There’s a line I love from Paul St. Pierre’s Breaking Smith’s quarter horse when Smith’s wife suggests he do some reading to improve his farming skills and make the ranch run more profitably. He tells her: “Hell, I’m not running this place half as good as I know how to already.”
I think of that remark whenever I face a crowd of arms-folded cash croppers and beef farmers gathered for the annual Soybean Outlook conference sponsored by the local feed company. I’ve fought my way through blizzards to a hundred of these bun fights over the years, and they always fit the same pattern: The parking lot is crammed full of 4X4 pickups and a lineup of economists and agronomists wave infrared pointers at a screen to chart the way forward for a skeptical and very silent audience of mostly men. And I always assume the farmers are quietly muttering to each other that they already have far more information than they could ever possibly use.
I belong to a generation of farmers who fought with their dads fiercely in the mid-1970s about the idea of growing soybeans, a crop most of the older generation had never heard of and didn’t even recognize as food. Over the course of a decade, soybeans went from zero to the cornerstone of the corn-soy rotation. But it required a lot of people to change their minds about the way they would live.
Farmers are one of the last groups in our culture who have the luxury of changing their lives by changing their minds. If you work for any one of the organizations up at the podium leading the discussion about interest rates and end-of-year stocks for all the commodity groups, you are probably locked into a career path that is dictated by all sorts of forces beyond your control. This rule applies to a huge number of occupations today, from the salaried teachers and civil servants, through the professions to pretty much anyone who relies on one organization for a paycheque. You can decide to stay or go with that company or that line of work but beyond that, you pretty much have to go with the flow. And if you do leave, within a week your absence won’t even be a topic of conversation in the staff lunchroom.
Obviously, farmers face a host of forces beyond their control but they do get to make an equal number of decisions about how to cope with those forces. They make decisions almost every day about when to plant and what to plant, when to buy and when to sell, when to expand and when to pull back. They can decide to use the land for something new or pull up stakes and try somewhere completely different. Not everybody gets that option anymore.
And then there’s the neighbourhood. Very few working groups in our society get to grow up and work in the same community as their ancestors. Farmers go to school together, they make friends and watch each other’s families find their way in and out of this way of life. There’s a lot fewer of us than ever before but the neighbourhood is still there, built on the sturdy foundations of the old rural community and still knitted together by hockey and ham suppers. I think sometimes we take for granted a privilege that much of the culture has learned to live without.
And what do the agronomists and the economists think will happen next year to crop prices and interest rates? Not that much, as it turns out. Not surprisingly, the same answer they gave us last year. Things will go along as usual until suddenly they don’t and nobody has any idea when or if that will happen.
Then the meeting breaks up and the crowd moves slowly to the lunch buffet tables. Gradually the silence is replaced by a hum of conversation and the hum builds to something louder as the visiting really gets going. By the time I leave the room, the food is gone but the farmers are still standing in clusters, yakking about everything except what soybeans or interest rates might do. They’re telling stories and making each other laugh and they’re in no rush to get anywhere in particular. And you know they’ll be back again next year because it’s a great day out.
And I walk out through the lot full of big trucks to find my little car and it reminds me that the real purpose of a farm truck is to find another farmer, after all.