By Connor Lynch
PEMBROKE — Practically every farm in Canada has at least some source of off-farm income, whether it’s a pension payment or a spouse working full-time in town. But how much some farms rely on that income might come as a surprise to some farmers. While off-farm income doesn’t usually make the difference between success and failure for farms, sometimes it does, and for many it at least means the difference between living like everyone else or just scraping by.
According to the latest stats from Statistics Canada, in 2017 there were 130,045 farm families in Canada. Of those, 129,520 reported some amount of off-farm income. That’s 99.5 per cent of all farms in Canada.
In Ontario, almost half of all income on unincorporated farms in 2017 was off-farm income. Of the $5.3 billion in Ontario’s total unincorporated farm income, $2.6 billion was off-farm income. The majority of it, $1.6 billion, came from employment income, the rest was mostly split between pension and investment income.
Renfrew County crop farmer Darcy Smith, who farms at Pembroke, is no stranger to working off the farm. He’s no slouch when it comes to cropping, but he also works construction, trucking, and just earlier this year finished building a mini-storage facility. “I’m kind of blessed,” he said. “Not everyone has that option.” In a year like this one where prices are rough enough that marketing opportunities are few and far between, he turns to that off-farm income. “The more timid I get on my field crops I get more aggressive on other stuff.”
It’s not the difference between eating or not, he said. But it is a big difference in quality of life and opportunities, from being able to travel to put the kids in sports. “(That) second income is really appreciated and when it dries up, (it’s) well noticed.”
The beef sector is well-known for relying on off-farm income, and many, if not most, beef farmers also work off the farm. Hastings County beef farmer Paul Kinlin said he doesn’t think there’s a beef farm in the province without some kind of off-farm income. But in the beef sector’s case, it’s because: “We’re getting the same for our cattle as we did in the 1970s.” Lack of competition between processors and the ever-present possibility of beef coming in from Mexico or other places where it can be produced much more cheaply keep prices low and beef farmers have to make it up elsewhere, he said.
For Metcalfe-area crop farmer Dean Patterson, the size of the farm and the amount of debt it has played a big role in how much he relied on money from off the farm. Patterson started farming in the mid-90s, and it was an uphill climb building up the farm for the first few years. By 2001 he was working for Agricorp as well, where he stayed for 17 years. Off-farm income “provided a lot of peace of mind. There was that guaranteed income every month. No risk.” As he was building his operation, he said, he really relied on that income. By 2011, prices had been good enough and the farm was big enough that he could manage without it. But the intervening years would’ve been scary without that cash flow. “(It) would’ve been very difficult.”
Working off-farm is a tradeoff, said Embrun-area crop farmer Michel Dignard. His wife is a teacher, and he sells seed in addition to cash cropping. Most of his income comes from the seed business, not the farming, he said.
What it comes down to is debt, and servicing it. A small farm with little debt can support a family. “You can make a nice living and you probably don’t need the off-farm income.” But if the farm had to take on debt to get to grow, or the farmers wanted to get big, off-farm income can be necessary. It’s a sacrifice, but farms are family businesses. “So maybe people are willing to sacrifice a bit more to keep that going.”
Every farm has off-farm income: On smaller farms, almost half of all income is generated off-farm
By Connor Lynch