Behind the numbers
By Jenn Watt
It’s how numbers are presented that make them useful, or misleading, to an audience. Is the glass 50 per cent full, or 50 per cent empty? Or, in Haliburton County, are we losing agricultural operations or are we gaining small scale market gardens?
Faye Adamson and Kate Hall have recently re-examined the numbers compiled by Statistics Canada about Haliburton County’s small agricultural industry, using input from producers about what they’re seeing on the ground and have cultivated a different and more optimistic perspective than what the official data shows.
By digging deeper into the stats – specifically what operations and producers are included and what aren’t – the report “Food and Agriculture in Haliburton County: Looking Beyond the Census” is also able to pinpoint barriers that can be addressed to encourage growth.
For example, the census shows that the number of farms declined from 67 in 2011 to 59 in 2016. However, the report points out that there was an increase in farms with less than 10 acres of land in that same period, from four to seven. The authors also point out that not everyone producing food on a small scale, such as market gardeners and homesteaders, is being counted by the census.
Stakeholders consulted said that barriers to small operations include regulations on minimum lot size, challenges in finding occasional staff, and increasing the public’s awareness of available produce and how to get it.
Egg production continues to be unprofitable, the report says, mostly because of hen restrictions for farmers who don’t buy quota and the seasonal fluctuations that either mean farmers have too much supply or too much demand, depending on the time of year.
“Regulations limiting small-flock farmers to farm gate sales, with the lack of a local egg-grading station make it very hard to make a living selling eggs,” the authors note.
But there is room to grow. Maple syrup production was highlighted as a strong industry that is perfectly suited to the landscape of the Highlands. Twenty-four maple operations were counted in the 2016 census with 17,656 trees tapped.
“The availability of idle bush at comparatively cheap rates, along with a growing market for the product, mean there are substantial opportunities for maple operations in Haliburton County,” the report says.
Similarly garlic is singled out as a crop that is easy to grow and lucrative. The Census of Agriculture did not capture data on this product.
After bringing the official stats together with on-the-ground information from local experts, the authors were able to make recommendations, including the establishment of industry groups that could further develop specific subgroups of farmers, and the creation of a directory and map of agriculture and farm gate sales to make sure everything grown is sold.
Findings of the report are too plentiful to list in this space, but can be found on harvesthaliburton.com. The biggest lesson to be learned from Hall and Adamson’s work is that numbers don’t paint the full picture. It is the context and the examination of data, through the lens of the local community’s needs, that gives it meaning.