Poor farmer stereotype needs adjusting

If you listen to country music radio stations while on the tractor, sprayer or combine, you’ll inevitably hear the song Poor, Poor Farmer by Stompin’ Tom Connors.

That stereotype of impoverished farming may still exist in the minds of some people, but the reality has changed dramatically.

Farmers are no longer the poor country cousins. Nor do they fit the long-held definition of cash poor and asset rich. While working capital can be a problem, the cash outlays to run a farm would amaze most city dwellers.

In the city, an annual household salary of $150,000 is considered significant. On most farms, that would pay only a fraction of spring seeding expenses and it wouldn’t even be a down payment on late model seeding equipment.

That salary is also small compared to the crop insurance payments received last fall by many producers hit with disease and flooding.

Yes, the average farmer used to live poorer than urban dwellers with good jobs, but those days are long gone.

The average farm in Canada has a net worth of around $2.8 million — an average that includes thousands of farms with gross receipts of less than $10,000 a year that shouldn’t be considered commercial operations.

It’s a dilemma for farm lobby groups.

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On one hand, they want to portray agriculture as a big, progressive business.

On the other hand, they want to play the poor farmer card, arguing that the industry needs financial safety nets and special tax breaks.

Of course, farms come in all types and sizes. There are poor farmers. And it’s a business, so even big farms can and do go broke. There’s a lot of stress when the weather makes or breaks the year and you’re relying on unpredictable international markets.

“Grasshoppers came the other day just like a million goats, and before I knew just what to do they cut down all me oats,” sings Stompin’ Tom in his 1970 release.

The song is still requested because it’s cute and many of the trials and tribulations still resonate, but farmers today seldom worry about the grub box being empty and they aren’t regularly dining on rabbit stew.

“I loaded up with grass seed and started off to town. Seems like every mile I made, the price kept goin’ down.

The most of it was dockage from wild oats to flax, and when we came to settle up I owed him for the sacks.”

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Producers still quite rightly complain about grain contracts that favour the buyers, how grain is graded and the size of the deductions.

Some things haven’t changed.

And the optimism has endured over the decades. “I’ll always be a farmer. Don’t worry ‘bout a thing. And if I can get the tractor fixed, I’ll combine in the spring.” Combining in the spring was commonplace in many areas this year.

But why does he need to get the tractor fixed to combine in the spring? The song came from a time when pull-type combines were common. They haven’t been manufactured in more than 20 years and they’re all but gone from the landscape.

Perceptions should also adjust with the times. Commercial agriculture isn’t quaint. Farmers don’t suffer from a lower standard of living, and if they work too long and hard, it’s self-inflicted.

If you’re lucky enough to be born into an established farming family, you might have the option to carry on the farm someday. And you’re not likely to be a poor farmer.

Kevin Hursh is an agricultural journalist, consultant and farmer. He can be reached by e-mail at kevin@hursh.ca.

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  • Bruce

    A very good article,Kevin. Yes, there are a lot of rich grain farmers on the prairies . It is probably safe to say thousands of grain farmers have no debt at all and only operate on a cash basis when buying land or machinery. Yes, these farm lobby groups you write about a lot of times only end up making the rich even richer. Perhaps it is time to change the lyrics to Stompin Tom Connors song. Rich Rich Farmer………..

    • ed

      Yes, Bruce you are correct to a degree. Farm lobby groups are there to protect the whole, not individual farms. Business policy in Ottawa or Washington for instance is designed to protect business in general, not individual business people. Some business people as they near the end of their careers or lives are very wealthy. Some are not. Some in the middle of their careers are very wealthy. The had some great ideas, perfect market timing and conditions mixed with some good luck. Some struggle all the way. Some university grad has just started a business out of his Mom and Dad’s garage with $1,000 and some are just putting together their business proposal for the bank. Farm policy or business policy alike are not designed to judge the person in those environments by net worth, but are designed to give people that want to take a shot at private business a relatively balanced and fair playing field on which to operate. That is it. It is not equal and does not vet the players for net worth capacities. A higher tide floats all boats and that is the jist of how business or ag. policy is set, fought for or changed. The greater good is what is looked at in general from multiple angles. Rich and more to the point, successful farmers and in fact all farmers and their accomplishments are something we should break bread to, celebrate with a glass of wine or a great cup of coffee and truly take our hats off to. My 3 cents…now rounded up to…5 cents worth!!

      • Bruce

        Yes, ed I have knowledge several farmers are rich because I was sitting at the coffee table with them when they told me they were rich. You write about successful farmers. Maybe not always in the past but it is happening much more today. Most new farmers just take over the wealth that is passed down from their parents, In some cases not free but they buy the land at bargain prices with agreements made about paying for the land in case they have financial problems.

        • ed

          Yes, correct again. Most parents just spend all their earnings as they go. When you get four generations of lineage living on the land and wearing thread bare shirts right up to their coffin, working with assets that can grow 24/7 like livestock, crops and land values it is sure to add up. Some are more fortunate than others and if they have a good work ethic and value skills instilled in them from their parents and grandparents and their over all setting in which they were reared it may carry on for a few more generations without the ridiculous amount of work required to pull it off. That being said, many did not make this distance and at some point chose a different path. This in no way takes away from the work loads experienced by other professions such as fishermen, lumberjacks, and miners. At the end of the day “all” human commerce starts with the basic activities of commodity sequestration by either, growing it from the earth, digging it out of the ground, cutting it down or scooping it out of the sea. Not everyone can be a private business and it is potentially a high risk/high reward type of environment. But there is a high casualty rate as well. You can’t see that and it is not often discussed or considered. That all being said, our farmers and their trials and tribulations should be celebrated not envied. Few envy the road they and their families traveled to get here. You could fill libraries with those well remembered, fun filled life lesson, tough journey and hard times real life testimonials. With 20/20 rear view vision in some cases it looks like empire building. That was not the original intent for most then or now. Survival was!

      • Harold

        It is easy for me to take my hat off to the rich and even to drink their wine but it is a short lived celebration when I see other farmers struggling to get by and even some taking a second job to make ends meet. The riches become easier towards the corporate leanings but not so for the independent. Without buying into the insane quota pricing, they are forced out of the market and yet they are/were contributing producers of food. Policy enters onto their land destroying the potential wealth that they could have attained. The cartel have been good to the rich but have created a poor level playing field for every food producer and has been the trade off for having the cartel. When something is made good, the trade off is that something has been made equally bad. I would like to raise my glass with a farmer who has become rich through unhindered self determination into the market place but unfortunately, the Cartel sets the rules. Too often I hear of poor farm management losses and nothing of poor government policy; are we so lucky and they some deity? Too often I hear of the rich farmers and little of how their riches due to an un-level playing field have made the other farmers poorer and others non-existent. What would happen to the rich farmer if all the gates below were to be opened up; nothing? There are no solutions; only trade-offs for a good in exchange for the bad that we choose to except and to endure. The academia and politicians can’t seem to get this fact into their minds. We know of the bad because we endure it for every supposed “good” that they try create. We know that to erase the unbearable bad that we have to tell them (government/corporations) to get rid of their ridicules good. Trained into being the government’s children and into being obedient to them at all costs, we just don’t do it. We take heart that within one day of every four years (election) we are recognized as adults and they our servants for that single day. It’s like celebrating your parent’s birthday and then only bitching between times. The government and corporations couldn’t have it so good; need I mention the corresponding bad?