Time to think about PR

Perhaps one shouldn’t tempt fate by talking about a crop that isn’t in the bin yet. It won’t be a bumper for everyone, and let’s not forget those still struggling with the aftermath of last year’s flood, or those on the wrong side of the feed grain price equation.

That said, there are some eye-popping crops out there. Those with even an average yield this year will have good reason to count their blessings. We appear to be headed for that rarest of confluences — a good crop and good prices.

Unfortunately, the reason is the dreadful outlook for farmers elsewhere, including the U.S., which is having one of the worst droughts on record. This year’s drought has mostly spared us on the Prairies.

Meanwhile, farmers in the Black Sea region are also facing drought, while British and other European farmers are seeing record rain. Most seriously, drought has hit Africa’s Sahel region, where the size of a crop is literally a matter of life and death. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization says 18.7 million people in the region are facing food shortage, and more than one million children under the age of five are at risk of severe acute malnutrition.

If that’s not enough reason for Manitobans to count their blessings, a Globe and Mail online headline last week read “Alberta gets burned as Manitoba emerges as Canada’s economic star.” The story was about an Environics analysis which showed Manitoba has the fastest-growing prosperity in Canada. The author said the province’s “everyman economy” helped drive its rise in net worth.

It’s nice to see Manitoba being recognized for its diversified economy and conservative fiscal management by governments of all stripes over the years. With all due respect to our “Conservative” neighbours to the west, it’s been a bit grating to see their prosperity being attributed to fiscal rectitude. Potash and $100 oil might have something to do with it as well.

On top of all this, even the mosquitoes aren’t too bad lately. So these days, many Manitobans can say — and should say — that we are literally among the most fortunate people on Earth.

That includes farmers, and they should think carefully about that over the next while. Despite our overall prosperity, there is also extreme poverty in our society. There are also many people looking for jobs these days, having been laid off in some industries, especially agriculture. Those are the same “spinoff” jobs that farmers claimed responsibility for in tougher times when they were looking for government assistance. Elsewhere in the country the unemployment list is even longer.

Therefore, this is no time for farmers to appear anything less than grateful for their good fortune, especially if this crop comes off in good shape. Let’s not see a repeat of the too-familiar pattern we’ve seen in the past after a favourable news report on yields or prices. Farm organizations get phone calls from farmers complaining that “All those people in the city are going to think we’re rich out here.” To keep them happy, the organization issues a release saying it’s not really that good after all.

That’s apparently what happened after a recent Winnipeg Free Press feature written from Niger in the parched Sahel region of Africa, reporter Bart Kives wrote, “If a Niger farmer can coax millet from what appears to be sand by pruning trees and capturing water in hand-dug puddles, a Manitoba farmer can learn to stop draining wetlands, and find other ways to keep water on the land.”

Sure enough, last week there was a letter to the editor from KAP president Doug Chorney, in effect saying farmers will keep draining until the public sends money to stop them.

This is a dangerous response. Farmers have received a lot of taxpayer support in the last few years, and risk appearing ungrateful for asking for more when they are making good profits. Whether farmers like it or not, most of the data that the public and government see these days indicates that they are much better off than the rest of society. That’s why governments are looking at tightening the margin trigger for AgriStability.

Farmers should also be aware that they’ve achieved what they’ve always asked for, which is to be viewed as business people, not hayseeds. The recent Census of Agriculture results, and the national news coverage about them, underlined that. In essence, it was, “It’s not Mom and Pop farm anymore, but big business.” That will make it increasingly difficult for farmers to argue for support programs that other businesses don’t receive.

Farmers worked pretty hard and successfully at public relations when times were bad. They should work even harder when times are good.

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