Last hurrah of the pre-pandemic Canadian crop industry

Where were you a year ago?

I was in Vancouver, on a big boat filled with hundreds of Canadian and foreign grain industry players and farmers, cruising around Vancouver harbour and checking out grain terminals, ocean-going bulk ships, giant container ships and railway infrastructure that rings the centre of one of Canada’s biggest cities. I was at the Canadian Crops Convention, an abridged version of which occurs Wednesday online and distanced.

A year ago I was also getting used to not shaking hands (learned to elbow tap at this event), to see people wearing masks (lots of Vancouverites were already doing this), and to anxiously listen to the news and hear about the ever increasing number of COVID-19 cases appearing around the local community. Still, for the three days of the conference I was in big groups of people socializing, chatting, milling about and acting 90 percent like normal. I wish I had appreciated it more.

That was the last hurrah for the old world order in Canada for me, the last pre–pandemic normalcy. A few days after I arrived back in Winnipeg we flew to Mexico for a family vacation – and were relieved to be able to get back into Canada a week later, as cases appeared and spread in Manitoba. We arrived at the airport and were ordered to go home and stay home, quarantined, for two weeks. By the time that was done, the rest of society was going into lockdown. Since then there are having varying levels of restriction and lockdown. The late summer and early fall was quite relaxed. But then in October COVID cases spiked and Winnipeg and much of the rest of Canada went into a lockdown that’s only slightly loosening today. That’s a year of restrictions and anxiety, coping with frustrated children, boredom, anxiety and cabin fever. It’s been a time of overhanging gloom and dread for others, of business failures and job losses. It’s been a time of sickness, death, and fear of the two. It’s been a grind of a bad year.

The agriculture industry is in quite the opposite situation. It’s like it’s got an automatic negative correlation to the rest of the economy. Last year Indigenous disputes and labour disruptions hung over the industry, leaving farmers and the rest frustrated and seething with lost sales and a damaged reputation. There was a feeling that farmers’ thin margins were getting bled away by frustrations with obstructions and poor rail service.

But then the lockdown came and the Canadian grain industry got good. Really good. With other rail traffic suppressed in the economic shutdown, railways focused on shipping crops, for which there was still a booming demand. World prices first strengthened, then soared as supplies fell and supplies became much less dependable in the locked-down world. A rally far stronger than anybody expected ignited, giving farmers – who finally got a good crop after years of spring challenges – a welcome dose of profitability to stabilize the operations after half a decade of marginal returns.

Agriculture has proven itself rock solid, with no slip in demand or pricing power after the first few weeks of the pandemic, and crops and meat flowed and flowed and flowed.

Can we see the end of pandemic in sight? It’s a bit early for that. For the British and Americans, relief may come in early summer, with virtually everybody who wants a vaccine having had the chance by then. We’ll probably be a couple or few months longer. Then we’ll begin to normalize after, and see what the post-COVID-19 world looks like

I don’t know what to expect. But I’m keen to get there and feel less confined, and to get back amongst farmers and grain industry people I used to spend much time with.

Until then, I’ll be keeping up online, trying to be as normal as possible, and trying to keep out with you all out there. Looking forward to seeing you – sometime.

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