There are mornings this time of year when it can be pretty hard to imagine the arrival of spring.
The world is still locked in the frigid embrace of winter. The spiritual warmth of Christmas and New Year is far behind us. The cold and flu season continues to run riot. Spring still seems impossibly far away.
There are, however, a few subtle signs of hope. Days are growing noticeably longer. Even with that frigid arctic air hanging over us, you can see the sun’s warmth still causing the snow to melt on rooftops.
Depending on which groundhog is right, spring is either just around the corner — or just around the next corner. But it will come and when it arrives, those of us who farm from our desk chairs frequently marvel at how farmers coolly embrace diving off the financial abyss every year as they head for their fields.
This year, grain prices have fallen due to stubbornly high and growing world stocks. The latest global report from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) revised upward the world’s 2017 cereal production to an all-time high of 3.3 billion tonnes.
“While global cereal utilization in 2017-18 is also heading for an increase (1.2 per cent) from the previous season, world cereal inventories are projected to climb steadily for the fifth consecutive season, rising to a record high level of almost 726 million tonnes,” it says. “The resulting stock-to-use ratio is forecast to be the highest since 2001-02.”
Meanwhile, input prices, naturally, are showing similar stubborn determination to stay higher than many might like.
Farmers are no doubt familiar with some of the numbers that have been reported in these pages over the past several weeks. The province estimates it costs the average farmer about $408 an acre to produce canola, $365 an acre for hard red spring wheat, $370 an acre for soybeans and $522 an acre for corn.
While it’s true that crop insurance and other business risk management programs at least partially offset those risks, that adds up to hundreds of thousands of dollars placed largely in the hands of Mother Nature.
Farmers can be grateful for one thing. While some crops fall into the below break-even zone given normal production and predicted price ranges, the projections still pencil out at least a small margin for most of the crops farmers here grow.
At least they’re not trying to do all this in the U.S. where similar forecasts put their chances of actually making money from their plantings at slim to none.
For example, annual budgets developed by the Agricultural Policy Analysis Centre at the University of Tennessee say this is the third year in a row farmers will be losing money at growing corn. The national average total for the three years is $175.23 per acre.
The U.S. outlook for wheat is equally dismal. Even if they hold their expenses to 2016 levels, they are still looking at a loss of $118.75 per acre. Soybeans are the only money-maker in the food crops, at about $85 per acre.
That said, the margins on the Canadian side of the border are slim, and from all appearances, farmers in this province will be facing a dry spring. One of the key challenges facing this year’s crop will be keeping the soil intact and managing for moisture so crops can germinate.
At times like these, an observer might wonder why a farmer would bother, especially year upon year. Yet every year, when the days lengthen, the warmth returns and the snow recedes, they still head for the fields.
But it can take its toll.
No doubt this is reflected in another topic that’s also been much in these pages this winter: rural mental health. Farming can indeed be stressful and farm families need to be vigilant.
But the occupation itself does cause depression and farmers are not alone in having to deal with stressful jobs. People in many vocations and in many locations can suffer from the same sense of loneliness and isolation.
That’s important to remember when it’s tempting to think no one, especially non-farmers, could possibly understand the pressures farmers face. Why not try them?
Mental health professionals say one of the biggest obstacles stopping farmers from seeking help is the perception their peers might see them as weak. So then don’t talk to other farmers if you’re feeling alone or pressured — but talk to someone.
It might be refreshing to get an outsider’s perspective on what you’re going through — and it might help non-farmers better understand what it’s like to be in the tractor seat.
It could be an old friend from university, a pastor or a professional. What’s important is that you reach out and talk to someone if you’re feeling weighed down.
As always, a good place to start the conversation is with the weather.