Decade began with the wheat board and ended in chaos

We roared into the 2010s raging about the Canadian Wheat Board as we rode atop a raging commodity bull market.

We stumble out of 2019 savaged by dreadful weather, struggles to break even and a suddenly harsh world environment.

And in the midst of it all, we saw farmers make some great profits, suffer some egregious problems, develop some awesome abilities, and cope with some growing challenges.

It’s hard to look back on the last decade and find any single thread that ties it into a nice little package. Like all calendar-based decade measures, we’re trying to force a false framework onto a fluid reality that isn’t compelled to fit inside our expectations.

Still, it’s a useful period to look back upon, to assess where we’ve come from and where we might be going.

Prairie farming and agriculture feel very different as we roll into 2020 from the place we were at the beginning of 2010. But what is that difference?

Fundamentally, I think the continued existence and passionate debate about the CWB kept alive a stream of prairie grain farmer thought and belief that the grain business could be operated as a hybrid government-farmer organism, rather than as a private sector business operating on the same basis as most other businesses.

When the Conservative government killed the CWB, that belief seemed to evaporate from western Canadian grain farming. For supporters of the monopoly, that was a sadness, but in retrospect, it feels like the move lanced a festering boil that was irritating everybody by being unresolved.

With that decisive resolution in 2012, everybody’s been able to move on and accept a far more free-market focused grain business. It’s gone pretty well, most would admit.

The transition was aided immensely by the commodity bull market, which lasted until 2015 and about which many apparently still believed until recently. Most farmers were making good profits and that makes everything seem ducky.

Meanwhile, farmers were hearing about and cautiously embracing the digital revolution in agriculture. That was easy with auto-steer, especially for aging farmers with touchy backs.

Some jumped into variable rate technology, or at least soil and yield mapping. Every machinery manufacturer started flogging big data services, often integrating the hardware so farmers didn’t have a choice on whether or not to buy it.

Farmers began to custom-hire more and more services around the farm, as the cost of running and maintaining expensive equipment and systems seemed financially unwise. But that trend weakened as the reality of seldom-in-time custom delivery became apparent, and some services — especially spraying — returned to the farmer.

Mid-decade, the future looked so good. A voracious growing world population, which was getting richer and richer, would want more and more food that we in Western Canada were beautifully situated to provide.

There would be no problem moving 26 million tonnes of canola by 2025 (the industry goal) nor exporting $75 billion in agricultural and food goods by 2025 (the industry and government goal). Those were both much above current production at the time they were announced.

Then we pivoted into a very different second half of the decade.

Clubroot and herbicide-resistant weeds began to threaten the bounding gains in most crops’ yields.

Droughts and other forms of yield-crushing weather became general.

And the ever-expanding world free trade zone suddenly reversed course. The signings of the Canada-European Union trade deal in 2016 and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership approval in 2018 marked high points in Canada’s trade expansion efforts, but unfortunately might have also represented codas.

American voters elected Donald J. Trump as president and his administration took an antagonistic approach to trade, even threatening to tear up the North American Free Trade Agreement, upon which so much of western Canadian agriculture was built.

After pulling out of the TPP, Trump seemed to threaten the future of NAFTA, but in the end he has mellowed, but not before educating us in the extreme risk we take in being so exposed to one big market.

Canada switched its hopes and strategy to China, as a counterbalance to U.S. reliance. Then that went to hell, and China not only didn’t grow in importance, but actually imposed a blockade against most Canadian agricultural goods over the Meng Wanzhou diplomatic dispute.

Adding to the anxiety over the U.S. and despair over China has come the disappointment with the EU trade deal.

There were many hopes, but now it looks like the Europeans agreed to a deal that gets more of their goods into Canada but allows that entity to still block most of Canada’s products.

Farmers head into 2020 suffering bad production results and weak prices, with a hostile world trading environment threatening their ability to clear their crops. That’s a bad end to a decidedly mixed decade.

Where will farmers go in the 2020s?

Who would have guessed where we’ve travelled since 2010? It’s a fool’s game to guess specific outcomes.

But here are some safe assumptions, based on decades of farmer progress:

  • Science will advance and offer new wonders.
  • Production will inexorably increase.
  • Logistics will continue to be the weak and struggling link.
  • Farmers will struggle to get ahead of the downward pressures on profitability.
  • Farmers will adapt and most will survive.

Things seem tight and constrictive right now. But that means nothing.

In 2010, few of us would have predicted what happened this decade. We shouldn’t assume we know any better about what the 2020s offer us.

I wish you all the best for 2020. Who knows what we’ll get?

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