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Editorial: Hedge your risks: go underground

The dust is settling in the wake of last week’s U.S. election but it will be a while yet before we understand what the results mean for Canadians, including farmers.

It’s an understatement to say Donald Trump’s election win came as a surprise, quite possibly even to him. The fact that his opponent received more votes, yet he claimed the presidency with a healthy margin has left many shaking their heads over how the U.S. electoral process is structured.

You don’t elect someone expecting them not to deliver on their promises, even if they seemingly have little foundation in policy. So we have to believe that at least some of what he said will be reflected in his actions, which undoubtedly has implications for its northern neighbour and biggest customer. For the record, Canada bought just under $21 billion — mostly food products — from the U.S. in 2015.

If Trump cracks down on illegal workers for example, we can expect the cost of those fruits and veggies imported from California to go up and demand from U.S. slaughter plants processing Canadian livestock to fall. Changes to the terms of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which he on several occasions has promised to tear up, could also affect our livestock sector’s access to the U.S.

There seems little likelihood that the Trans-Pacific Partnership will move ahead under this administration.

It is all speculative at this point, but suffice to say we could be in for a bumpy ride as our neighbour to the south sorts through its stuff. In times of uncertainty, it’s important to focus on managing the things we can control as a buffer for the things we can’t.

Trump has made it clear he doesn’t support the Obama administration’s position on climate change. Many believe he’ll abandon his predecessor’s plan to reduce emissions.

That’s raising fears in this country that if Canada goes ahead with carbon pricing, farmers here will be at a competitive disadvantage.

Let’s think that through.

Trump may not believe in climate change but just about every other country Canada trades with does. With him in office, it’s all the more important for Canada to continue diversifying its customer base. Increasingly, sustainability measures are being linked to both market access and commercial transactions.

Canadian farmers will never have a competitive advantage over their U.S. counterparts when playing the same commodity game. Canadian growing seasons are shorter, there is usually less moisture, and lower yields. Farmers here are more export dependent, they have farther to go to market, a constrained grain delivery system and less commercial storage.

About the only competitive advantages they have are a deflated currency and whatever ability they have to differentiate themselves through what they grow, or how they do it. One tact is more efficient use of resources.

That brings us back to carbon and the likelihood that the Canadian government will require carbon pricing in the near future.

Many farmers see that proposition as something that will cost their bottom line and reduce their competitiveness rather than improving it.

Yet the evidence suggests that in a well-functioning farming system, carbon is an asset, not a liability.

Among the ways in which farmers can add carbon to their soil is through cover crops and reduced tillage. Both foster the biological activity beneath the surface. There is even evidence to suggest cover crops can moderate soil temperatures, which effectively extend the farmer’s growing season, and help reduce pests.

All in all, carbon contributes to healthier soil that produces more with less added fertilizer. It behaves like a sponge instead of a tabletop, and that works to the farmer’s advantage in both excess moisture and drought conditions. There is even evidence suggesting it produces more nutritious crops.

If all that doesn’t give farmers a competitive advantage, what does?

If the scientists tracking the warming planet are right, Prairie farmers are among the few who might see their capacity to produce food grow. And because other parts of the globe could see productivity decrease, demand for what they grow will be high.

That’s all the more reason for farmers here to ensure their soils have the capacity to respond to whatever the climate throws at them.

If the farm organizations play their cards right, Canadian farmers might even get paid through tax incentives or subsidies to do something they should be doing in the first place.

So our advice in the face of an increasingly volatile socio-economic and environmental climate is to go underground. Build resiliency into your farming system through the soil.

About the author

Vice-President of Content

Laura Rance

Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at [email protected]

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