Hundreds of heads silently bobbed up and down as Canada’s 18th prime minister introduced the topic producers had gathered earlier this winter in Winnipeg to hear about — the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Act.
“We will need to be extremely vigilant in safeguarding access to our most vital market and in resisting unilateral demands,” Brian Mulroney told the packed banquet hall. “When fear and anger fuel public debate, history teaches us that protectionist impulses can easily become a convenient handmaid.”
If one word can sum up the future of NAFTA, Mulroney said, it’s uncertainty. “And that uncertainty is undermining plans for a needed investment, the longer the result remains in doubt the more sombre will be the outlook for economic growth.”
For producers trying to plan for the future, or even the next season, the steady stream of negative news around trade uncertainty can take a toll, both on a farm business’s bottom line and on the mental health of its owners and operators.
“It’s definitely a heightened topic of discussion,” says Heather Watson of Farm Management Canada. “There’s a little bit of fear, there’s a little bit of anxiousness… I think everyone gets a little nervous when there’s uncertainty around the future and especially when you’re in agriculture and it’s kind of a long game.”
President Donald Trump’s decision to trigger the renegotiation of the $1 trillion trade deal last spring was not entirely unexpected, given his campaign promises to scrap it altogether, but it came at a time when Canadian farmers were feeling increased pressure at home, Watson says, noting producers in Ontario are also adjusting to new labour regulations, and that tax reform is coming nation-wide, not to mention the growing pressures around the issue of social licence and environmental protection.
“A lot of farmers feel that it’s coming at them from all directions,” says Watson. “It’s difficult because you want to plan for the long term but it seems almost impossible because every day you face a a new reality.”
But there are risk management tools that can help farm businesses weather the storm of uncertainty, as well strategies for emotional well-being that producers can turn to.
“Having a planning process is really the only thing that’s going to get you through,” Watson says. “There are many things that aren’t in your control, but many other things are in your control.”
During the financial crisis of the 1980s, Watson says government looked to upgrade business management skills as a bulwark against future inflation and falling commodity prices, making a huge investment in training and skills development.
“Transition planning, business planning, marketing, long-term planning and things like that,” Watson says. “That was kind of to say we need a safety helmet should something like this happen again.”
One of the first steps in any of those planning processes is to identify what you can control and what you can’t, making a realistic assessment of what is going on in the wider world.
Differentiating between what you can and can’t control is also an important part of maintaining good mental health during times of market upheaval or trade uncertainty.
“I think it is important for farmers to know what things they can have control over and what are the things they can’t,” says Sylvia Massillon, public education and training co-ordinator at Klinic Community Health, based in Winnipeg. “Because in farming there is so much we can’t control, we can’t control the weather, we can’t control the markets, but then you have to look at what you can control within those situations, and it’s really important to reflect on and take note of.”
She adds that stress isn’t always a bad thing either — it just depends on what kind of stress a producer is feeling. The predictable stress farmers feel during calving season or as they race to complete harvest before the weather turns can give producers the shot of adrenalin that pushes them to get to the finish line.
“But we also know that there are situations where that distress, or bad stress as we could call it… goes on for a long time,” Massillon says. “This can happen in situations we can’t control and… we can’t resolve. All of those stress hormones are kind of geared up with no place to go and that can take a toll on us and an example of that can be what is going on with NAFTA.”
Watson says it can be helpful on both the business and health fronts to keep possible outcomes in perspective and to remember that uncertainty doesn’t always end in disaster.
“Uncertainty is not all bad, it leads to opportunity as well, but if you don’t know where you stand and how far you’re willing to move in either direction then it’s very hard to make informed decisions,” says the executive director. “I think that’s what business management brings to the farm and in particular a planning process to say, okay, we sat down together and we talked as a team about where we are today and where we want to go and how we’re going to get there. Now let’s use that as a reference point and use that as kind of our road map.”
When obstacles come up, farmers can then turn to their business management plan and use decision-making mechanisms they developed before a problem or opportunity arose to stay on track with their long-term goals.
