More negatives than positives in crop outlook

As the growing season quickly approaches, the few positives to celebrate are overshadowed by an unusually long list of serious concerns.

Comparing grain prices to one year ago, canola is down about $20 a tonne, wheat is down more than $10, feed barley is down by about $40 and yellow peas are down about $14 a tonne. In other words, most of the major crops are significantly softer than at this time last year.

There are a few notable exceptions. Durum is about $35 a tonne higher, flax is up by about $20 a tonne, lentils are a few cents a pound stronger and oats are steady. However, these positives certainly don’t counterbalance the negative pricing sentiment.

That’s the way of the whole industry right now. The positives include the relatively low price of fertilizer and better soil moisture in some of the traditionally dry regions, but these factors aren’t the ones dominating agricultural news.

Rail blockades by protesting indigenous and environmental activists have snarled rail traffic, particularly on the Canadian National Railway network. Grain movement is becoming backlogged, delaying deliveries of contracted grain and pushing price bids lower. Costs are escalating and an amicable resolution seems unlikely.

Then there’s the coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak. China has been virtually paralyzed and that can’t bode well for agricultural exports to the world’s most populous nation. Even when the virus is finally under control, it will take time for the Chinese economy to resume normal function. And there’s also the worry that the virus may be hard to contain in other regions.

Meanwhile, the long dispute over Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou shows no sign of resolution. China continues to detain two Canadians and our canola sales to China are only a fraction of normal. If there’s a positive to this situation it’s that wheat and pea exports to China have been strong.

Meanwhile, the United States and China have signed a trade deal that’s supposed to stop their trade bickering and result in huge sales of American agricultural products. To date those sales have not materialized, but that could be due at least in part to the coronavirus crisis.

If the trade deal is honoured, opinions are divided on whether it will be a positive for Canada. Our prices are often closely related to American values so perhaps we’ll get a boost. On the other hand, if the U.S. is the preferred supplier to China, Canada may be left watching from the sidelines.

If you need something new to worry about, cast your eyes south to the U.S. Democratic party nomination process where Bernie Sanders is emerging as the front runner. While Donald Trump is a reprehensible human being and a political bully, even the longshot prospect of Bernie Sanders in the White House is worrisome. It would be like Canada electing Elizabeth May and the Green Party.

As individual farmers, there’s not much we can do about American politics, Chinese trade issues or even the rail blockades in our own country, but there are some troublesome on-farm issues to deal with.

As the weather warms, some producers will need to deal with stored grain that could be going out of condition. And many will be gearing up to finish last year’s harvest. There could be some bitter disappointments in the quantity and quality, but perhaps there will also be some pleasant surprises.

Any good news would certainly be welcome.

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