GFO Classic: A Showcase for Optimistic Young Grain Farmers

     This afternoon I found myself replacing almost all the disc blades on my corn planter.  I noticed last June while I was finishing up planting 2011 corn that maybe the planter wasn’t placing things exactly where I wanted them.  It didn’t affect things last year as I averaged 200 bushel per acre corn, but after taking a few measurements last week, every disc blade on the planter has to be replaced.  In the meantime, I found a few bearings that had to be replaced too.

It is not the most pleasant job in the world because I cannot farm it out to anybody else and bending, pulling and pushing socket wrenches while wielding a hammer affects me differently these days.  Let’s just say I’m getting older.  Interestingly enough, that fact alone is not lost on me as I visited the Grain Farmers of Ontario March Classic last week and saw a plethora of young farmers in attendance.  It seems there is an infusion of youth into Ontario agriculture.

That was brought home to me over the last 10 weeks.  During that time I spoke at about 13 different grower meetings across the province with younger people present everywhere.  Seeing twenty something young people starting to farm it is so different from just a few years ago.

It has to do with optimism in our industry.  For instance at the Grain Farmers of Ontario March Classic I sat with a young farmer, Brendan Byrne from Essex Ontario.  Brendan is probably half my age or a little bit older.  Another young farmer who sat beside him joined him.  With me there, invariably the question comes up about grain prices.  A well-known Ontario grain analyst, who chimed in with his good tidings, joined us.  At that point, one of the young guys at the table told another he couldn’t believe the optimism out there in farm country.  That alone worries him.

It was a telling moment to me because it was so true.  At one time, only 6 years ago a gathering of Ontario grain farmers in March would likely debate about how many tractors to take out on the highway 401.  Sure, those agricultural economic times are past and if you ever needed evidence of that, the March Classic was a good example.  The Grain Farmers of Ontario did an excellent job bringing in speakers who were captivating.  They talked about innovation, success and about taking risks, which was like fuel for the soul of those present. It was an excellent conference.

One noted exception to the optimism at the March Classic was some cautionary words from FC Stone grain analyst Cal Whewell, a favorite of Ontario growers.  Mr. Whewell cautioned Ontario grain farmers that the United States was poised to grow 95 million plus acres of corn and demand might not be what they think it is.  He openly mused about $3.50 nu crop corn which is about half of what expectations were for some at the conference.  He drew a compelling argument and one we may be talking more about as the year goes on.

He answered for me a simple question on who will feed China?  The short answer is China.  Mr. Whewell made the statement that Chinese corn production is likely to rise with its own domestic demand.  So in other words, China might not need US corn as much as some people think they will.  It was a brave and honest statement of fact, and I will be watching to see how it plays out in the coming year.

One comment that I heard at the March Classic was that the meeting should be moved to a more central location.  I laughed at that because I would like it in Chatham Ontario, where it used to be located, at a time when most grain production was in Southwest Ontario.  Several people made the comment from Eastern Ontario, who implied the burgeoning grain production in Eastern Ontario toward the Québec border needed to be recognized. Whether that ever happens I don’t know.  However, it is very evident in Ontario farm country, that Eastern Ontario is a very dynamic place opening up for grain production.  It gets bigger and bigger every year.

The road ahead in 2012 will surely be topsy-turvy.  Expect a big splash on March 30th, which may throw water on the party.  We should also expect volatile weather, because that’s simply part of farming.  2012 may not be easy.  That “unexpected Tuesday” which I often talk about may even come along.  So if you are young farmer reading this column, I admire your optimism.  Keep in mind the business you are in.  At times, it’s not for the faint of heart.  There can be great rewards, but sometimes there are pitfalls.  Enjoy your youth.  Fight for your farms. Canadian agriculture needs you.

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