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Problems farmers don't mind having

2012 a turning point for local producers

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When Great-Grandpa Yankee Brown uprooted his wife Fannie and seven children from their comfortable lives in Rockford, Ill., to trek northward and settle the unbroken prairie southwest of Winnipeg in 1907, he promised the family would build the house of their dreams -- as soon as the first 40-bushel wheat crop came in.

They spent eight years making do with a one-room cabin while they worked and waited for that bumper crop. And when it arrived in 1915, he made good on his promise, ordering the plans from the Eatons catalogue for a 2.5-storey brick farmhouse, complete with a wraparound veranda. That house still stands today, occupied by the fourth generation on the farm.

2012 was that kind of year for many farm families in Manitoba, a year of almost freaky good luck, as devastating crop failures elsewhere pushed commodity prices to unprecedented highs. Despite the uncomfortably dry growing season, many farmers harvested 90-bushel wheat crops, the 2012 equivalent of that bumper crop of a century ago.

Yes, there were challenges in 2012 with more to come in 2013. But it was a year that will go down in farm family histories as a turning point, a chance to keep old promises and forge new directions.

That, however, comes with its own set of stressors. For a snapshot of the top-of-mind issues for Manitoba farmers as they head into a new year, just take a look at the program for the annual Manitoba Ag Days starting in Brandon Jan. 15.

I can't recall a previous Ag Days program that featured the likes of David Chilton, author of The Wealthy Barber, who has mentored millions with his common-sense philosophy about how to achieve personal financial success.

Many farm families are guilty of viewing their family goals and the farm's as one and the same. It's a forgivable sin, but one that routinely sees family goals fall by the wayside.

The traditional approach to expanding the farm business has been to buy more land. But at least one speaker on the program, Trevor Elyk, a farm-management consultant from MNP, warns traditional strategies for buying more land might not work in today's market environment.

Farm Credit Canada says prices in Canada rose an average of 8.6 per cent during the first six months of 2012. At what point does the cost of acquiring more acres destabilize the farm business rather than strengthen it?

 

What are interest rates and crop prices going to do? With feed prices so high, do they sell the cows and sow those pastures down to annual crops? Can the 1980s, an era of wildcat inflation and farm foreclosures, repeat itself?

Or is it better to invest in an off-farm enterprise, say a farmer-owned fertilizer plant such as the one proposed by a consortium of Canadian and northern-U.S. farm groups? Drop in on that session to find out.

Who's going to be running those farms anyway? Nearly half of Canadian farmers are older than 55 and judging from the increasingly anxious urgings from farm-management specialists, many of them don't have a rock-solid transition plan in place.

Top of the list, however, has to be what the weather is going to do. Judging from the family diaries from long ago, which chronicle crippling blizzards in May and incredibly long, cold winters, the southern Prairies have always been a difficult environment in which to grow crops.

While the causes are still under debate, there is a growing consensus that the climate is becoming warmer and more volatile. That is both good news, as evidenced by the increase in higher-value crops such as corn and soybeans produced in the province, and bad news, as the weather extremes can wreak havoc with the most promising of growing seasons.

In an era when governments are moving support for agriculture away from direct program payments toward long-term research, finding ways to manage those production risks is a pressing concern.

Just in case all of that is keeping farmers awake at night, the Ag Days lineup features a sleep specialist to help rural folks understand why being sleepless is a bad idea and what they can do about it.

One can only imagine what settlers such as Yankee Brown worried about. But one thing is clear, good times on the farm can be just as stressful as the tough times. The difference is, there are some problems you like to have.

(Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 792-4382 or by email: laura@fbcpublishing.com)

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 5, 2013 B4

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