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Monday, January 27, 2020
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Here’s what’s keeping farmers up at night

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When it comes to agriculture and food, one of consumers’ biggest concerns is cost.

Research has shown cost outweighs issues you might have thought to be top of mind with those who purchase food – such as food safety, animal welfare and biotechnology. People do indeed care about these matters, but not as much as affordability.

They also have concerns about whether the agriculture system is headed in the right direction.

But what about farmers? Are they on the same page as consumers, or worried about something totally different?

That’s what Farm Credit Canada (FCC), the country’s leading agriculture lender with a loan portfolio of more than $36 billion, wanted to know last summer when it surveyed 1,360 farmers across Canada. The results were released Tuesday.

Asking what keeps them awake at night is good business. After all, when your clients are carrying billions of dollars of debt, it’s important to know their state of mind.

Typically, farmers are known to be obsessed with the weather. After all, it’s central for so much of their production.

And the FCC survey showed that production-related risks such as weather, pests and disease are among their main concerns.

But there’s much more.

Today’s farmer, says FCC, is “keenly aware” of risks related to market access and price, in particular. More farm operators said they had a higher concern about marketing than anything else.

Maybe that’s not surprising. Look at the beating farmers have taken trying to get their commodities to market this year – particularly export markets, where Canadian farmers normally do so well. It’s been a rough year with China taking aggressive positions against Canada, and the U.S. sending markets and prices askew thanks to President Donald Trump’s rich subsidy programs for farmers there.

Canadian farmers have felt helpless and frustrated in the face of these mega powers. They appealed to help from Ottawa and struggled to remain optimistic. Based on these factors alone, it’s no wonder 67 per cent of survey respondents cited a high concern for marketing.

Sector by sector, marketing risks were by far the most prevalent among beef and grains or oilseed sector producers, at 74 per cent. But even more than half of the supply managed sectors (dairy and poultry) expressed concern about marketing, despite having protected markets here – for now, anyways. It looks like the threat of more competition from the U.S., Europe and elsewhere is likewise weighing on their minds.

Among other concerns were financial and human resources – matters involving employees, partners and family, says FCC.

Interestingly, almost half of all farmers are working at jobs off the farm to supplement their income. Low prices and the rising cost of almost everything means thousands of farmers don’t feel they can’t make a living on farming by itself.

So maybe in that way, they do share big concerns with consumers, many of whom are working side projects to make ends meet, let alone get ahead.

“The good news is most producers are in a solid financial position to withstand short-term impacts on their business,” says Craig Klemmer, FCC’s principal agricultural economist. 

He’s right, that is good news … because if trade issues don’t get sorted out and markets freed up, short-term impacts are pretty much certain.That kind of rainy day should concern us all, because when farmers struggle, food security becomes a question mark. And if you think the cost of food is hard to get a handle on now, see what happens when imports priced outside of our own country become more dominant.

That’s something for consumers to be worried about. But this scenario may be staved off by supporting Canadian food products, and Canadian farmers.

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