Things are so different in ag since 9/11

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 are one of those events that branded itself into everyone’s minds in the way people used to talk the JFK assassination.

Very few people don’t remember where they were when they heard the Twin Towers were hit and went down.

It was the birth of a new age in recent history, when the optimism of the post-cold war world was replaced by a dark fear, anger and pessimism.

It is also a handy way to look back on how things have changed since then, since so many details of that day are stark in memory, set off by the shock of that day’s events.

Today it reminds me of how many basic ways of interacting with the world have changed. And purely coincidentally, how stunningly different the economic, financial and technical situation of farmer is today.

That morning of 9/11/11 I heard a brief mention of an airplane hitting one of the Twin Towers on CBC radio that I was listening to on a radio/cassette player at home. (Remember cassettes?) I left the house, cycled to the office and started my computer. Up popped the New York Times webpage – my home page at the time – and there was news of a second plane hitting. And then I started refreshing and refreshing and refreshing, as millions of others were doing, and it was taking up to 15 minutes to refresh a page. whether that was NYT, CNN or any other news source.

So after a frustrating while, and switching on CBC radio to get a live audio feed, I went down to the lobby of my office and watched the towers burning, then one of them falling, on a TV (not a flat screeen) supplied by the cable company that used to have its head office in my building. Then some of my colleagues on my floor started taking off because they were worried that planes might start flying into the Richardson building or the other three towers at Portage and Main, right across the street from where we were.

Today I would probably first try to find out what was going on by checking out Twitter. (Didn’t exist then.) From Twitter I’d try to find live text feeds. (Not very easy to find in those days.) And I’d start playing New York radio stations through one of my iPhone radio apps. (Didn’t exist then – either the iPhone or the apps.) Everything I’d try to do today I’d do on my iPhone and iPad rather than my computer, probably. Smartphones didn’t even exist then.

For reasons that have nothing to do with terrorism, Afghanistan, Iraq or any of the other dark elements that have become an unfortunate part of our lives since 9/11, farming is also stunningly different. 2001 was just another crappy year in a string of bad years that had beset farmers since the early 1980s. By 2001 there had been a generation of woe on the farm, with farmers scrabbling to make any profits at all and thousands and thousands being driven out of the business. Agriculture was a loser part of the economy and generally seemed like a basket case. Farmers were mostly in a survival mode. Grain companies seemed like dreary old parts of what was then called the “Old Economy” that nobody really wanted to invest their career in. The grain companies in operation then are a string of names that are now fading from memory: Agricore, United Grain Growers, Saskatchewan Wheat Pool, etc. Those were three of the four biggies on the prairies in those days.

I had begun covering the ag markets a lot in those days because I’d just moved to Winnipeg, and it wasn’t every exciting stuff to cover. The markets were dull and farmers were generally pretty glum, with profits hard to squeeze. The big equity markets were interesting then, but for a bad reason. That was the time of the tech bust and collapsing equity markets and a recession don’t make anyone very cheerful. There seemed no reason to think that farming, which I’d already been covering for about a decade, would ever become exciting, profitable, attractive and seen as “hot.” Only a handful of people had caught on to the forming of a 1970s-like commodity bull market and no-one would have believed you if you said in late 2001 that one had already begun.

GMO crops were still pretty new, with many farmers just adopting them. I can’t even remember where GPS and related technologies were in those days. A technological revolution was beginning already by 2001, but few would have seen how far it was going to go.

And almost no-one would have anticipated the high, high grain prices and high profitability that farmers are now experiencing. It was years before crops caught up with the rest of the commodity boom, with 2007 being a year in which the idea of $7.00 per bushel wheat was still hard to believe possible.

It’s a very, very different world now from 2001, and it’s worth pondering that occasionally.

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