Canada has more than 50.5 million hectares of agricultural land classified as dependable agricultural land—areas deemed suitable for long-term cultivation. From 2001 to 2011, farm area located on dependable agricultural land declined by 969 802 hectares (-2.6%), according to “Agriculture in Canada,” a new study in Human Activity and the Environment.

Ecological infrastructure for agriculture

Not all land is suitable for agriculture. Crop production depends on the proper ecological infrastructure, such as the right combination of soil, climate, water and other environmental factors.

From 2000 to 2011, settled area on dependable agricultural land increased by 219 511 hectares (+19%). The largest increase occurred in the Mixed Wood Plains ecozone, a region bounded by Lakes Huron, Erie and Ontario in the south and that extends along the St. Lawrence River to Québec City. Here, settled area on dependable agricultural land grew by 128 030 hectares (+27%). Over half of this growth came from the Greater Golden Horseshoe, an area including the Greater Toronto Area (see Map 3.2 in the article “Measuring ecosystem goods and services in Canada,” published in Human Activity and the Environment in 2013).

In 2011, agricultural activity was most heavily concentrated in the Prairies ecozone. Farms occupied more than 75% of the total land area for many ecodistricts in the Prairies ecozone, as well as some in the Mixed Wood Plains and Boreal Plains ecozones.

Total farm area as a percentage of ecodistrict area, 2011

Map 1: Total farm area as a percentage of ecodistrict area, 2011 - Description

Goods and services from agricultural ecosystems

In 2012, agricultural ecosystems supported the production of more than 134 million tonnes of farm output, with farm cash receipts of $54.2 billion. By weight, food and fodder crops, including wheat, canola, potatoes, fruit, vegetables and hay, accounted for 90% of the output of agriculture in 2012.

Agricultural landscapes are also valued for their potential to provide other ecosystem services, such as the provision of wildlife habitat, pollination, water purification and regulation and cultural services. In 2011, woodlands and wetlands accounted for 8% of farm area, while natural pasture made up a further 23%.

Environmental management

Pesticides are applied to agricultural crops to prevent losses from weeds, insects, fungi and parasites. While pesticides can help maintain crop yields and quality, they also have the potential to have negative environmental effects, such as contaminating surface water and groundwater.

In 2011, 69% of Canadian crop farms reported applying herbicides, 15% employed insecticides and 23% used fungicides. Saskatchewan and Manitoba crop farms had the highest share of herbicide application in 2011, while insecticide application was more common in the Atlantic provinces and British Columbia. Fungicide application was most frequent in Manitoba and least common in Quebec.

To reduce the use of pesticides, farmers are also using a number of alternative methods of pest control.

In 2011, 55% of crop farms used crop rotation to disrupt pest cycles. Ontario, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Alberta crop farms led the way in this method of pest control, according to data from the Farm Environmental Management Survey.

A number of farmers made capital investments in 2011 connected to the environment. Among this group, producers invested an average of $6,810 per farm on environmental protection improvements, $47,480 on manure storage construction and $17,701 on pesticide, chemical and fuel storage construction. In Quebec and Manitoba, farmers reported the highest average spending on manure storage construction in 2011. Alberta farmers, on average, outspent their counterparts in other parts of the country on pesticide, chemical and fuel storage construction.