Trapped Like Fish in a Barrel: Farmers Look Ahead as Long as Yields Go Up

This past week saw the last of my wheat engulfed into the feeder house of my combine after another wheat season. I didn’t have any wheat in 2019 and with my heavy soil types, that’s never good. Wheat is a soil conditioner to me, always boosting futures yields thru increased tilth and a whole lot of other agronomic reasons I fail to understand. The agricultural economics of wheat aren’t too good, but when all things considered, it works for me on my farm. Hopefully 2020 will be the year, I’ll get wheat planted in September. That seems to be my best way of getting top wheat yields.

My time now will start focusing on the fall, but still enjoying this gorgeous summer. Next up is fungicide on corn and deciding whether Western Bean Cutworm will manifest itself enough to warrant additional insecticide. Just like an army worm infestation in one of my wheat fields, some of the things we do in our fields is such a leap of faith. Nobody can predict the future, but when it comes down to it, it’s all about managing risk within our agricultural economic arena. Capital is always scarce, so when fungicide season hits, (mid-summer for corn and soybeans) its becomes a game of odds. Can I get a payback from applying a fungicide on corn and soybeans?

The agricultural economics are simple, but crop scientists make life a bit more difficult because fungicide doesn’t necessarily work year in and year out as you might think. There can be certain corn hybrids for example which respond well to fungicides and there are those that don’t. Needless to say, I’ve had pretty good luck lately with fungicide on corn, not so much for soybeans. So, I move down the road appropriately. My corn gets the treatment, my beans likely don’t. Every farmer is measuring the same type of risks at this time of year.

In the fall of 2018, we had a terrible DON infection in Ontario corn. Usually, we have small infections every year and its very manageable, but in 2018, conditions came together that summer to cause widespread infection and widespread buyer rejections of Ontario corn at harvest time. At the time, government and industry responded to smooth things over. With grain, it was blend, baby, blend. However, going ahead at the time, the Ontario Corn Committee determined that some corn hybrids differed significantly to their susceptibility to DON. The hope at that time, was in the future, corn hybrids would be tested for DON in an ongoing commitment along with yield in an independent manner. In 2020, this has been discontinued. I’m not sure why.

From an agricultural economic perspective, that kind of corn hybrid evaluation would have been good, measuring hybrids susceptibility to DON. It would simply be a good tool for measuring costs associated with corn production and choosing our hybrids accordingly. However, like many things in this world, they pass. Farmers lost on this one. Our seed choices will just go ahead accordingly. One of my farmer colleagues describe it as being trapped like fish in a barrel. I responded by saying we got here with our eyes wide open.

Simply put, my friend was lamenting the fact, that farmers have a little less choice when it comes to comparing our seed purchasing choices. I was simply stating the fact, that there is nothing particularly illegal or immoral in that scenario, it’s just that for the most part we watch it happen over time. Over the years, big agricultural corporation have forged their will increasingly on a marketplace, partly with the benevolence of governments to control profits. For some farmers, that seems like they are fish in the barrel.

Other farmers don’t agree, especially the younger ones who have come of age over the last 25 year when agricultural biotechnology first reached Ontario and Quebec fields. That’s natural to feel that way, but it also spawns divisions as all the fish in the barrel don’t see the barrel the same way. Needless to say, big agricultural corporations see the barrel almost the same, how much water do you keep in the barrel to keep the fish alive.

I don’t think that will change much especially when it comes to the seed business. There have been calamities for sure, the latest being the dicamba off target problems. The seed industry will continue to use biotechnology to foster price discrimination. For the most part farmers look the other way, as long as yields go up. I’ve surely been guilty of that too. 200-bushel corn used to be a pipe dream, now it’s a base figure.

Can there be a better way? Well, it’s hard to say, especially when government is involved. I would hope someday the Ontario Corn Committee gets back to evaluating fungicides among different hybrids, etc., etc. However, I’m not going to be too hard on that, because the agricultural landscape is consistently fluid. Change is our only constant. I’ll be putting on fungicide next week.