Our ultimate aim is to turn this section into a “window” on Prairie Agriculture, to extol our virtues and promote our exports to overseas buyers as the world’s most advanced region with enormous diversification potential to all kinds and grades of crops the world needs.
But we are not there yet; we still have a lot of work to do before we can be confident that we are doing justice to our farm-economy in the best light possible on the world stage. To this end, we need feedback and suggestions from our followers, producers and other stakeholders alike.
Prairies have long been a major bread-basket for the world, mainly known for its exports of wheat, durum, barley and oat. In the last few decades it has gone through another renaissance to become a highly market-driven agricultural economy driven by persistent deregulation and privatization efforts. In the process the region achieved notable yield-increases, with exports increasing significantly in volume and even more in value as a result of diversifying first to canola and later pulses. Now it is at the cusp of another wave of diversification to more specialty crop varieties.
A natural outcome of market-liberalization was farm-consolidation, which in turn facilitated a huge leap forward in farming-methods and technology-applications. In the regulated era farm-sizes were quite modest and uniform, typically measured in a few thousand acres. Now most of the advanced farms are tens-of-thousands of acres, sectionalized to grow multiple crops, with capacity to diversify even further to grow specialty grades and types of the region’s staple-crops as well as new strains or varieties that are in demand in global markets -- be it in grains, oil-seeds or pulses.
With land acquisitions from one end and technology purchases from the other, farmers, at least successful ones among them, managed to shoulder the bulk of the investment burden by increasing their yields, upholding the region’s family-farming traditions -- albeit with the help of regulations to keep corporate-farming at bay. Still, the farm-economy’s debt-load increased, putting pressure on all producers to look for opportunities to diversify to higher-value crops that could be sold to world markets outside the net of bulk-trades in the control of corporate-giants.
Thus, the producers are highly motivated to diversify to high-value crops and sell through direct-channels. They are not only blessed with favorable soil-and-climatic conditions but also have the knowhow with advanced science-and-technology at their disposal to grow a huge variety of crops to highest quality standards. We know the world has plenty of enlightened buyers looking for specific types and grades of quality crops to meet their particular needs and requirements -- our mission is to present the capacity of the Prairies, and connect them with the region’s producers.
Farm Consolidation Trends:
Changes in farm-size distribution by Province
We are currently compiling a database on farm-sizes across the Prairies, and hope to publish a report on the topic by the end of Q1 2022. There have been attempts to document these trends, of great significance to the Prairie grain-economy, but there is a pressing need for a comprehensive source that not only documents what has happened over the last three decades, but also looks into the future.
State of Prairie Farm Finances:
Revenue, Cost and Investment Trends
As we discussed in one of our featured articles (see our landing-page) the Prairie farmers have accumulated considerable debt that they have difficulty paying down as they face a revenue-squeeze in today's bulk-trading environment. It is important to come to terms with these realities, and embrace the specialization-imperative -- clearest path to financial-stability and future-prosperity.
Farming has been transformed from an experience-based-tradition to a data-driven-science; the Prairies have been at the forefront of this. Farms have become much larger with latest equipment in action using GPS, not just for position-tracking but also automated-guidance. Most machines also have variable-rate-spreading devices to apply the desired amounts of inputs in the field -- seeds, fertilizers and pesticides. Moreover, most farm-equipment have monitors to detect moister-levels and soil-conditions, augmented by increasing use of drones as they become more affordable.
Farmers have wireless access to field-data and actively use that data for planning, and in real-time for decision-support – seeding, fertilizing and harvesting. With so much data and need for precision-applications, increasingly more sophisticated farm-management-systems are being used, with the added benefits of tracking and managing farm-inputs and crop-yields. The MS-envelope is being pushed further by big-data availability, especially on weather-conditions, which in turn facilitates more effective seeding and harvesting practices, as well as yield forecasts for marketing.
Though we are not directly involved in IT applications in farming per se, we have considerable knowledge and experience in this field. We were among the pioneers in telematics in transport-logistics, going back four decades, and our logistics-partner has a technology platform offering mobile-activity-management solutions and AI applications, with a large footprint in resource based industries in Western Canada. We are keenly interested and closely following developments in technology and their applications in agriculture, which we will be reporting on through this portal.
Our broader support-mission in this domain is to forge close ties with leading farm-equipment manufacturers as well as IT solution-providers. We not only want to serve our followers with frequent updates on latest technology developments but also hope to mobilize support from equipment and technology vendors for our own specialty-crop-mission, as participants or even sponsors. Thus, updates on farm-technology and farming-practices will be regular features of our platform, in the hope of also enticing our producer-base to further crop-specialization.
We would like to turn this section of our portal into discussion-forum for farm-equipment manufacturers to post their latest technology offerings, and for producers to provide feedback on what they currently use and what they plan to purchase.
We will structure the forum-format as both manufacturers and producers sign-up with their comments and suggestions. At the same time, we will actively reach out to both audiences through their associations and corporate representatives.
We also have plans to introduce a parallel discussion-forum on farm-management systems and practices. To this end, we are inviting software-solution and big-data providers to participate, in the hope of establishing a cutting-edge knowledge portal.
We will actively promote farmer-participation in this endeavor, not just with comments and suggestions but also working with us to showcase management-systems and their applications -- a crucial extension of our Prairie farm-profile case-study series.
