Farmers Need to Work Together, But You Know

I’ve been fortunate to meet a lot of farmers from all over the world. I’ve also been fortunate to meet farmers from all over Canada and the United States. It’s interesting, we have many of the same problems, as agricultural economics keeps us on that vicious efficiency treadmill. Keep doing things cheaper and better, then you’ll get the chance to keep going. You’ve got to love commodity agriculture.

How many times have you heard the comment from farmers and people in Canadian agriculture that “we need to work together”. That retort is often thrown about as farmers look at their place at the bottom on the value chain. I’m sure to many farmers it can be incredibly frustrating. There surely are others who work hard trying to write that wrong. Needless to say, “we need to work together” is much more difficult than it sounds.

I don’t find it that difficult to figure out. Simply put, farmers aren’t homogeneous. However, I think many farmers think they are. In fact, farmers are different around the world, throughout Canada and even between counties in Ontario. I actually read a blistering criticism on twitter this morning of one specific Canadian agricultural policy. I had to remind the author of that, not everybody sees things the same.

Canada is a good example of a very diverse farm population. This afternoon I was interviewed live by a Canadian media company, who had asked me to speak on grain markets and Canadian farming in general. However, as the interview progressed, I was asked about Quebec farmers and the different cash grain market realities as we moved east in Ontario, into Quebec and the Maritimes.

The conversation veered into why Quebec farmers are different than the farmers in Western Canada and southwestern Ontario. I was asked this question, because I’m published in French in Quebec. I told the interviewer language and culture make a tremendous difference between Quebec farmers and the rest of the country. Quebec farmers feel it in their soul what it is like to be a Quebecer. Quebec City is their capital. Do I have to say more?

Of course, it doesn’t end there. As you travel east toward the Maritimes, cash grain markets become much less transparent. Much of that has to do with less grain grown as you go north and east. It creates different market realities which causes farmers to market differently than those of us in southwestern Ontario or Western Canada. It accentuates our differences.

When I travel for speaking, I always find out how the local grain basis acts at my destination. For instance, last March I traveled to PEI to speak on grains markets and I’m pretty well versed on how cash prices work in that idyllic province. It’s an eastern outpost on the water, so you had better catch the best opportunity to ship that grain out. Often times, those opportunities are focused and limited.

On the other hand, out west, you better get that grain loaded on a rail car and get it shipped out. It’s a long way to Vancouver. This is missed on many farmers living in southwestern Ontario or southeastern Quebec. I remember very clearly hearing about “rail cars” one of the first times I spoke in western Canada. It’s almost unheard of in the East, Needless to say, getting enough rail cars to ship grain out in frigid western Canadian winters is always priority one.

Of course, scale is also one of the most important differences between farmers in the East vs the West. I have a colleague in Saskatchewan who posted a picture of his hydraulic remotes on the back of his tractor. There were eight remotes. I laughed to myself, as my tractors have 3 remotes. I’m sure you might look hard in Ontario or Quebec to find the same tractor, but in a nutshell, that tells you how different these two farming regions are.

These differences lead to other differences, which at the end of the day cause all kinds of complications for Canadian agricultural policy. Just imagine Canadian agriculture minister Marie Claude Bibeau considering the agricultural safety net envelope that she receives so much criticism for. She has to consider all of these differences and come out at the other end with a coherent policy. You can understand, why there is so much disaffection. Farmers are not homogeneous, so it makes “working together” so much more difficult.

On a dusty trail back in 2003 I walked into Bangladeshi farm country hoping to talk to some farmers. I’d done the same thing in rural Australia, but something told me this might be more difficult. Rural Bangladesh is serene, such a beautiful place on a late January day. However, I was drawing a crowd for obvious reasons. I pointed out a particularly attractive rice paddy to my colleague who was accompanying me. On seeing this foreigner pointing to his rice paddy, one in the crowd spoke up and said something. Translated I was told it was his rice paddy. I turned to him and we had a some-what strained, broken conversation about his fertility he had put down. At the end of the conversation, I had made his day.

Regrettably, that doesn’t always happen among farmers. Simply put, we might have a great comradery but we’re all so different and sometimes those differences make our collective agricultural economy that much more complex. Sure, we need to work together, but you know.