Relationship Status

Wow what a week that just went by!  Truly the stuff farming dreams are made of – 6 days in a row of perfect planting conditions after a wet and bleary April and now a nice rain to cement all of the progress.  Warm, dry (enough) soil and lots of sunshine.  The heat was a bit much for some of us, but we – and every other farmer in the area – pounded in crops and some are even showing signs of life: carrots, beets and sweet corn are up and growing, and the transplants that’ve gone in since the end of April are over their shock and showing new leaves.  The apple trees and strawberries are in bloom, the grass is growing by the hour and the cows are eating it just as fast.  Things went from zero to sixty and the prospects for harvest are already in sight.  The emerging weeds will keep us humble, but very exciting stuff!

I was trying to keep on top of the lawn down in Kingston on Saturday so I didn’t have much of a chance to chat this week, but as I saw all of the familiar faces I couldn’t help but reflect that over the years we’ve developed many genuine relationships with so many of you.   Not that we’re best buds or go bowling or know each other’s intimate business, but just that over the years we keep showing up and you keep showing up.   It really is a matter of time.

All important relationships work that way.  Whether it’s your spouse and family, your work, athletics, church, you name it – it takes consistent effort and patience to get to know someone and earn their trust.  I am often amazed at how this works regarding the food system.  Given the universal nature of eating, the networks of producing and distributing food are well established and often multigenerational.  It also makes the food business a bit challenging to enter or access.  Even something as simple as those little green paper boxes you buy our produce in – you can’t just go buy them on Amazon (at least affordably).

I call a guy who knows a guy, and bada boom bada bing I have my pints and quarts.  But I can’t go to PintMart.    Same with cattle.  Oh, say you want ten, 800 lb Black Angus replacement heifers?  Yeah… maybe you’ll find them on Kijiji… maybe… on the other side of the province.  Or – you can ask me and I’ll call my friend Steve and he’ll talk to so and so and somehow you’ll have those critters in your yard next week.  Truly amazing!

Though it really shouldn’t be – it’s how things have worked forever: high trust, functional relationships based on good faith dealings.  We’ve really departed from this model in postmodern life, where now, rather than buying, say, shoes from the same family our parents did, we search far and wide for the best deals and leave that relationship economy behind.  Nowhere is this more stark than the world of capital R Relationships – where online dating has become the norm for an entire generation.  I was fortunate enough to meet Morgan the old fashioned way (friend of my sister), but as people become increasingly mobile and isolated it’s not hard to see why they resort to it.  But the internet is connecting you to more than your next hot date.

At this point we’re probably all well aware of Big Data and how our phones and web browsers are collecting all of our movement, purchases and internet searches to constantly tailor advertising to our specific tastes and budget.  You’ve probably also had that thing happen where you start talking about something out of the blue and then you immediately get a bunch of advertisements for it before your YouTube videos… very comforting to know you have a friend in The Cloud.

So now think Tinder, but for farmers – and I don’t mean – it’s called Tillable and has been generating some controversy in the Midwest the past few years as a platform to market farmland leases.  Given the increasing value of grain, being the owner of farmland is an increasingly desirable position and renting your land to the farm down the road for the same old price might not be the best way to maximize your asset.  Tillable to the rescue – but this has caused some hard feelings as farmers either find their payments dramatically going up, or their fields being outbid by anonymous clients online.

The power of this sort of application is further amplified by the incredible amount of data collection that goes along with state of the art farming.  Detailed nutrient mapping, weather monitoring and yield records are all commonplace in 2022 agriculture.  Referred to as Precision Agriculture, these are tremendous tools for farmers, and help them make the most of their resources – knowing exactly how much fertilizer or lime they need to add to specific areas of their fields, for instance.   At the same time this information is being collected, aggregated and sold, so that the *actual productive value* of farmland can be determined by investors.  “They” (the computer hivemind) knows exactly what any given chunk of farmland in North America is made and capable of.

Bill Gates made waves in 2021 by becoming the largest single owner of farmland in the USA, possessing almost a quarter million acres of prime land.  You can be sure he did not do so by climbing out of his pickup truck to look at the state of the corn, crumble the soil in his hands and give it a sniff.  Data and economics drive these decisions: the ever increasing value of farmland consistently does better than any of the major stock indexes.  It’s a great place to park money.  

People have asked me “Is Bill Gates trying to control the food system?” Well, beyond investing heavily in some really terrible “food” products like Beyond Meat (the fake burgers and sausages) and Biomilq (lab grown breast milk…) no, Bill Gates is not in any position to “control the food system”.  First of all, there are other companies that do that already, like Cargill… (go ahead and try to learn about them – the largest private company in the USA, they operate on an international scale and are absolutely opaque despite the tremendous impact they have on all of our daily lives).   Second of all, you can’t just “into” agriculture – I’ve been trying for twenty years and I’m barely competent – but despite that, the wealthy and powerful often fancy that they can prosper in agriculture… after all it’s just some dumb farmers doing it – but it really doesn’t work, and hasn’t for a long time.

Whenever you consolidate land into large holdings, whether the Roman Latifundia or Soviet Collective Farms, you end up with social upheaval like slave revolts and famines and environmental disasters like the Aral Sea – whose tributaries were steadily diverted by central planners for irrigated cotton. Centralized control and ownership of farmland is the definition of “unsustainable” and always fails – eventually.

It just is the way it is that farms need a farmer: someone personally invested in the land as their home.  As per the Book of Genesis “the LORD God took the man, and put him in the garden of Eden to dress and keep it”.   It’s been this way forever.  That’s why long standing companies like Cargill (around since 1865)  know better, to leave farmers alone to deal with the actual stress and toil of farming: it is much simpler to skim the cream off of their efforts.

Something I find very interesting about these attempts to consolidate land ownership is how often it’s done by… Canadian pension funds (who knew?).  In fact, one of BIll Gates’ largest purchases – $520 million dollars, spread across 12 states – was bought from the Canadian Pension Plan.   The Ontario Teachers Pension Plan is on a similar grindset – early this year they bought 870,000 acres of timber in the Southeast US for $625 million dollars.  In 2019 they spent $288 million dollars to buy Broetje Orchards: over six thousand acres of productive orchards in Washington state (for reference, ten acres of orchard would be considered an “economic unit” or family sized operation). In 2017, they purchased Jasper Farms, one of Australia largest avocado producers for $177 million dollars, and in 2014 purchased 99% of the shares in Aroona farm (another Australian juggernaut, almond growers this time) for $113 million. 

So, in other words, hundreds of millions of (I suppose it adds up to billions) of dollars, paid by Canadian taxpayers, workers and employers are – rather than being invested in Canadian businesses – used by these pension funds to buy massive landholdings/agribusinesses in foreign countries. 

I’ll leave it to you to draw conclusions about what this all means.  I just find it.. um, interesting, and makes me all the more grateful for people like you: who invest in local family farms like ours.  We’re up against a lot.

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