Until the beginning of the 1900s, agriculture was the predominant occupation, and farmers and their families made up the majority of the population. Since then, however, the farm population has been shrinking both relatively and absolutely. Even in Saskatchewan, the province with the highest proportion of farm population, farm families account for no more than 25% of the total population. For Canada as a whole, agriculture engaged only 2.4% of the economically active population in 1999. Farm production continues to increase, as have the size of holdings, crop quantity, quality and variety, and cash income. Canada is still one of the major food-exporting countries of the world; agriculture engages about 405,000 people and generates about 2% of GDP. Farm cash receipts for crops totaled C $13.6 billion in 2001.
Of Canada's total land area, about 5% is classified as arable land; another 3% is considered as permanent pasture land. More than 90% of the cultivated area is in the three prairie provinces. The trend is toward fewer and larger farms and increased mechanization and specialization. Ontario and Saskatchewan together account for about half of all farm cash receipts. Sale of field crops provide more than 50% of farm cash income in the prairie region, but less than 10% elsewhere in Canada.
The estimated harvest of principal field crops in 1999 (in thousands of tons produced per thousand hectares) was wheat, 26,850 produced on 10,362; barley, 13,196 on 4,069; corn, 9,096 on 1,141; oats, 3,641 on 1,398; and rapeseed (canola), 8,798 on 5,564.
Formerly, Canada imported only such items as could not be grown domestically—coffee, tea, cane sugar, spices, and citrus fruits—while exporting large surpluses of wheat, barley, and livestock. However, food imports have risen sharply in recent years. Nevertheless, Canada remains a significant food exporter; in 2001, Canadian grain exports totaled 21,523,000 tons, third after the United States and France.
Federal and provincial departments of agriculture provide guidance and aid to farmers in almost every field of operation. Activities include research and experimentation, protection of animals and crops, irrigation and reclamation, and price stability and farm credit measures. The government can stabilize the price of any agricultural product (except wheat, for which separate provision is made) by outright purchase or by supporting the market with guarantees or deficiency payments.
The departments of agriculture apply fundamental scientific research to soil management and crop and animal production, promote agricultural production, and enact financial measures to ensure greater stability of the farm economy. Long-term and short-term mortgages are made available; other loans are granted for equipping, improving, and developing farms. Various federal acts assist the marketing of produce. Governments, working with product organizations, also set limits on the production of milk, eggs, tobacco, chicken, and turkey meat. Price supports may be given to any designated natural or processed product but are mandatory for cattle, sheep, hogs, dairy products, wheat, oats, and barley. Farmers who have suffered severe crop losses through drought may obtain compensation, and prairie farmers who cannot deliver all their grain to market are given temporary financial assistance. The rail freight rates paid by western farmers to ship their grain to eastern markets, basically unchanged since 1897, increased fivefold between 1983 and 1991. The increase, partially subsidized by the federal government, would pay for improvements in the western rail system.