- Written by Maria McDonald
Full bins and food systems
If you have been listening to the radio or reading the newspaper (or surfing through news sites for those that are more technologically inclined), you may have spotted the odd reference to the bumper crops enjoyed by Canadian grain farmers in 2013. I know that in our area the crops were amazing. “Best crop I will ever grow…” was a common refrain this fall from our neighbours. So you would think that our grain farmers would be rolling in cash by now, enjoying the fruits of their labours as they send their grain to markets around the world. But that’s not happening. In fact there are increasing rumblings about cash flow shortages and worries about how farmers are going to afford to finance planting the 2014 crops this spring. What? How is that possible? Huge grain crops = a huge cash windfall right? After all it only makes cents (wow that was lame).
So what’s going on? Have the crop prices fallen to nothing? No. While crop prices have dropped from their highs this past fall, but there is still ample opportunity to make a profit at the current market values for wheat, canola, etc. Was the quality of the crop so poor that there is no money in it? Again no. There were some fields that had lower quality grain, but there always are. Nothing widespread. So why on earth are pundits throwing around dire predictions of financial ruin and cash flow crunches? Because the vast majority of all of that grain; millions and millions of tonnes; is still sitting in storage bins throughout the prairies. It’s not that the farmers don’t want to ship it out on trucks, trains, and ultimately ships to destinations around the globe. They absolutely do. It’s that they can’t. That’s right CAN’T.
What do you mean “can’t”, you might be thinking? Have they forgotten how to dial a phone and book a truck to haul the grain to the elevator? They can book the truck, but the elevators won’t take their grain. And the elevators won’t take their grain because they can’t book a set of train cars to ship the grain to the west coast where massive freight ships are waiting to fill up and head out Japan, China, etc. The rail companies, such as CN, will say that a combination of incredibly poor weather across Canada and a massive crop volume that needs to be shipped has limited their ability to move the grain. The farmers and grain companies will say that the rail companies are preferentially shipping crude oil at a greater profit and intentionally limiting the amount a grain they are willing to take. So who’s right and who’s wrong? I have no idea. They are both right. They are both wrong.
Well that was a pointless blog post, wasn’t it? Give me another minute and I’ll try to make it worth your while. Maybe it isn’t about who’s right. The weather has been brutal. The crop that needs to be shipped is huge. There are record amounts of crude oil being shipped by rail. So what? It occurs to me that we shouldn’t be talking about export limitations. We should be talking about a different food system entirely. Why are we so hell bent on exporting those millions of tonnes of grain in the first place? The answer is because that’s what we’ve been told works. In fact, according the government (both provincial and federal) that’s the only thing that works. As a country we are all about export. It’s become part of our national identity. “Canada: We’ve got oil, we’ve got lumber, we’ve got grain. Please take it. Seriously we want you to have it. No really you’d be doing us a favour… Sorry.” I’m not sure when our marketing strategy changed as a country. The 50’s or 60’s? Somewhere around there I would think. We went from taking raw materials and natural resources, processing them to add value, and then selling those new products into our local markets to ‘harvesting’ resources and shipping those out of the country as fast as we could. I don’t think that approach is working for us farmers anymore, if it ever did.
So what are we supposed to do? Sell hundreds of millions of bushels of grain a few pounds at a time at farmer’s markets and road side stands? No I don’t think we can take a vast commodity based system like the grain industry and reduce it to barter and trade. But why can’t we try to process more of the things that we grow locally? Why can’t we take our own Manitoba grain, grind it into our own Manitoba flour in our own Manitoba built plants, and bake our own Manitoba bread that we would sell in our own Manitoba grocery stores to Manitoba people? Is that so crazy? I don’t think so. Imagine if we had a more local centric food system in place right now. Isn’t it easier to imagine sending our grain 100 miles to a plant in Winnipeg to process it rather 1000 miles to a west coast port? No trains? No problem! Load up the grain truck and drive your grain to market yourself! But we can’t eat all of the bread, pasta, etc. that we would produce! Agreed. So we ship the excess value added products around the world. More money for the farmers, more control over how their products are marketed, more jobs created in the province, and a more valuable product to export. Sounds good to me.
Obviously there are no easy answers to these complicated issues. I know that taking something as unwieldy as our current food system, and even worse the government policies that encourage it, and making substantive changes is difficult at best. But really so what? Just because it’s hard we shouldn’t do it? When we switched from marketing our meat through the conventional market (auctions sales and feed lots) to direct marketing food to family we didn’t do it all at once. That would be crazy. It took time. We had to develop a market. For a while we did both. Gradually all of our animals were direct marketed. We’re just one small farm, but it can be done. Our country can do it too. I think it’s time.