34 Years Ago, It’s Just as Well, I Didn’t Know

I’m wishing all of my American friends and colleagues at DTN a Happy Thanksgiving. I have a connection with American Thanksgiving as my grandmother was American and my sister-in-law is American. So, at this time of year, I usually celebrate with everybody else south of the border. However, this year, like so many places to the south, Covid19 is changing that narrative. Needless to say, American Thanksgiving comes along at about the right time for me. Almost always my crops are in the bin and I have so much to be thankful for.

Thankful I am. Tonight, represents the 34th Anniversary of writing this column all the way back in late November of 1986. If you had told that young guy what the world would be like in 2020, I’m sure he wouldn’t even believe it. Ronald Reagan was President and Brian Mulroney was Prime Minister. Our collective economies were much smaller then, our issues different and of course, no pandemic. Life before the internet was hard to imagine.

I’ve said it many times, that change in agriculture is our only constant. Think about the scale and labour requirements that we have on today’s farms. 34 years ago, we were just coming off high interest rates (over 20%) and farmers were adjusting under some very crushing credit limitations. A few years before on my farm it would take 3 guys all day to plant 50 acres of soybeans. In a good day with the equipment, I have now, I can plant about 150 acres of soybeans myself, guided through the field by a satellite signal from the sky. Imagining that change back in 1986 was beyond me.

Of course, that begs the question, where will you be 34 years from now? How will your farm change over that time? What are you going to do if you are young enough to position yourself for greater success? Going further, how will you respond as the agricultural economy changes radically with technology you cannot imagine now? These are tough questions that in many ways, aren’t really fair to ask.

I say that because in 1986 was it really fair for me to expect something called the internet to come along? Hardly, at the time, we were just getting used to computers in agriculture. I was a grad student at the University of Guelph and worked with terminals connected to big mainframe computers. At the time, we had semblances of email, but nobody called it that then. After I graduated in 1989, the internet came of age in the mid 1990’s. Now in 2020, a huge percentage of agricultural people cannot imagine a time, where the internet wasn’t here. You can pull up the colour radar during planting time on your smart phone to see what time it’s going to rain? Hah, back in the day, you just guessed and listened to the radio, where the weather was usually delivered by a DJ who had no idea.

I could have never imagined that back in 1986. I often tell the story of how we used to communicate. Other than CB radios on the farm, which were just a little bit better than nothing, a high-pitched yell used to be the way I communicated from the other end of the field. I can still yell like that but have no reason to. The world has changed, and agricultural communications continue to improve. Having said that, what would you prefer, a busy signal or a dump into the CRA voice mail system? You get my drift, changing technologies does change behaviour and it’s not all good.

Let me project for a minute what Canadian agriculture might be like 34 years from now in 2054. I’ve always been somewhat of a critic of autonomous farm equipment because of the liability issues. However, clearly, despite that, we are seeing more autonomous pieces of equipment moving into our fields. Drones now are so old school, but I can imagine in 2054, there might be a myriad of assorted farm equipment working in or flying over my fields accessing technology to satisfy our agricultural economics. It’s hard to imagine now.

That likely will mean many things, one being a change in fuel source, which ultimately will reverberate throughout the rest of our economy. Can you imagine a world with much, much less oil and ethanol. Will we be able to mitigate climate change enough in the next several decades to preserve some of our biofuel industries or are we barking up a tree which is over?

Our agricultural commodity world will continue to evolve into 2054. In 1986, the US produced approximately 7.58 billion bushels of corn.  In 2020 the US will produce almost double that to 14.50 billion bushels of corn. Demand alone for corn this year is 14.825 billion bushels.  In 1986, Brazil produced 17.3 MMT of soybeans, this coming year they are expected to produce 133 MMT. Food was cheap in 1986 and it likely will be that much more in 2054.

The world will change too with China being the largest economy. Add in India, Bangladesh and other countries and things will be different. Africa could be a new powerful agricultural production powerhouse. Our agricultural geopolitics will flex, as we try to drive demand to the right places. Technology will continue to advance. We will have to continue to make choices on that vicious agricultural efficiency treadmill.

As for me, maybe I’ll just concentrate for now on getting to 35 years. Predicting the future can be so difficult. Maybe 34 years ago, it’s just as well, I didn’t know.