Manitoba Ag Days, Mali, and progress in agriculture

In the last 10 days I’ve been thinking a lot about Mali, farming and progress in agriculture.

During quiet moments during Manitoba Ag Days in Brandon, when I wasn’t fiddling with my iPhone and swearing about my problems Tweeting out of the giant building, I found my mind travelling back to the trip I did through north and west Africa in 1986, where for two-and-a-bit months I travelled by truck and camped .

This isn’t as bizarre a connection as you might think. Every time I cover Ag Days I’m impressed by all the innovations and developments that appear every year in agriculture. There is such rapid development it’s hard to keep up with everything that’s going on. While walking around the show yesterday I ran into a friend and colleague who has been away from ag journalism for years, but is now back in the field. (Sorry about the pun.) She said everything in farming seems radically different from when she first covered farming, and it now seems like such a vital, dynamic industry. The changes in recent years really have been astounding, on all levels.

During Ag Days and at St Jean Farm Days last week I covered sessions discussing fine points of the science of controlling insect infestations, analyzing crop-versus-crop return prospects, assessing the affordability of farmland in the context of various interest rate and crop return scenarios, etc. etc. etc.

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(Your humble scribe indulging in a little self-portraitizing)

The most enjoyable session for me was one at Ag Days yesterday about how to use your smartphone in farming. There are already many apps for farming, but there’s a need for many more. That’s because the mini-supercomputers we all now carry around in our pockets can accomplish much of what desktop computers back in our offices do, and those desktop computers are doing things no one could have imagined 20 years ago. It’s a plugged-in, wired-up farming world we live in now, and the efficiency gains are amazing. With sky-high crop prices, money is pouring into grain farms and farmers are leaping ahead in terms of profitability and net worth.

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(Ag news apps for your smartphone)

(Farm management apps)

(Farm management apps)

This is the stuff farmers are now learning to take for granted, and if you showed up at Manitoba Ag Days and didn’t see a bunch of new, innovative stuff you’d feel ripped off by the industry.

But I wonder what’s happening back in Mali, where I toured in ’86 and which is now being ripped apart by an Islamist invasion and insurgency. Every day in the news appear the names of towns I passed through, camped beside, hung out in. Gao, which is now behind the lines of the insurgency? Stayed two days there. Met the Algerian consul there. Saw kids beating each other up in the market there. Boarded a riverboat for Timbuktu there. Mopti, on the edge of the Islamist invasion? Beautiful town. Lovely people. Remember drinking ice-cold, sugary pop with a swarm of little kids there. They helped me speak French, kindly correcting all the errors I was making. Now that town is apparently gripped by panic as the rebel forces move closer and the French troops move up to engage. Timbuktu? Dusty, sandy, scary at the time. Our sword-carrying Tuareg guides warned us to camp many miles from town, because even they were scared in this frontier town. What’s it like now that it’s in a war zone?

None of that matters in agricultural terms, obviously, but my mind jumped from those images to ones of the kind of farming I witnessed there as we passed through. I’ve posted about this before, but the point still seems relevant. Here’s what farming looked like then:

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Pretty basic stuff. The pix look crappy because they were snaps I took with a half-broken Pentax K1000 that was filled with sand and operated by a 20-year-old who didn’t know what he was doing, and these images of them were taken by me holding up the prints and shooting them with my iPhone camera. But you get the idea: the farming here in the 1980s was little different from 2,000 years before, with some exceptions like the rice paddy above which was a development project of recent years.

My wondering mind made me wonder how a farmer there ever gets ahead. Mali, until early last year, was a democratic star in west Africa, with a booming economy. That would allow for all sorts of development to be done, from big stuff to little farm-by-farm improvements. It’s unlikely most of the local farmers would be GPSing everything, soil-testing and mapping, or using the latest varieties of crops, or employing sophisticated management software, but after years of peace and stability, no doubt local farmers would have improved their farms somewhat.

Then a coup occurs, and an invasion and insurgency follows. Normally that is followed by massive damage to local economies, disruption, death, looting and wealth destruction. Imagine you’re the Malian camelman above, or the guy operating the paddies along the Niger river, or the urban fellow who owns those critters that are happily sitting in the middle of this town road. What happens to your farm, your crop, your animals? If you’ve invested lots of time, care, husbandry and your heart in developing your agricultural assets, and they get killed, badly damaged or stolen by hungry rebels or government soldiers, why would you bother to try to rebuild? If this kind of chaos occurs a number of times, you might just give up.

I’m sure most Malian farmers, whatever happens in the current war, will try to rebuild, if they’re still alive. That’s what farmers everywhere do. Lots of lucky farmers will have the war pass them by, so it’ll turn out OK for them.

But they probably won’t have the cash to implement variable rate technology, manage their soils scientifically or employ today’s best management practices. They’ll probably just try to rebuild to where they were before the chaos engulfed them.

So once more here in the peaceful, democratic West we can take advantage of all the scientific and managerial advances and move further forward, while elsewhere things stumble along, sometimes improving, sometimes slipping back to where they started. When I started this post, I wasn’t really sure where I was going with it. I wasn’t sure why I felt I should write it.

But now I realize the point I’ve been trying to make: We’re lucky to live in a place where advances can be made and embraced quickly and rationally. We in Canada have the ability to bound ahead technologically and – hopefully – financially when these innovation revolutions occur. Other farmers don’t have that opportunity, or at least can’t count on it lasting. So farmers should appreciate this opportunity and take advantage of it.

Everything you as a farmer saw at Ag Days and took for granted? Maybe think for a moment of the opportunities you presently have to improve your farm, and think about the situation of farmers in Mali who are caught in a war zone and are mostly just looking for the opportunity to survive and keep farming. My post yesterday focused on how farmers seem to have a healthy interest in how to not blow this present boom. Today was the continuation of that: appreciate the opportunities you have here, and spare a thought for those overseas who might be losing even the basics they now have.

 

About the author

Ed White — Ed White has specialized in markets coverage since 2001 and has achieved the Derivatives Market Specialist (DMS) designation with the Canadian Securities Institute.

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  1. Readers wondering about agriculture in Mali might have a look at this article from the Cornell (University) Chronicle about a small rice project in Mali that succeeded, despite the ongoing conflict there.

    http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/Jan13/CALSmali.html

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