The guys in our driveshed coffee club have announced that we are now in the ‘storm before the calm’ and have decided they will talk about almost anything rather than the latest virus variant. So the subject moved this week to the calls they have been getting from Statistics Canada to give a better picture of the state of the farm economy.
I don’t know how you would get a clear picture of anything by talking to a farmer because they all say one thing one day and something completely different the next. I remember my neighbor Oscar telling me last spring that he had planted 500 acres of corn. But in November he said he was taking off only 400 acres. When I mentioned the discrepancy he looked at me blankly, as if I was telling him the plot-line for an Italian opera.
I brought this up at the coffee club and asked if it was just me or did anyone else find farmers such a reliable source of suspect information? Earl the Squirrel, the cowboy poet, was the first to volunteer an opinion.
“There is a phenomenon we call ‘Farmer Math’,” said Earl. “Farmer Math is different from ordinary math because the computation is made in the spring when the morning sun flatters the mountaintops with a sovereign eye and hope is in the air. No bad news has come in yet. Oscar probably told you the truth when he says he put in 500 acres of corn, but the crop got off to a droughty start. He might have been lucky to average 90 bushels on some of those fields. So in November he gets out his iPad and recalculates the whole business with the benefit of hindsight. He reminds himself that he shouldn’t really count those bald spots in one field, or the headlands on another or the little marsh in the back corner of yet one more. By the time he’s finished he’s down to a base of 400 acres, and he has pushed his yield up to 140 bushels which may not make his heart soar like the eagle, but it certainly helps him get off the couch and walk again.”
Earl was warming to his subject, so I just leaned back and made notes.
“When yields are high, a farmer will always attribute that success to management, never the weather. If he sets a record for the field, he will attribute it to some mail-order bolt-on planter attachment or his pinpoint timing of a herbicide application. He will never acknowledge that weather conditions were perfect all season.
“Conversely, a low yield reminds him of all the acts of God that intervened between the time he ordered the seed and the day he got the cheque from the elevator.”
“Acts of God meaning the weather?” I offered.
“You can’t rely on the weather to explain yield differences in two fields right next to each other. You need special acts of God that could have happened only to him. The first culprit is always the herbicide company. I don’t know why people still use herbicides when you think of all the damage they have done to perfectly good crops over the years.
“The next target is always the neighbour. If yield is down, it was probably due to the neighbor’s herbicide, or his tile drainage or his leaning fence line. I’m surprised there isn’t legislation against them by now. Leaning fence lines wipe out 15% of the nation’s cropland production every year, but it goes unreported by Statistics Canada because there is no box for it on the questionnaire. You could feed Somalia if the farmers of this country would just get out there and straighten up their fences.”
I leaned over to refill Earl’s coffee but he held up a hand and rose to go.
“You’ve heard of the yield ‘bump’, haven’t you? That’s any management technique you use to raise yields, like planting depth, soil temperature, row width…anything like that. Then there’s a yield ‘dump’. That’s shrinkage that can occur for just as many reasons.
Yield dumps can be caused by the custom fertilizer applicator, crop consultants, the seed quality…in short, any person who provided a service to that field and charged a fee for it. Then there’s the family. Any cash cropper who is dragged out of the field for a Mother’s Day supper can prove to you with a calculator that the lost time triggered a yield dump that was worth anywhere from 8 to 30 bushels of corn.”
“Wildlife damage is another yield dump. Raccoons have been known to eat 25 bushels per acre. And the amazing thing is they will eat in a uniform pattern across the entire field. We call this the ‘wildlife constant’.”
Earl stuck his coffee cup in the parts washer. At the door, he paused.
“Oscar is a truthful man in all respects, but when it comes to the difference between the truth and a man’s cheeriness, there are some harmless fictions that can lift a person’s spirits. Let’s face it, 90 bushels is a number that would make an angel weep. Farmer math works as a wonderful restorative when the sedge has withered from the lake and no birds sing.”
As I say, how Statistics Canada manages to make any sense of this remains a mystery to me.
Dan Needles is the author of the Wingfield Farm stage plays. He lives on a small farm near Collingwood, Ont. His website is danneedles.ca