Tough couple of years could end up making farmers stronger

It’s hard to find a silver lining to this winter of woe.

But for those farmers who survive its many travails and get a better year in 2020-21, perhaps stronger farms and Canadian farming system will arise.

That’s the kind of wisdom I sensed developing among farmers and those who serve them during the Canadian Crops Convention in Vancouver. The extreme pressure of the past two years, hitting a peak this winter, has turned everybody’s attention to improving farm operational and financial stability.

“There are always challenges and opportunities,” John Sandborn, a Benito, Man., farmer said to me at the convention.

“If you can take the opportunity to make your business more streamlined in difficult times, and things revert to a more normal cycle, hopefully you’ll be that much more efficient.”

It’s the “if it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger,” attitude, and it applies in farming as much as anywhere.

The Canadian Canola Growers Association has taken that approach with using today’s stress and problems to lobby hard for improvements to cash advances. It seems to have worked, with cash advances now being offered without the $50 registration fee, with the expanded interest-free and overall limits achieved last year, and now being offered at a rate of prime minus three-quarters of a percent.

Without today’s problems, the CCGA doubts those improvements would have been made. The last time improvements were gained was in the 2013-14 grain transportation crisis.

That’s often how advancements happen. It’s how evolution works. Instead of steady improvements, there’s “punctuated equilibrium,” where little happens for years, but then under a severe stress, major developments occur.

Unfortunately, that development occurs beside suffering and loss by many or most, but if the suffering and loss is inevitable, it’s better to pair that with some sort of development so something positive comes out of the experience.

A few years ago, during the commodity boom, everybody’s focus was on maximizing production almost regardless of cost, because prices almost always led to higher net returns, even with hefty spending.

Today, the focus is much more on a careful assessment of risk versus reward and return on investment.

Sandborn rues the hardships farmers have faced, including terrible harvest weather, then a string of transportation delays that prevented many of them from delivering their grain and bringing in cash to pay their bills.

But if they survive and get better weather this year, perhaps they’ll be better set up for next time things go bad. It’s the best anybody can hope now.

If anything is true in agriculture it’s this: there will be good years, and there will be bad years.

Farmers are due a good year and they deserve to benefit from what they’ve gone through this winter.

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