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Canola, which brightens the day near Lethbridge, Alta., remains Canada’s biggest crop, being planted on one-fifth of fields. The 2016 census shows.

Chris Bolin/The Globe and Mail

Nevin Bachmeier grew up on his parents' dairy farm and bought his own grain operation south of Winnipeg 12 years ago.

But after years of low crop prices, unpredictable weather and big loans to plant seeds that might never make it to harvest, he sold his 3,500-acre spread last year to a neighbour looking to expand.

"It's impossible to be a young farmer," said Mr. Bachmeier, 36, who now runs a construction business with his wife.

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Stories like Mr. Bachmeier's are part of the reason Canadian farms are becoming larger, fewer and run by aging farmers, according to Statistics Canada's 2016 census of agriculture released on Wednesday.

"You put your house at risk every year by putting in a crop, for what?" Mr. Bachmeier said by phone. "The climate change now – you get these heavy downpours, you get hail, and you get all these storms come through and you think the crop's there, and the day before harvest, the hail comes in and takes it all away. What are you supposed to do? The risk is just so high. We did it, it's done, and we moved on."

The lures of city life and a steady income can outweigh the slim profit margins and debt needed to run a farm at a time of volatile commodity prices and rising costs, said Aaron Goertzen, an agriculture economist at Bank of Montreal in Toronto.

"That volatile cash flow is one of the hardest parts of farming. You can use insurance to try and control that a little or use different financial hedges to try to control that, but in the end you just can't get around the fact that commodity prices matter hugely to your annual earnings," Mr. Goertzen said. "And when you want to raise a family, you need steady annual earnings."

Such problems have faced farmers "since the dawn of time," he said in an interview.

"When farmers are reaching retirement age, instead of their sons and daughters succeeding them and taking over the farm, they'll tend to sell out and then just distribute their wealth. So bigger farms mean few young people running them, also."

Farmland values and revenues have soared in recent years, but so have such expenses as fuel and equipment. The profitability of a typical farm, measured as expenses versus sales, has not changed since 2010. For a typical grain farmer, expenses consume 79 cents of every dollar made, compared with 83 cents for the average farm, according to the census, the first since 2011.

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"The risk is just so high," Mr. Bachmeier said. "And when the neighbour comes over and offers you good money for the land, you just go, why not?"

Here are some of the main findings of the 2016 census:

  • The number of farms fell 6 per cent, to 193,000 from 2011.
  • The average farm rose in size, to 820 acres from 779 in 2011.
  • There are almost 78,000 women operating farms, accounting for 28.7 per cent of farmers, up from 27.4 per cent in 2011.
  • The average age of the farmer rose slightly, to 55.
  • Primary agriculture accounts for 1.5 per cent cent of Canada’s gross domestic product.
  • Almost one-third of farm production by value is exported, accounting for 4.6 per cent of all exports.
  • Canola remains the biggest crop, planted on one-fifth of fields. But growers are changing their rotations to meet shifting global tastes and climate.
  • Lentils are the third-biggest crop in Saskatchewan, and new strains of cold-tolerant corn are being grown in the Prairies.

Shifting markets could offer new openings for younger farmers. The rise in farmland prices slowed last year, according to lender Farm Credit Canada. And for the first time since 1991, the proportion of farmers under the age of 35 rose, according to the census, even as just one in 12 farms reported having a succession plan.

Mr. Goertzen said this may be due to the relentless pace of farm life, and not a sign children no longer want to take over the family business.

"Even if some of the children wants to take over the farm, it can be tricky getting the farmer out of the field and into the office and putting these things on paper and setting up a formal plan," he said. "The fact that only some have a formal plan doesn't mean that only some will pass it on within their family."

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