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A stag stands in a neck high field of canola north of Cremona, Alta., on July 31, 2011.

The long-held image of Canadian farmers plowing small plots of land to eke out a meagre existence has been dashed by a new report that reveals Canadian agriculture is rapidly consolidating and the size of family farms is growing at an unprecedented rate.

The 2011 Census of Agriculture by Statistics Canada shows that while the number of farms has decreased 10 per cent in the last five years to 205,730, the average farm size has jumped 7 per cent. In some regions, such as Saskatchewan, the number of farms has fallen nearly 17 per cent, while the average farm size is up 15 per cent to more than 1,600 acres.

Today, a growing number of farmers generate millions of dollars in annual sales and rely on a staff of paid employees. Farms with $1-million or more in annual revenue represent the fastest growing sector of Canadian agriculture, jumping 36 per cent since 2006. While those farms still make up less than 5 per cent of the total number of producers, they account for nearly half of Canada's food production. Put another way, just 9,602 farms generate 49 per cent of Canada's $51-billion in total gross farm receipts. And nearly all of them are family-owned corporations.

"When a city person sees a demonstration of tractors or combines, that doesn't really represent a lot of the business members in agriculture," said Norm Shoemaker, who runs a 12,500-acre farm near Regina with his wife Laura that pulls in well over $2-million in annual sales and employs five people. The Shoemakers grow canola, durum wheat, peas and lentils, and they have doubled the size of their operation in four years.

Mr. Shoemaker, 40, said a new generation of young farmers is returning to the countryside, lured by rising crop prices and better returns. "As that younger generation joins back into the family farm, that family farm is needing to grow to support multiple families," he said.

The surge in big farms comes amid other radical changes in Canadian agriculture, which was largely built through wheat pools and the dominance of the Canadian Wheat Board. The Wheat Board is all but gone and the last vestiges of the pools, Viterra Inc., is being sold to a Swiss-based conglomerate. Wheat has also lost its position as the dominant crop in Western Canada, supplanted by canola, which fetches a higher price. Beef farming, once part of the backbone of Canadian agriculture, is waning too, falling to 18 per cent of Canadian farming from 27 per cent five years ago, according to the census.

"The guy with the straw hat and overalls with chickens and cows and pigs, growing vegetables, to a large extent that's an image of the past," said Allan Mussell, a senior researcher at the George Morris Centre in Guelph, which studies agriculture issues.

He and others say the shift to fewer, larger farms has been driven by improvements in technology, rising prices for many crops and better-educated farmers. Farming has changed so much lately that most farmers no longer till the soil to plant crops. Instead they use equipment such as air seeders, which plant faster and result in less soil erosion. In the last five years, there has been a 24-per-cent increase in the amount of farmland seeded through no-till practices, Statistics Canada said.

"We can just do so much more with less," said David Sparling, chairman of the Agri-Food Innovation and Regulation program at the University of Western Ontario. Prof. Sparling noted that it takes about $2.31 worth of assets on a large farm to produce $1 of revenue. By contrast, a farm generating less than $100,000 in revenue requires $18 in assets to produce the same revenue.

Bigger farms are good news for Canadian consumers, he added. "Large farms tend to be more productive and more efficient and so it means that they will help keep a lid on rising food costs," he said.

But not all of the changes have been welcomed. The demise of the Canadian Wheat Board, which had a monopoly over the sale of all wheat and barley grown in Western Canada, has prompted a series of court battles, led by farmers who believe the board gave grain growers clout in international markets. Others fear the shift to large farms will attract buying by investment funds eager to cash in on the rise in global food demand.

Still others worry about the age of Canadian farmers. The Statistics Canada census found that 48 per cent all farmers are 55 or older, the highest percentage ever. Meanwhile, the percentage of farm operators under 35 has fallen to 8.2 per cent from 9.1 per cent in 2006.

But some experts say much has changed since the last agriculture census, such as the growing importance of China and rising crop prices. That has prompted a flood of young people to return to the farm and in many cases build larger operations.

"These are usually fairly well-educated people that are coming back to the farm," said Ron Bonnett, a cattle farmer near Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., who is also president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture. He said many young people are buying up other farms and turning them into agribusinesses – for example, transforming farms that once had a few dozens cattle into operations with 300 or more animals.

"They are not going to come back and operate a farm where they are just going to be scratching away at the soil and making a measly living," he said. "They want something that they can get a decent living."

Mr. Bonnett said his own son plans to return to the family farm after a career in the oil industry in Azerbaijan. "His long-term goal is to retire younger from the oil sector and come back to the farm," he said. "He won't be a hobby farmer. If he's coming it will be to something that is going to be making some money."

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