The Recovering Farmer

Friday, July 30, 2010

At What Cost

In January of this year I attended the annual general meeting of the Keystone Agricultural Producers. One of the speakers featured the president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture. Just over 20 years ago I heard the same speaker speak at a hog producer meeting at the same hotel. I could not help but think back to 1987 and compare topics of concern then compared to 2010. In 1987 the main topics for hog producers centered on Tripartite Stabilization and countervail duties, an American trade action. The hog price at the time hovered around $135 per hog. At the KAP meeting discussion was around Agristability and COOL. Same issues, different names. The hog price at the time was $135 per hog. In the spring of 1987 barley was around $140 per tonne, very similar to 2010. I have never been one to do price comparisons in a grocery store. But when I reflect on the price of raw product being the same now, as it was in 1987, I am curious what the difference would be in the cost of meat at your local grocer. I suspect those prices are very different. It hit me that as much as things change they stay the same.

Input costs, whether for producing livestock or grain, have steadily increased over the years. The only costs lower today, than in 1987, are borrowing costs or interest rates. So as farmers we continue to adapt and change in an effort to produce our commodity in such a way as to eek out a living. As farmers we are proud to be the producers of a low cost food basket. As farmers we remain resilient and keep plugging along. Far too often we are on a treadmill, running but not getting anywhere.

Someone suggested to me, earlier this year, that farming is a good way of life but a poor way to make a living. As farmers we produce the food to feed a small city but find it difficult to feed ourselves. Eventually one has to sit back and wonder at what cost this life style comes. Are we jeopardizing relationships, how is our health, both physically and mentally, what will we retire on. These and many more questions haunt us during the day and keep us awake at nights. Perhaps you need to make changes to become more viable. Perhaps it is time to move on. Perhaps there is something better out there. Perhaps there is life after farming. Think about it. And remember there is hope.

Take the time to evaluate your life. Do an inventory. Often times when I deal with farmers facing uncertain futures we talk about this. Who are we really working for? Who are we really benefiting? Is it worth it? And when we think we are being successful, what is the cost? Make it a good one.

Friday, July 23, 2010

I Love Golf

I love golf. Okay, let me rephrase that. Most days I like golf. Today was not a good golf day. My putter has gone wonky. Mind you, someone told me not to blame it on the club. All right then, what do I need? A therapist or golf lessons? Perhaps both. Forgive me while I vent. Seems since I was young I have enjoyed a game that many people cannot relate to. During the World Cup (soccer) I suggested to someone that soccer was a boring, mundane sport. They, in turn, suggested as a golfer I had no right to call soccer boring. Oh well. I recall back in an earlier life a bureaucrat say, at the end of a phone call, that he was going to a driving range that night and he was going to pretend my face was on every ball. Made me realize that the conversation had probably become “passionate”. Becoming passionate about certain issues is me. When I get hold of something I firmly believe in I cannot let go and, yes, my passion can get me in trouble.

Passion is something we as farmers experience on a daily basis. We are passionate about the jobs we do. We are connected to the soil. We care about the animals we raise. But it is easy to lose that passion when year in and year out we struggle to make ends meet. I recall going to the barn thinking, there is enough production here to feed a small city and yet I was having a tough time feeding myself. Some passion is good and helps us survive while other times passion can get us in a lot of trouble. At times we need to self examine our emotions to ensure that are passions are channeled in the right direction.

Getting back to golf. In a presentation I did some time ago I compared farming to golf. Hear me out here. Golf is not a game of great shots. It is a game of the most accurate misses. The people who win make the smallest mistakes. We hope for something great. Is that not like farming? We also hope for a bumper crop and good prices. Or for good livestock prices and cheap feed prices. Wait a minute. How can we have good grain prices and cheap feed prices at the same time? So to survive we have to ensure that when we “miss” we don’t miss by too much. Ensure that our mistakes are as minimal as possible. And just like golf, farming is a “compromise between what your ego wants you to do, what experience tells you to do and what your nerves let you do”. Adds a different perspective, doesn’t it?

P.S. A golfing friend gave me a tip on how to putt better. Tried it, practiced it and improved my score. That often happens with life experiences as well. Talk to someone, listen to others and who knows, you might just get some help in improving life. It’s worth a try. Make it a good one.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Modern Technology and You

The request was simple and straight forward. I had left for a few days and had inadvertently taken some cheques with me that needed to be deposited. My wife suggested I simply deposit them in an ATM. No problem you say but I care to differ. Always having shied away from the use of modern technology, I was not convinced that I could carry out the task. For twenty years I have used a debit card to make purchases and to withdraw cash. Never ever have I used a machine to deposit money.

I called my son and said I would be by to pick him up so he could help me with this major task. Needless to say he laughed at me. However, he humored me, and came along for the ride. As payback for mocking me I made him give me a haircut. Probably not the smartest move on my part, but then again it’s tough to sabotage a haircut as I am follicley challenged. However, I digress. Turns out depositing money using an ATM is rather quick, efficient and, best of all, easy for a technologically impaired guy like me.

