Western Canada’s agricultural industry has been important to the region, the country, and the world since the early 20th century. Today, agriculture remains a key element of the region’s economy due to expanding global demand for food products. However, the agricultural sector inevitably demonstrates a relative decline in the conditions of regional economic growth and “is no longer the principal engine of economic growth” (Bone, 2013, p. 330; Veeman, 1985). The farm’s consolidation, reducing the number of farmers and their aging, the loss of rural population are the elements associated with the transformation of the region’s agricultural sector caused by the technological advances in equipment, innovations in farming as well as higher transportation costs of products. Despite its relative decline, the industry has good prospects for the future. The main challenges to the agriculture of Western Canada are represented by the geographical location of the industry.
The Western Canada region consists of three provinces Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan, located in the heart of North America. The region is divided into two distinct sub-regions: the Interior Plains and the Canadian Shield (GEOG 202.3, 2014). The Interior Plains, or the Prairie, is a relatively densely populated agricultural core of Western Canada.
There are three “prairie steppes”—the Manitoba Lowlands, the Saskatchewan Plain, and the Alberta Plateau (GEOG 202.3, 2014). The prairies are isolated to the east from the industrial heartland by the sparsely populated Canadian Shield of northern Ontario, to the west by the Cordillera mountainous barrier, to the north by the boreal forest, and to the south by the United States border (GEOG 202.3, 2014). Although the region’s climate has a strong influence on continental and varies from semi-arid to sub-humid, the agricultural products are the important resources in the region.
Two natural vegetation zones (parkland and grassland), beneath which chernozemic soils were formed, divide farming in the Prairies into three areas, as specified in Figure 1: the Fertile Belt with black soil, the Dry Belt with brown soils, and the agricultural fringe and Peace River country (Bone, 2013). The Fertile Belt has the most fertile soils in Canada, namely black and dark brown chernozemic soils, associated with tall-grass natural vegetation.
The agricultural industry has been important to the Western Canada region and the nation since the very early 20th century when the region was settled. By 1921, the region had comprised over 250,000 farms. Western Canada’s dry continental environment forced the farmers to seek innovations in order to lessen the natural threat. Accordingly, innovative farm practices and technology based on advanced machinery and improved seeds played a key role in agriculture development, providing greater yields, reduced plant diseases, and improved the quality of the final product. A clear example was the development of Marquis Wheat in 1910. It became the most popular spring wheat in Western Canada by 1920 because it allowed extending the growing area for wheat in the Prairies (Bone, 2013). The recent example of innovations is altering rapeseed by the global giant Monsanto into a superior product called canola that is resistant to their Roundup herbicide.
The second factor that gradually changed the industry was the lure of profitability. Within the options, limited by the dry continental climate, the farmers had to select those crops within the narrow range that provided the greatest profit. In other words, prices determine the type of crops. For example, rising prices for canola over the last decade caused farmers to favor it over spring wheat that is used as their “rotation” crop.
The next important factor was the high cost of grains transportation to the markets. Long-distance of the Prairies from the markets increased the cost of grain sufficiently. The end of Crow Benefit that reduced the cost by providing the transportation subsidy forced the region to diversify the agriculture industry with a growing trend “to process more agricultural products within Western Canada and ship higher-valued processed products in containers by rail and then by ship to world markets” (Bone, 2013, p. 327). For example, the world’s largest agricultural company Cargill Limited built canola oilseed crushing facilities producing oil for the global markets (GEOG 202.3, 2014). Livestock processing was another mean of dealing with the high transportation cost.
One more change related to the transportation problem was shifting a key role of grain marketer from the Canadian Wheat Board (CWB), a state grain buyer that bought as much grain as possible at the best possible prices, to the farmers (Bone, 2013). In 2011, the CWB monopoly ended which worsened the positions of grain farms located in the remote areas.
In general, the combined effect of all these factors has eventually led to the critical changes in Western Canada’s agriculture, such as farms consolidation (as seen in Table 1), reducing the number of farmers as well as their aging and depopulation of rural Western Canada. For example, the transformation of the region’s agricultural economy involved mechanization that greatly reduced the need for farm labor, and the number of farms has decreased from 250,000 farms in the Prairies in 1921 to 100,000 in 2011 (Bone, 2013). The net result was a huge population loss in rural areas.
|Acreage||Farms number||Acreage||Farms number||Acreage||Farms number|
|Change 1971- 2011||378||-19,468||823||-40,018||592||-19,104|
Thus, across the region, the technological advances in machinery, innovations in plants and seeds, and higher transportation costs for grains caused the most dramatic changes in region’s agriculture over decades.
Today, agriculture remains a key economic component of Western Canada’s economy that produces a lion’s portion of significant products such as wheat, canola, barley, livestock, and sugar beets (Bone, 2013; GEOG 202.3, 2014).
The geographical location presents major challenges to the Western Canada agriculture sector. The Canadian Prairies spread on the northern edge of еру crop agriculture.
Apparently, the main challenge the industry faces is the region’s dry continental climate with hot, dry summers and long, cold winters that make farming much riskier than in other agricultural areas of the country. In addition to summer heat, there is a threat of drought that also affects agricultural activities. For example, the last dry spell with annual precipitation below the average lasted from 1999 to 2002. Moreover, the climatic challenge is reinforced by the problems of water deficit and evapotranspiration that are common in the Canadian Prairies (Bone, 2013).
The region’s continental position makes the distance to the world markets extremely long. Accordingly, the second challenge for the regions’ agriculture is transportation to the global markets that is a central cost factor. Bone considers it “a major stumbling block to the region’s resource development” (2013, p. 312). Therefore, the search for solutions to reduce the cost in order to access markets is critical.
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Finally, agriculture remains a key economic component of Western Canada’s economy, but the sector inevitably demonstrates a relative decline in the conditions of the regional economic growth, driven by the oil and gas industry, and “is no longer the principal engine of economic growth” (Bone, 2013, p. 330; Veeman, 1985).
Despite agriculture’s relative decline in the region’s economy, the industry has good prospects for the future. The growth prospects of the sector relate to developing export markets, especially for grains, canola oilseeds, and pork. These opportunities, associated with high prices for these products, are based on few factors, such as strong economic growth in emerging markets, the development of the biofuel industry, and high demand for canola oil and canola feed for the livestock in Northern America and world markets.
The strong economic growth of the emerging markets with an increase in their population, rising incomes and urbanization is a major factor that increases prices for agricultural commodities and stimulates the demand (Gifford, 2012). The illustrative example is the region’s production of grains and oilseeds that are forecast to increase by 5% by 2016 (Government of Canada, 2015). Demand for pork and pork feed heavily depends on the emerging middle class in Asian countries seeking a diet with pork. Obviously, imports of pork from the region to China, South Korea, and Japan are likely to grow.
Concerning the biofuel industry, it has become an important factor in the global agricultural market due to attempts to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. For example, the usage of corn by the US biofuel industry increased grain prices. Currently, canola is the most profitable crop in the region and, certainly, the processing of canola will be in progress because this sector represents an important value-added industry for Western Canada’s economy.
The main challenges to the agriculture of Western Canada are represented by the geographical location of the industry. Across the region, the technological advances in machinery, innovations in plants and seeds, and higher transportation costs for grains caused the most dramatic changes in the region’s agriculture over decades. Although agriculture lost its role as the principal engine of the economic growth of Western Canada replaced by the oil and gas industry, it remains a key component of Western Canada’s economy with good prospects for the future due to expanding global demand for food products, with canola as the most profitable crop.