As Planters Roll, Let’s Consider All Our Farming Challenges

Corn plant 375
It is cold outside.  In fact, it is been snowing for about the last three days near Dresden Ontario off and on.  The calendar is getting to be late April and that means I should be planting corn.  However, it is so cold it just doesn’t seem right.  Needless to say, I have been there many times before.  Planting amid snowflakes often means the corn comes up in much warmer weather.  I’m sure I will be planting at the start of the new week.

It is a long road to pay day.  There is a myriad of risk in front of me until my combine heads toward those harvest fields in November.  That is true for me as well as the many other crop producers in North America.  However, it is so true for almost any segment of production agriculture.  I read with interest the continued problem of H5N2 or Avian Flu, which has struck in Ontario and across North America causing approximately 8 million poultry deaths.  If it isn’t weather that gets you in the crop sector, it’s disease or some other affliction in the livestock sector.  Simply put, agriculture is a very risky business even if we have the wind to our back.  As those planters roll next week, stay safe.

In fact, it is so much safer than it used to be.  I used to tell stories about me planting corn on an open station tractor, freezing to death on days like this.  Now, tractors are so much safer and equipment is so much bigger.  Is all designed to give us even greater efficiency.  That is the kryptonite of modern agriculture.

Of course, we are constantly deluged with global population statistics on the number of mouths we will need to feed in the next 50 years.  So tune up that big planter and join in the chorus, we’ve got a lot of mouths to feed.  I was interested in reading DTN’s Chris Clayton’s column this past week, where he talked about the United Nations projecting a global population of 9.6 billion through 2050.  That responsibility of feeding the world doesn’t resonate according to Charlie Arnot, CEO of the Center for Food Integrity.  In Chris’s article, he pointed out the American consumers are more interested in American farmers producing healthy affordable food and feeding the world.  I was glad to see that, because it showed that our consumers are much more “micro” in their food outlook.  At the end of the day, it’s more about them than any noble attempt to feed the world.

From a Canadian perspective I think it is even more so.  There is no question that there are food preferences differences between the United States and Canada.  You don’t have to go to far these days to see an editorial about how Canada’s supply managed system for dairy and feathers is costing consumers too much.  I have always felt that the Canadian consumer enjoys cheap, affordable food and would generally sell farmers out for $.25 in a pinch.  Simply put, it happens every day in our Canadian grocery stores.  Just take a look at all the imported food and you will see that cheap wins most of the time.

It is really quite a challenge, yes there are those 9.6 billion mouths to feed by 2050, but at the end of the day that food still has to be cheap.  Canadian consumers prove that.  They spend an increasingly smaller share of their disposable income on food, but want it cheaper and more plentiful at the same time.  In our lust to satisfy that demand, we as Canadian farmers continue to embrace greater efficiencies to keep that vicious cycle going.  In many ways, it is never-ending.

Of course the great constant in our agricultural economy to keep this merry-go-round well greased is the continuing cheap money environment.  Interest rates at near to record low levels make it possible to extend debt levels at low costs to keep up the efficiency envelope.  If interest rates ever got out of control again like they did 30 years ago, farmers would be much more reluctant to make these changes.  It would simply be too difficult.

In the spring of 2015, this is all so relevant.  In many ways we are planting on faith that things will get better later in the year.  Grain prices are in the lower range of the last five-year price distribution average.  Still, many of us have made equipment changes amongst many other things to drive that efficiency to even greater levels.  You would think at a certain point there would be some appreciation for this at the consumer level.  Regrettably, it’s unlikely ever to come our way.

The challenge of course is to just keep going.  More or less, the road ahead might have its troubles, but at the end of the day, harvest time will come.  Farming is a choice for the vast majority of us.  Understanding and accepting all the challenges in between can sometimes be the toughest thing to accept.

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