Evolving demands, headaches, opportunities

I’m in Saskatoon at The Western Producer’s annual editorial conference. It’s a chance to catch up with colleagues and for those of us who live in the network of far-flung news bureaus to get up to speed with developments here at our imperial headquarters. I must say it’s nice to be part of a newspaper that’s growing and optimistic, which is in stark contrast to the imploding feeling experienced by the people at many newspapers across North America. We’re talking about expanding and improving, rather than downsizing, laying-off and struggling.

It’s quite stunning how much the Producer has changed since I joined the paper in 1994. Those were days before the internet, when cellphones came in bulky boxes. It now seems like the stone age of journalism, especially after hearing from our present journalism intern about all the new fangled gadgets and approaches they assume as normal at journalism schools. I was telling our intern last “old man” type stories from way back in 1990, when I went to J-school, before the internet and when we even used “typewriters.” Now the Producer is a multi-platform news organization, and it’s going to get more multi in coming years.

Similarly, farming has gotten much more complex since I joined the paper. Average farm sizes are two to three times what they were in 1994, and production, marketing and management practices are miles beyond where they were. That brings its challenges, as thousands of farmers are discovering right now, with their marketing plans in chaos as crops are lying in the field, degrading in quality and creating delivery problems and contract breaches. (Other farmers are sitting atop goldmines in their bins. Anyone who grew and has harvested 1,000 acres of lentils this year has the happy predicament of having to choose when to cash in his winning lottery ticket.)

We spent a lot of time yesterday talking about value chains and how farmers can get a fairer share, or at least a better share, of the dollars flowing through the food system. I never quite get how value chains are supposed to deliver better prices for farmers, other than by following the longtime practice of getting farmers to sign contracts with tight specs and farmers demanding a premium to do so. But that’s really nothing new. I sense that a lot of people are stumbling along in this value chain theory development, but that no one yet has really figured out how to make it work right. We’ve had contracting forever. We’ve done vertical integration through cooperatives and other ventures. Perhaps this value chain stuff will one day prove to give something new and better for the farmer.

But one thing that was clear to me was that the average farmer, whether or not he’s in a value chain agreement, now needs to be far more informed about the quality of the crops or meat he is producing. And he then needs to know what to do with the information. That way he can modify his management to more exactly meet the needs of others in the chain.

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And with the average full-time, grain-only farm on the prairies now running more than $1.2 million per year in revenue, financial and marketing expertise is no longer a luxury for a handful of progressive farmers. A farmer now has to be a professional marketer and business manager, or hire consultants and advisors who can fill that role for him.

In good years a lack of marketing and management skills is survivable. But in a year like this, which is a disaster for so many farms in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, the need for farmers to be far more than they were in 1994 is starkly obvious. So as I get headaches trying to figure out how to attach Twitter and Facebook to this blog, and as I ponder the likely future demands for reporters like me to be able to provide podcasts and video footage for our web page, I am glad to think that my little challenges just cause me minor stresses.

For the farmer, who now has to handle many more complex production, marketing and management matters, getting proficient with the new skills is no small thing. About the biggest screw-up I can commit is a dropping of my camera, or a spilling of my coffee into my computer, or a complete inability to understand Twitter and an ensuing period of paralysis and avoidance. For the farmer, screw-ups in his day to day job now can mean hundreds of thousands of dollars of losses.

Now, off to the second day of the conf.

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