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Farming The Weather

Once more, the fickle Manitoba winter unleashed its fury last week, leaving closed highways and schools in its wake. For the uninitiated, it was hell frozen over. For the hardy Manitoban, it was a good day to zip up the coat. The tractor still had to start, the chores still needed doing, and every doorway in the yard acquired a new snowbank.

It’s been said Canadian farmers must adapt to climate change, while just what that climate will be like is still unknown.

The Canada Revenue Agency and Stats Canada know the state of agriculture in this country as well as anyone. Their figures for realized net income as a percentage of total cash receipts for the years 2004 to 2008 leave us with an average of 5.4 per cent. Add in increased inventory value for total net income, and we are still left with only seven per cent of total cash receipts. The numbers get even scarier if you argue that 2008 was an exceptional year and shouldn’t be included. The same percentages for 2004 to 2007 leave us with only 4.8 per cent of total cash receipts for realized net income, and 5.2 per cent for total farm income. No matter how you cut it, farmers retain a surprisingly small amount of gross revenues as income.

The realization that agriculture exists on a very small per cent of the economic food pie is even more disconcerting when we look at potential damage due to climate change. Enough climatic variability to reduce profits by eight per cent would effectively eliminate the ability of Canadian agriculture to sustain itself. Drought-stricken pastures, flooded croplands, summer storm damage, untimely frosts… it really doesn’t take much to reduce the averages by eight per cent.

Whether you subscribe to the theory of global warming, cooling or are willing to sit on the fence and ignore all the hoopla, it’s a sure thing that the weather changes. Over the long term, climate changes as well. Research indicates that we have enjoyed a rather stable weather in Canada since colonization; many fear that is changing. Given the delicate nature of our profitability, more volatile weather patterns will have a dramatic effect on our ability to feed a burgeoning world population.

If we are in fact entering a period of more volatile weather, the need to manage our water supplies will become of utmost importance. We could be faced with the reality of not only having to drain our croplands during flash floods, but also the need to retain that water to sustain our operations through extended drought. Will the crop varieties we currently use have the drought tolerance, the frost tolerance or the ability to survive in wet soils that we will need in a more volatile climate? And if the answer is no, where will the research come from to get us the plants and management systems we need? The current downsizing of public research just may come back to haunt us.

While predicting the weather has some challenges all of its own, no doubt only the future will tell us what is in store for the shifts in general climate. What is glaringly apparent is that our current suite of business risk management programs will be wholly inadequate in a world where the majority of farmers could be dependent on them for long-term survival. In a political world where net farm income continues to be eroded, we need to pay more attention to maintaining the workforce that feeds us. After all, somebody has to shovel out that door in the morning.

Les McEwen farms near Altamont, Man.

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