Diversifying prairie crops
Grains have long been the traditional crops on the Central Plains. The Prairie provinces produce most of Canada’s grain output, which represents 5 percent of the world’s supply of wheat,
9.9 percent of its barley, and 14 percent of its oats. But in recent decades, prairie farmers have diversified considerably, moving away from grains to more profitable oilseeds, dominated by canola, and specialty crops such as peas and lentils, mustard, and sunflower and canary seeds. The diversification has been prompted by low grain prices, rising costs of shipping grain by rail, the loss of the grain rail subsidy, and much higher grain subsidies in Europe and the United States. High-value canola, primarily used for salad oil and margarine, is now Canada’s second major crop after wheat.
From 1976 to 2001, the total area used for canola production increased more than five times to 3.5 million hectares, representing 10 percent of Canada’s total agricultural land. By the late 1990s, Canada was responsible for 43 percent of the world’s canola oil exports. Besides alternative crops, prairie farmers have turned to livestock and hog production. One of the most significant increases shown by the 2001 census was the 26-percent increase in hog numbers since 1996. International demand, from the United States, Japan, and new markets such as Mexico, helped to spur the increase.