The measure of a farm economy

Farm shows measure the health of the regional industry. This is a statement I have been making for the past 15 years or so, and it appears to be just as true as ever.

You can measure how well things are going in the countryside by the attendance at farm industry events.

That said, I’m not talking about the number of farmers through the gates or whether the vendors of products and services have bought up every square foot of display space, although those are good metrics to look at when considering the success of individual events inside a rural economy.

I prefer to consider the demographics of the attendees, both the farmers and those marketing to them.

Who shows up is more important to me than how many or what they invested in their own marketing within the show itself.

Commercial-farm incomes since 1997 have increased from an average of about $48,000 to $148,000 for 2017, not adjusted for inflation. Of course, farm size has also grown during this period, numbers of farmers have shrunk and at various points along that 20-year path we have had booms and busts.

Who attends farm shows and when has remained an interesting measure over the years.

The 1980s through to the early 2000s, when repeated droughts and waves of poor commodity prices hurt the industry and required most producers to seek off-farm income for their very survival, had a pronounced effect on show attendance.

By the early 2000s farm shows’ attendees were largely men in their later middle ages and older, often travelling in pairs. Suddenly middle-aged husband and wife teams started showing up again. It was 2008-09 and commodity prices had taken a giant leap upward and with them came the chance to take the time off from responsible jobs and re-invest in the farm.

One more season would pass before the first of the families would start to return to farm shows.

At this summer’s two farm shows in Western Canada — Canada’s Farm Progress and our own Ag In Motion — I felt very optimistic about the future of Canadian farming. While the earlier show didn’t feel as busy as in some years, the farmers at the event covered the spectrum in ages. And AIM’s roads and demonstration sites were stacked with farm kids from ages four to 84 who love experiencing the best things that an agricultural life can offer.

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