Timing, transportation, trade dominated 2013

At this time of year, many people’s thoughts turn to tinsel, trees and turkey.

As farmers look back on 2013, a year of many extremes, they may reflect more on timing, transportation and trade.

In the timing category, it all started — as it always does — with the weather, which as usual ranged from the good to the bad and the disastrous.

For many farmers, the spring began inauspiciously with cold temperatures into May and a late thaw. Yet a big crop was planted, with fingers crossed that the fall would compensate with delayed frosts and little rain.

Before that could play out, a badly timed perfect storm combined mountain snow and drenching rains to flood much of southern Alberta. The record-breaking flood had little effect on crop production, but livestock suffered, rural infrastructure was badly damaged and many residents were left homeless for months. 

Summer brought relief for most crop producers, and July was a gift to canola. The cooler-than-normal temperatures gave the crop plenty of room to mature without heat stress, resulting in a massive yield.

Then came the harvest, with the hoped-for gentle weather, and ultimately farmers took off record-smashing crops of all kinds. Statistics Canada estimated a harvest of 37.53 million tonnes of wheat, up 38 percent from the previous year, and nearly 18 million tonnes of canola. Oat production rose 38.3 percent to 3.89 million tonnes.

The transportation system could not keep up. Huge crops brought huge headaches in terms of getting them to port. Some farmers are advocating using this anomalous crop as a benchmark for improving rail capacity and storage. 

The massive harvest was not alone in breaking records. Farmers learned late in the year that net farm income in 2012 hit $7.3 billion, up 31.7 percent over the previous year, but farm debt followed, rising to a record $72.6 billion. Even in livestock, record prices were reached for fed cattle in 2013.

If the level of trade was not extreme, the amount of activity on the trade policy front was as surprising as some of the outcomes.

Country-of-origin labelling remained a thorn in the side of the Canadian livestock industry, but the problem worsened in November when new U.S. rules became enforceable. Hope remains that it will be eliminated once the U.S. farm bill is finalized. Otherwise, Canada will retaliate after the World Trade Organization rules on the most recent version, although that won’t happen until spring or summer.

The Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement deal was announced this fall, and could lead to $1.5 billion in increased agricultural exports to Europe. However, the details remain vague and not all farm sectors are in support of the agreement. 

The biggest surprise of the year was that the WTO managed to reach a last-minute deal in Bali, Indonesia, to rescue the 12-year-old Doha round of negotiations. Canadian trade officials heralded the agreement as a positive step toward liberalized trade around the world.

All of these highlights only serve to show how complex agriculture has become. The politics, the systems, the trade barriers and the public concerns about genetic modification and animal treatment serve to make an industry already complicated by natural forces even more daunting to manage.

As the holiday season nears, we would all do well to remember the simple fact that every item on the groaning dinner table came from a farm. 

As Thomas Jefferson once wrote to George Washington: “Agriculture is our wisest pursuit because it will in the end contribute most to real wealth, good morals and happiness.”

May it always be so.

Bruce Dyck, Terry Fries, Barb Glen, D’Arce McMillan and Joanne Paulson collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.


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