Farming is filling me with optimism, against all rational sense

I’m about to embark on my annual journalistic wander through North Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa, and instead of thinking about it as if I’m walking into bleak atmosphere of tribulations, I’m feeling cheery, optimistic, renewed.

Maybe that’s because grain farmers are making piles of money, and grain dominates prairie and Midwestern U.S. ag. But I don’t think that’s the reason, because I’m worried about grain farmers’ possible overconfidence with future profitability (see my column in the paper this week), and I cover the hog industry – a lot – and it’s a real mess.

I joked on Twitter yesterday that it seems like we’re living through the Porkpocalypse, with dramatic events flying at us on all sides, with disastrous losses wiping out farmers, the caustic debate over gestation stalls pressuring and dividing farmers, diarrhea storms breaking out, the Chinese buying Smithfield Foods, etc. etc. etc. Crazy times in Pigworld.

Oh yeah, I forgot: we also have the nightmare and insult and brutality of Country Of Origin Labelling not only lingering, but being exacerbated by the U.S. government. So all around, it could seem like a blasted, smoking heath of dashed hopes and wasted labour.

But as I head off to meet with crop farmers in North Dakota, meet with grain industry people in Minneapolis, and spend a few days at the World Pork Expo in Des Moines, I feel very positive about the continental situation.

When I’m in North Dakota I’m meeting with farmers so I can do features on their farming situation down there, and what I’m interested in is the similarities and differences between prairie farming north and south of the line. What I always love finding – and I do these sorts of feature interviews every year as I head towards the Expo – is how very similar farmer concerns and reality are on both sides of the Medicine Line. For all the policies and laws and regulations that force farmers in the U.S. and Canada to farm slightly differently, it’s moving for me to find just how much an eastern North Dakota farmer seems so much like the Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta farmers that I’ve been talking with and visiting for 22 years. So much commonality, and the differences just highlight how much is shared.

In Minneapolis I’m always struck by how entwined our Prairie agriculture is with the core U.S. grain industry. There sit the corporate head offices of Cargill, General Mills, Grain Millers – as well as the Minneapolis Grain Exchange and a host of other interests that serve and rely upon our Prairie farming. We might seem to be alarmingly reliant upon companies like General Mills, which uses oceans of oats to make Cheerios, but they are also alarmingly reliant upon us and our weird little crops. For some reason today, that mutual vulnerability makes me optimistic we’ll be able to figure our way through our difficulties.

And down in Des Moines, at the World Pork Expo, I’m going to see further signs of integration – as I do every year – with Manitobans, Quebeckers, and Ontarians as likely to be stumbled into as Iowans. I’ll be hearing earfuls about COOL, Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea Virus, massive financial losses due to high feedgrains prices, etc. etc. etc. But right now that doesn’t depress me, but again suggests farmers will figure their ways through these things and come out the other side and keep farming.

The gestation stall debate, which is a divisive, caustic, nasty situation both between producers and with the broader public, will come up repeatedly at the Expo – I’m sure – and could again seem dreadful. But I sense the industry’s working itself towards a reasonable resolution to that one, even if it’s only coming by fits and starts. It seems pretty obvious to me – as I keep saying in this space – that gestation stalls will be phased out one way or another, and while there’s a present mood of defiance amongst some (probably a minority) of independent farmers that any change is needed or inevitable, most are getting on with making conversion plans and working towards or at least thinking about an eventual transition. So on that ground too, the farm situation makes me optimistic. That debate will be ended, sooner or later, and people will get on with the future. (Anyone else notice that Johnsonville Sausages yesterday announced it will not accept pork from gestation stalls in the future? When even sausage makers are going that way . . . )

I’m just about to set off on this trip, so perhaps my optimism is intemperate, shallow and naive and will fade like Spring crocus blooms as my travels go forward. But as I pack my gear, finalize interview plans and get going, I look forward to seeing more of the vibrant, growing North American agriculture industry that still gives farmers a productive and worthwhile life – regardless of the myriad challenges.

 

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