As important as all the technology in the field is scientific capacity behind the scenes, agronomy in general and crop-genomics in particular. The region has half a dozen leading universities with agronomy departments and many more research centers. Also, unlike most academic disciplines, in this domain we see applied-science in action; scientists are keen to apply their knowledge in the fields, while producers are equally enthusiastic in embracing innovation and new farming-methods. Prairies are uniquely positioned to drive a new wave, if not a tsunami, of crop-specialization.
In many respects we saw this capacity in display in previous waves of diversification. The switch from wheat to canola was relatively easy, and driven by market forces -- an attempt to break lose from a single-desk export-monopoly. We saw agronomy in action more clearly with pulses, realizing the region’s advantages in soil and climatic conditions for growing them, as well as introducing seed-varieties for a wide range of crops from beans, peas to lentils. Producers got considerable support and guidance in this regard from both the scientific community and governments.
In this vein we must also acknowledge the support capacity governments, federal and provincial, lend to Prairie agriculture. Canada Grain Commission (CGC) is seen as a relic from a regulated era but its relevance continues to the market-driven grain-economy in upholding grade and quality standards -- classification systems coupled with testing and inspection practices. While it may still carry a grain-label, its jurisdiction extends to oilseeds, pulses and specialty crops, and remains a source of support to producers, and comfort to buyers, particularly in identity-preservation.
We are hoping that our platform will play a dual-role in this domain. First, we intend to be a bridge between scientific and producer communities -- facilitate dialogue and even specific research or experimental initiatives where we see market potential for specialty-crops. Second, by posting articles and profiles, we hope to instil buyer-confidence in our quality and grade standards, that sales we facilitate are indeed of specialty-crops, not diverted from bulk-pools -- grown and tested to regulated classification-systems, handled and shipped with identity-preservation assurance.
As with equipment-manufacturers and solution-providers, our goal is to become a "bridge" between producer and research communities. To this end, we will be reaching out to agronomy departments, research-centers as well as government agencies.
We have no delusions of making any meaningful contributions to ongoing research-debates, other than provide visibility into these collaborative efforts to promote the Prairies in export markets as the world's most advanced agricultural region.
As we establish relationships in the research community, we might pursue one other track that could complement our promotional efforts -- publish abstracts on research papers or reports that lend credibility to our trade-facilitation efforts.
At every turn, we try to bring attention to the diversification and specialization potential of Prairie agriculture. These abstracts would provide scientific basis to our claims, that the potential we are conveying is real, not just a hallow sales-pitch.
Canada’s overall record in fighting climate-change may not be stellar, but we have ample reason to be proud of the Prairies’ sustainability-record in agriculture -- studies suggest that Prairie farms are now absorbing more carbon than they emit. Significant strides have been made in the last 3-4 decades though genetically-modified-seeds, zero-tillage practices, shift to better fertilizers, use of less pesticides, and fuel-efficiency improvements in farm-equipment. Despite significant increases in crop-yields and exports, green-house-gas emissions have been reduced by more than half.
Also, we must acknowledge Canada’s natural advantages over most other parts of the world in putting food on the table. There is no need to encroach on forests for more farm-land; yield increases can be relied on to achieve production and export growth-targets for the foreseeable future. There is no danger of soil degradation; zero-tillage has increased from less than 10% to more than 50%, with potential to go all the way to 100%. Also, crop-growth in the Prairies relies on rain; even if irrigation is to be required, Canada has one-fifth the global freshwater reserves.
Despite the Prairies’ impeccable record in sustainable agriculture, driven by natural-advantages as well as technology-advances, our platform’s outlook leaves no room for complacency, as the urgency of the climate-crisis calls for. Every bit of effort counts, and at this critical juncture, nobody can take cover behind the argument that their practices are better than everybody else’s. As an act of social-responsibility, we have an obligation to consider the carbon-footprint of everything we do or touch -- our approach to sustainability reflects this commitment with no bounds or excuses.
Through the material we publish or reference, we will make every effort to provide an objective assessment of the environmental impacts of crop trends, including those we promote in the cause of crop-specialization. We already have an initiative underway to publish a report on this topic, sustainability-record of Prairie agriculture, including the carbon-footprint of the long-distances involved in container-shipments to export-markets. You will be hard pressed to find another region of the world with a better performance record in this regard -- call it a sales-pitch but it is the truth.
Canadian Prairies' Carbon-Footprint
While the Prairies were achieving significant increases in grain output and exports, green-house-gas emissions were shrinking -- in fact reduced by half. Moreover, recent studies show that the grain-economy now absorbs more carbon than it emits, becoming a carbon-sink. Contributing factors were improved farming methods and practices, use of better fertilizers and pesticides, and fuel-efficiency improvements of farming-equipment.
Battling Climate-Change :
Environmental Policy Framework for Agriculture
Looking into the future, this report will get into the details of Canada's environmental-policy framework in battling climate-change. It will present different growth-scenarios under alternative crop-mix assumptions. It will demonstrate how crop-yields can be increased to achieve export-growth, while continuing to shrink the carbon-footprint, with no reliance on irrigation, no soil-degradation, and no further encroachment on forests or wet-lands.