Professionalized farmers: giving us hope for the new year and new era?

As the new year swiftly approaches we’re all looking to the future, and for farmers it’s not as bright as at many times in the past decade.

Prices are far beneath where they were during the 2007-2012 boom and analysts aren’t offering many hopes for substantial recover, at least not to anything near those boom-era levels.

But I think we can reasonably hope that farmers today are much better prepared for down times now than in previous lean times, such as the early 2000s and most of the 1980s and 1990s. My hopes for the stability of farming have been raised by the work I recently completed on a series of stories looking at the professionalization of both farmers and the advisors that farmers rely upon.

I began working on the series at the end of the summer because I had noticed how radically different farmers seemed today compared to the 1980s, when I was a young person in Saskatchewan, and the 1990s, when I was a young journalist working in Saskatchewan and Alberta. In those early days for me, few farmers seemed skilled at complex management tasks, with almost their entire focus on crop production and machinery operation and maintenance. Farmers skilled at financial management, marketing, labour management and overall farm management seemed rare, to be exceptions worth noting. Now, at least among the under-60-year-old generation of farmers, those skills are quite common and quickly becoming expected and assumed.

This makes me hopeful about the coming years for farmers, low prices or not. Farmers in previous decades often didn’t have the skills necessary to weather the volatility of farm prices and the wild swings of farm profitability. Few farmers did any real marketing planning. Few hedged at all. Few knew well the true financial situation of their farms. Almost none had done any firm succession planning. Labour management wasn’t even considered.

These days those skills are becoming common amongst farmers, with farm operators finding a multitude of ways to develop abilities the need for today’s complex, multi-million dollar farms. I’m hoping my series has helped lay out both this development and how farmers are embracing it.

There has also been a revolution amongst farming advisors. Farmers have long benefitted from having a bevy of advisors who specialize in serving farmer-clients, but as farms have become ever more complex and farmers’ needs ever more demanding, they have had to boost their abilities to advise, or get out of the business. While many have left, often through retirement, the ones that remain generally have the ability to advise at levels of complexity far beyond what they could offer two decades ago.

This all sets up farms today to being better managed, better protected, and better grounded overall. In the past, bad times could hit farms like a tsunami, seeming to come out of nowhere and suddenly devastating a formerly sound operation. This appearance wasn’t necessarily the case, with big problems often hidden from farmers’ eyes by a simple lack of knowledge about a farm’s risks and true situation. Few farms and few farmers today are in that unaware situation, so they’re already better protected.

Farmers are also now armed with skills that will let them handle sudden challenges much better than in the past. If some disaster strikes, they will at least know what to do, and to whom to turn for help.

If any of this topic interests you, I encourage you to check out the series, much of which is collected here.

It ended with this week’s paper, which is a profile of Eldon Klippenstein, an Altona, Manitoba farmer who I think is a perfect example of today’s professionalized farmer, so if haven’t read any of the series yet, that story, even though it’s the last one in the series, might be the perfect place to start.

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