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.

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.”

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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