when agriculture was seen as an old industry on the wane, that鈥檚 no longer the case. 鈥淎griculture now occupies a place that is bigger than ever … It’s certainly not an afterthought anymore. It is a very important primary industry in this country.鈥

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In the Agassiz area, cows outnumber people. 馃摲 EB Adventure Photography/Shutterstock
In the Agassiz area, cows outnumber people. 馃摲 EB Adventure Photography/Shutterstock

The statistics

鈥淗ow many?鈥 and 鈥淗ow much?鈥

Those are the two questions any census is obsessed with. And dipping into some of the findings from 2016 illustrates the breadth of the survey, and why it is so useful to so many people, even if鈥攁s Statistics Canada鈥檚 own website hints鈥攊t takes place at an annoying time for many farmers.

(By piggy-backing on the infrastructure of the main census and conducting the two counts at the same time, the cost of conducting the agriculture census is lowered by millions of dollars.)

We could tell you about what the farm census counts. But instead of a list of topics, let鈥檚 lay out some of the findings from the last census:

  • With nearly 10 million hens and roosters in Abbotsford, there were 70 chickens for every resident of the city. As a whole, from Langley to Hope, the valley had close to 16 million chickens.
  • The valley had enough sheep to put census counters to sleep many times over: about 6,500. Still, that鈥檚 a drop in the bucket compared to the one million sheep living across the country.
  • Around 70,000 pigs lived on close to 100 farms in the Fraser Valley. (Canada had about 14 million pigs.)
  • In our coverage region (Langley/Mission to Hope), there were 2,679 farms, down more than 400 from five years prior.
  • The number of farmers (technically: farm operators) decreased by around 700 between 2011 and 2016, to about 5,500. Those figures don鈥檛 include all the labourers who work on area farms.
  • Across Canada, men make up around 71% of farmers. That held true across most of the Fraser Valley, but in Langley, women comprised close to 40% of all farmers. Across the region, there are nearly 400 farms operated by a sole female farmer.
  • The Fraser Valley had about 27 million square feet of greenhouse growing space鈥攁 little more than 10% of the country鈥檚 total. Nearly half of that is used to grow flowers.
  • The region has one-third of all Canada鈥檚 mushroom-growing greenhouse space.
  • About 20% of farms used insecticides. About one in three used herbicides.
  • More than 15,000 hectares of land were irrigated in 2016, up substantially from five years earlier. Forty farms used their own sources of renewable energy, including 26 that used solar power and nine that generated hydroelectric power.
  • Although the valley isn鈥檛 a huge vegetable producer, about 20% of Canada鈥檚 Brussels sprouts are grown in Abbotsford. Despite its fame, the Fraser Valley only had about 4% of all land dedicated to sweet corn.
  • There were 175 colonies of honeybees in the valley in 2016, up substantially from 2011. Other pollinating bees are measured in gallons, and the valley had 68 gallons of such bees.
  • Many Fraser Valley farms are part-time concerns: only a slim majority of operators worked more than 20 hours per week on their farms, but many also reported substantial non-farm work. More than 1,000 operators worked more than 40 hours before accounting for their farm-related jobs.
Every five years, Canada counts its chickens, cows, sheep, and farmers during its Census of Agriculture. 鈥 馃摳 David Tadevosian/Shutterstock

Putting data to work

All those numbers can seem abstract. But the federal government spends tens of millions of dollars to conduct the farm census not only to provide interesting statistics, but because all those statistics are useful to a number of organizations for a number of reasons.

This was the case before the flood. But it鈥檚 doubly so now.

We know that at least 628,000 chickens and 12,000 pigs died in the floods. But in part because of the census, governments and industry organizations can put those numbers in context and understand that they provide a huge loss to individual farmers, while still not endangering Canada鈥檚 supply of poultry or pork. As the flooding began, the farm census was one of the first places city staff looked to in order to get a sense of the types of farms and livestocks that were likely to be affected.

The numbers are particularly useful after a disaster like the floods. But they are also vital for farmers in normal times. Almost every agricultural product in Canada has its own association or group of producers asking questions. And to answer them, they need data. The groups also use the information to convince politicians, bureaucrats, and the public at large that they are important and deserve positive attention, support, and money.

鈥淭here are as many industry associations in this country as there are commodities, and provinces,鈥 Larochelle-C么te said. 鈥淭hat’s a lot of people and they each want to have a story about what the contribution of their commodity or specific product is to the Canadian economy.鈥

Many groups collect their own data, but even when they do so, the public census figures can help them double-check their work, spot trends, and identify areas of concern that require further investigation.

The farm census is particularly valuable because of its detail. It鈥檚 not just that it can tell one how many dairy farms and how many cows there are in British Columbia. It can tell you how many there are in, say, the Agassiz area.

Organizations can learn the ages and sexes of dairy farmers in a certain community, some of their living conditions, and how much money their operations are bringing in. It can reveal what technology they use, what type of environmental practices they employ, and whether and how much of their products are considered to be 鈥渙rganic.鈥

鈥淚t’s full of relevant information on the way that farms are organizing themselves,鈥 Larochelle-C么te said. 鈥淵ou can see what is going on in your village or your little town.鈥

And because it collects details on all farms, not just those in a certain industry, it can provide information on how agriculture as a broad sector is changing in Canada. Are farmers using the best land to grow blueberries or to grow forage for livestock? Are cement-floored barns being built on prime land or in places with less-ideal soil? Is a shortage of labour, which in turn might influence the production of one type of food?

The human census can place us next to our fellow man and woman. It reveals how our communities are changing and evolving. The farm census does much the same, by orienting us in an infinitely complex agriculture sector. And in the quest to remind people that the food on their plates doesn鈥檛 magically appear, the census shows where, exactly, that food originates. Agassiz might not have a ton of people, but it does have 12,000 cows.

Postscript

We first spoke to Larochelle-C么te in late October, just two weeks before flooding ravaged one of the Fraser Valley鈥檚 most intensively farmed areas. We spoke again to him in early December. Larochelle-C么te said that it was sobering to see the images of farmers losing their farms and their animals. He expressed sympathy for what BC was going through. And he expressed hope that some of the statistics collected were, and will be useful in the response to the disaster.

In a response to a crisis, data and information is key for those directing resources to where they are most needed. Statisticians across the country can鈥檛 fill sandbags. But they can provide numbers that were collected last year just because they might be useful to somebody, at some point.

鈥淭hat鈥檚 one of the few ways we can help,鈥 he said. 鈥淭hat鈥檚 not a lot of work because we鈥檙e sitting on that information. It鈥檚 not something that requires a lot of preparation or resources, but it can probably go a long way to helping people, and we hope that it made a difference.鈥

Our newsletter is like our front page. Want to see it before you subscribe? Check out our Dec. 10 edition here.聽

Get FV Current in your inbox.

Plug in to the news that matters in Abbotsford, Chilliwack, Mission, and the rest of the Fraser Valley.

By filling out the form above, you consent to receive emails from Fraser Valley Current. You can unsubscribe at any time. View our privacy policy here.

Having trouble with the form? Contact us at contact@fvcurrent.com.

Tyler Olsen

Managing Editor at Fraser Valley Current

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