Farm debt seems manageable, FCC head says

The agency holds close to a third of all farm debt in Canada

National farm debt could reach as high as $100 billion once all the figures for 2016 are in, but Mike Hoffort, CEO of Farm Credit Canada, says farmers are generally in a good financial situation.

“Canadian agriculture is strong and stable,” he told the annual meeting of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture. However, farmers need to keep their pencils sharp and continued diligence is required.

FCC holds more than $30 billion of that debt and the federal agency is faring well, he said.

“More than 99 per cent of our portfolio is in good standing,” Hoffert said.

He rated agriculture’s overall financial health as very good and said the opportunity for the sector “has never been greater.”

Farm debt has climbed in recent years but so has farm cash income which reached $59.4 billion in 2015 compared to $40 billion in 2007, he said. While farm income for 2016 will likely be just below $58 billion because of lower crop returns, this year’s numbers should at least match 2015 if not better that result, he said.

“Farm cash receipts have grown steadily during the last 10 years. Farm debt can’t be compared to consumer debt where incomes are stagnant.”

The farm debt-to-asset ratio has eased and “is in a healthy situation,” he said. Rising land values and higher costs for machinery and buildings are the main factor in the rising debt. “This is a very capital-intensive industry.” Farm asset value in 2015 was $561.1 billion compared to $267.4 billion in 2005.

The debt-to-asset ratio is healthy and liquidity remains strong, he said. In 2015, the debt-to-asset ratio on Canadian farms remained historically low at 15.5 per cent, compared to the previous five-year average of 15.9 per cent and the 15-year average of 16.7 per cent. A low debt-to-asset ratio is generally considered better for business, since it provides financial flexibility and lowers risk for producers.

Liquidity in terms of producers to meet short-term payments, and solvency – the proportion of total assets financed by debt – have remained consistently strong over the past five years, he said.

Beyond the balance sheet, there are other positive signs for Canadian agriculture, he said. More than 12,000 young men and women are studying agriculture-related topics in post-secondary schools.

“Agriculture programs are among the fastest growing and there are more than 114,000 jobs available in the sector,” he said.

Canada is rated No. 1 globally in food safety performance, according to the Conference Board of Canada, he said. It’s third in agriculture sustainability.

“We have an amazing opportunity to make Canada an agriculture superpower,” he said referring to the growing world population expected to reach 9.5 billion in 2050. “The opportunity has never been greater; we need to dream bigger.

“In the next 40 years, humans will need to produce more food than they did in the previous 10,000 put together.”

Asked what FCC could do to assist young people who want to farm but don’t have land, Hoffort said there are no easy solutions. “We have to find innovative ways to assist people in that situation.”

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