The aortic dissection I suffered earlier this year was a shock — a setback — but I have been able to rehabilitate well and I have thought a lot about 2019, the year that was and the year where a lot changed. I’m sure everyone would like to see agriculture become more stable than it has been. Even a few years ago, all was good — prices, markets, production cycles with large crops. The sentiment was that farming is good and it’s going to stay good forever. This has not been the case. Weather, climate, markets, governments, margins and technology have all been anything but stable this year. What will next year bring us?
Climate and Weather
Is this weird, wild weather — drought, excess rain, snow for Thanksgiving — what we can expect for the future? Is it a result of climate change?
What do we need to do to adapt to this wild weather? Over the last many years, we have heard from government that we need to be storm ready, have food, water and supplies to last for a minimum of three days without help. My wife and I had no power for almost four full days, so I can understand this, but what can we do on our farms to overcome this weather? Mid-summer, we would have talked about needing irrigation, then we needed better drainage, and then the October snowstorm came.
Drainage should be an easy solution, but when we are talking 10 or 12 inches of rain in a month, can we really build the needed infrastructure? Even with tile drainage, water needs to escape. Irrigation infrastructure, too, poses a challenge when the need is so great.
Increasing our resilience to unpredictable weather is not easy. It will take years and some dynamic approaches.
Do we need to start considering practices such as intercropping?
There were some destabilizing forces in our markets in the last year. The stability we have had for several years was a result of some efforts to have international agreements governing trade, ensuring open borders. Many agreements are now being challenged or not respected. More non-tariff barriers are being implemented as well, so we are seeing walls built all over the place.
Between protectionist attitudes and politics, unfortunately, this is not easy to fix. Many trading partners are not even talking to each other, so it’s hard to move toward a resolution. You are fortunate that our industry has some strong associations, Pulse Canada and Soy Canada, speaking on behalf of farmers.
Pulse Canada works very closely with the federal government to make sure they are on top of issues that affect markets. They are also in touch with international pulse associations, as the many issues that are slowing or hampering our trade also affect other countries.
Buyers in India want our pulses, at a price. But that price works for some volume shipments. There are restrictions shipping to India, though. Our product needs to be fumigated, which is a trade barrier, but it’s part of the cost calculation selling pulses to this market. Pulse Canada has been working with the Canadian government to address this and has been able to get an agreement in place to address it, but from the India side, the issue has not been taken up. Canada also has problems with weed seeds, which seems to be a topic of discussion in several markets. If countries like India put zero tolerance on weed seeds, it makes it very difficult to meet that goal. Zero is an impossible benchmark. Huge risks are involved. Containers are inspected and if they do not pass, they get rejected and either destroyed or re-exported, which requires costs at every corner. That scares many exporters away from markets. Pulse Canada works very hard to make certain the industry and government know about the issues.
Soy Canada does very similar work. We had an issue with creeping thistle (creeping thistle, AKA, Canada thistle — branded creeping as it’s not native to Canada) in mainly soybeans going over to Vietnam. Since most of the soybeans exported are food-grade and have been cleaned, it’s not a huge issue and exporters are watching carefully. Recently, Vietnam gave notice to Eastern Bloc countries that they will no longer import their wheat due to too many contaminated shipments. Soy Canada worked hard on this file to draft a proposal that Vietnam would accept the product subject to inspection, but knowing special protocols were followed to ensure shipments were meeting their import restrictions.
As an industry comprised of growers, marketers, exporters and associations, we also need to take steps to minimize our marketing risk. Be it China for soybeans or India for pulses, we need to diversify our markets. Any market study would tell us that placing all our eggs in one basket would not be wise. Why do we keep doing this? Diversification is key.
Pulse Canada has been working on diversifying the pulse market. Their latest campaign, called 25 by 2025, is to push 25 percent more product into new markets, domestically and internationally. The processing industry is a real plus. Yellow peas sold into the protein market would fit into their campaign. That is important for our yellow pea market, and we are still working to grow the edible bean market. There is a lot of behind the scenes work and a tremendous amount of effort being made by Pulse Canada to grow this market. Growing the pulse market is good for the profitability and sustainability of our farms.
Soy Canada also has a plan to grow the market, but they don’t have as many resources as Pulse Canada to make it happen. Regardless, they are doing fabulous work for our farmers.
Technology and Margins
Can we afford all the new ag technologies, and are they useful? We’re not strangers to technology, but, like our cellphones, do we fully understand and utilize what’s available?
Every year, new technologies are coming out that boast features few people use. These new technologies cost more money.
Everyone looks at technology differently. I had a farmer comment, “Do not bring me an autonomous planter. That is such an important part of farming. I want to be on the tractor planting. I know other farmers who think differently and hire custom operators to plant their crops.”
Be it electronic technology, new seed varieties, new chemistries, additives or iron, farmers need to assess what is needed. The salespeople will tell you that you’ve got to have it, and that you need all the bells and whistles. And we all want new stuff, don’t we?
The real measure is how these technologies improve the bottom line. We’ll need to watch our margins.
MPSG is building on the On-Farm Network (OFN) and we have more and more people getting involved. Our goal is to have independent research that will let you, the farmer, decide if all the must-haves are really helping your bottom line. And through the OFN, we want to give you the tools to be able to conduct trials on your own farm.
I don’t think market, trade or price stability will happen over winter. Markets will move and who knows what forces will affect them — politics, environment, greed, who knows.
Please check out MPSG’s Getting it Right Conference on January 29, 2020. It’s always a good farmer-only event full of information that can be put to use on your farms.
Think about getting involved in the On-Farm Network. Talk to us at Ag Days, CropConnect, or wherever you see us, about how you can participate. Check out our website for results and see if any of these trials would fit on your farm.
Most of all, look after yourselves and your families. Maintaining physical health is important and make sure to watch for signs of mental health issues around you.
Let’s plan for a great 2020!