How often as farmers do we go through the same fear and frustrations? Each year we are bombarded by offers of new technology. I once chatted with a farmer who traded in his combine every 2 years because he was convinced that the new technology paid for itself by harvesting a better crop. Hmmmm. Not sure of that logic. But sometimes new technology does pay. The key is for all of us to try and decide what will pay and what will not. It used to be said that “anyone could farm, that all that was necessary was a weak mind and a strong back, but nowadays to be a successful farmer a person must have a good head and a wide education in order to handle all the advice ladled out by city folk, government people and others and to select for use that which will do them the least damage.” A lot of truth in that one.

Years ago we could quietly go about our business. Do what we thought was best. Purchase only if we could afford it. Today, with modern technology, particularly as it concerns communication, we are aware of all that is available. We are more aware of what our neighbors have. We see more proof of how something new could work so well. We are constantly being driven to upgrade. The decisions are endless. The ramifications could affect us for a lifetime.

As economic challenges come our way we are left to make decisions that are difficult at best. Always second guessing, always wondering. It is downright stressful. Often it helps talking these decisions through with someone. At times I found myself talking about it and when the person I was talking to would respond I would tell them I didn’t need their advice, just needed to think out loud. Sometimes I even talked it through with myself. Just hoped nobody would notice that because it invariably turned into an argument. Whatever works. Make it a good one.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda

I read some time ago that a person should never use these words (not even with a proper English spelling). The author went on to say that these words or terms are very negative and do nothing to help a person move forward. I thought about it for awhile and realized how true that is. Whether at work or at play, dealing with kids or partners, or self examining any decisions we have made we so often end up saying “would have” or “could have” or “should have”.

Let me refer to my favorite sport of golf. After each and every round, yes, that’s what it’s called, I sit back and examine every shot I made that day. Eventually my line of thinking goes to “I should have used a different club on that hole”, I would have sunk that putt if I had just hit it harder”, “I could have beat my opponent if only . . .”. You know, if I had accomplished all of that I could have been a professional golfer. Oops. I did it again.

As a recovering farmer I often look back and wonder “what if”. Things might have been different. But, you know, we can not turn back the clock. There were positives. Being a farmer provided me with many opportunities. I met many different people. We were able to raise our kids on the farm. There was certain flexibility in being my own boss. In spite of being a tough way to make a living it was a good way of life.

There is a saying that goes “scars remind us of where we have been but do not have to dictate where we are going”. It takes time, it takes courage and it takes initiative but we can all do it. Try for one day to be positive, thinking about the future and how you can begin to control your own destiny. I have a picture hanging on my office wall that says “the tragedy of life is not that it ends so soon but that we wait so long to begin it”. How true. Make it a good one.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Recovering Farmer

Hi, may name is Gerry and I am a recovering hog producer. This is an introduction usually reserved for one’s involvement in a support group. (You know the one that has the 12 steps) And perhaps a group like that could benefit us all. Those 12 steps can be beneficial in many areas of life. Particularly if you are “recovering” from something. I call myself a recovering farmer. I have sometimes referred to myself as a recovering Mennonite. Truth be told, I have found myself trying to recover from many things in life. Some I don’t even want to admit to.

But before we go there, let’s take a look at what is needed to recover from what has been a long and protracted downturn in the livestock industry. In Poker terms many, if not all of you, have gone “all in”. In doing this we have put everything on the line including but not limited to finances, relationships, family, friends and community. Now it is time to take a sober second look at what is left and how to proactively deal with that. This will include conversations with creditors, secured and unsecured, discussions with partners and family members. Farm debt mediation can have significant benefits as you examine your financial status and decide your future, whether that is exiting the industry or restructuring your operation. Additionally this may mean for each one of you to have a look in the mirror and address the person looking back at you. Anxiety and depression may well have become part of your life and, if left untouched, may become a major problem.

I wrote these words at a time when cattle producers were still suffering the consequences of the BSE debacle and hog producers had been faced with excruciating losses for over 3 years. As I write these words grain farmers are seeing devastating rains that are leaving fields flooded, crops drowning and, in some cases, not being able to put in their crops. They too, are now facing losses from which some will not be able to recover while others use up further equity.

Very often, in times like these, people are left feeling paralyzed, not knowing what their next step should be. As mentioned earlier, they have given their all. Finances are depleted, relationships are strained and the future looks bleak. Options appear few and far between. In times like these it is important for you to deal with the problems up front rather than to let them build and escalate. There are resources available. Whether you need assistance in dealing with creditors. Perhaps a counselor. Maybe just a chat with a neighbor or friend. Talking to a confidant can help in releasing many of your unwanted feelings. Phoning the Manitoba Farm and Rural Stress Line can put you in touch with a counselor and can be your first step in finding options to address the issues you may be facing. There is hope. There is relief. Make it a good one.