Every issue of every farm paper these days offers advice about how and when to sell a crop. A generation of ag economists have scolded us with the dark fact that two-thirds of farmers sell into the bottom third of the market. How do we keep ourselves from falling into that awful trap?
Eight years ago, I watched two farmers wrestle with this question as they watched soybeans pouring into a grain cart at the side of the field. The price had climbed to just over US $17 a bushel that week, a peak they had never seen before and were never to see again. They were father and son and we were all looking at the lad’s very first crop being harvested from his first very own field.
I said: “That looks like an excellent crop.” It was safe to say this out loud because it was a beautiful day, the samples were good and there was a spare combine standing by in case of a breakdown. The puck was pretty much in the net.
“The writer is correct,” said old Vern. “It is an excellent crop. What’s more . . . the price is also excellent.”
“That is not a word you use very often,” I said.
“I have never had to use it,” said Vern. “In fact, I have never seen a crop this good even get harvested. We are making history here.”
Old Vern had a way of sounding like Moses delivering the tablets to the Israelites when he spoke. He could carry it off without the benefit of flowing white robes or a staff to lean on.
“Pay attention to this moment, my son,” he said. “For, like great Halley’s Comet, it comes around only once in a person’s lifetime. I am old and feeble now and I have witnessed many combinations of yield and price in the great tapestry of agriculture. This alignment of the stars is most rare.”
He paused for breath. “And this leads us to the fateful question. Will the little grasshopper sell his excellent crop now for an excellent price, or will he hold back and wait until the price slips, stumbles and falls flat on its face?”
Young Kyle shrugged. “I was in a chat room on AgLine this morning and they say there is still some upside . . . people are saying it could break twenty . . .”
Old Vern covered his ears. “Stop! Stop!” he cried. “My boy, you have to understand that this farming game is a zero-sum business. For you to do this well, others have had to suffer. That is the way of it. My cousin in Camrose, Alta. is sitting in the middle of a circle of desperation 25 miles across. The canola flowered in the heat. It looks okay from the road but there is nothing in the pods. And just 100 miles south of us, right here in Ontario, you have people with flood damage and drought damage in the same field. Twenty states south of the border have endured a punishing drought so that you can be handed this gift price of $17 a bushel . . . American!”
“Really?” I said. “Our success depends on the misfortune of others? I think your father has had maybe a little too much sun. But he makes a valid point about taking a good price when you have the chance.”
“So you think I should sell now?”
Old Vern was fairly hopping at this point. “Yes, yes!” he cried. “Straight to the elevator and sell!”
I left the two of them to their struggle. When I mentioned the beans again about two months later, I could tell from old Vern’s face they were still in storage. The price had fallen to $14. The next year it was $12. Young Kyle has now worked for the better part of a decade with $11 beans and a lot of aphids and drought. His dad is gone now and the lad wrestles with these decisions on his own. I know he looks back at the fall of 2012 as a miraculous moment which may never come again.
Who really knows what any of us will do when a windfall like that drops in our lap? I’ve guessed wrong on everything from interest rates to fat lamb prices for four decades now. Dead wrong 10 times out of 10. But I find comfort in the knowledge that my suffering has helped some poor soul out there in Camrose.
Dan Needles is a writer and the author of the Wingfield Farm stage plays. He lives on a small farm near Collingwood, Ont. His website is www.danneedles.ca.