“But without that reference point it makes it really hard to make informed decisions,” she says, noting that although many farm businesses talk about the jobs they have to do that day or week, they don’t think as a group about where to steer the business over the long term. “There is so much value to starting the conversation and starting to have regular meetings that focus on the business side of the farm as opposed to just… what are we gonna do today?”
Having a farm business plan, utilizing risk management tools and holding regular business meetings can also help decrease stress levels by reducing uncertainty and giving producers a chance to share concerns openly with family and business partners, she adds.
That might be part of the reason that Dan Holman isn’t losing sleep over the protracted NAFTA renegotiations or the possibility that the deal might even collapse under American demands.
“(NAFTA) is on my list of things of concern, but it’s below the top 10,” says the general manager of Holman Farming Group, a multigenerational operation based near Luseland, Sask. “It’s important, but there’s so many other things.”
The former grain trader adds his operation also has a business plan in place that identifies priorities and takes into consideration the factors they can control while acknowledging those they can’t.
“You always make business decisions with the information you have, not the information you don’t have,” says Holman, noting the farm’s marketing strategy also includes large amounts of grain storage facilities to build flexibility into the operation.
“It’s also helpful to have the right mindset. It seems like farming is the only profession or only business where farmers are viewed as customers on both ends of the supply chain. I mean you go into an elevator and they call you the customer, you go into an input supplier they call you a customer… but you’re really suppliers to the grain company,” Holman says. “So if you start to interpret that pricing in terms of actually what your customer is trying to tell you… if you understand basis and futures spreads, there’s a lot of information in there.”
Using market tools like futures or hedging also gives producers ways to offset the risk that comes with uncertainty and trade disruption, but that doesn’t mean fixating on the minutiae, he cautions. Producers should focus on the big picture when it comes to the markets and trade deals like NAFTA.
“It’s easy to get information overload… the best thing I’ve been doing lately is just taking the stats out every two months of what the market’s doing. It’s easier to see change or see opportunities if you look at it less frequently,” says Holman. “When you’re too involved in every little nuance that’s going on and everyone has a reason for something happening, and trying to absorb all that you really can’t pick out what’s actually happening in the market, you just get carried away with it.”
Information overload can also lead to greater levels of stress and anxiety, especially when confronted with a 24-hour news cycle.
“Producers want to stay engaged so they can prepare for what’s to come, but we know that news and media can also take its toll… so if a farmer or producer is noticing that consuming that media is having an impact on them, then it’s okay to take a step back and minimize how much of that medium they consume,” says Massillon. “We live in a world where we can access media 24 hours days, seven days a week. Gone is the time where you maybe read the paper at the beginning of the day and that’s the only news you get”
An informal survey of farmers attending a recent talk put on by Klinic in Brandon, Man., saw respondents put NAFTA as their second-biggest stressor, right behind weather.
Massillon says farmers should keep an eye out for symptoms of stress that might not be immediately apparent to someone doing physical labour, such as muscle aches, headaches, upset stomach, rashes and fatigue. Emotions like depression, anger, fear, impatience, indifference and irritability can also be signs of stress, as can over- or under-eating, repetitive thoughts, reckless driving and difficulty concentrating.
“Mental health is not necessarily a one-size-fits-all model,” Massillon says. “I think people associate mental health with mental illness, but mental health is something that we all have, just like we all have a physical health. We might do a number of things to take care of our physical health, and that might include diet or sleep, or moving our bodies in ways that make us feel good or getting exercise. We also need to do things to take care of our mental health.”
That includes being aware of stress levels and then working to manage those stress levels. While farmers can’t control many of the factors that cause them stress, Massillon says you can work on controlling your response to stress by exercising regularly, learning deep breathing, setting priorities, avoiding intoxicants, listening to your body and reaching out for help when you need it.
“For some people in agriculture there is stigma that can get in the the way of accessing help,” Massillon, citing a study done by Guelph University that showed 40 per cent of producers would not seek mental health care because of stigma. “So we are trying to reduce that stigma, because if someone is struggling with their mental health, because of NAFTA, for example, or anything else… if they don’t feel like they can talk to someone about it, then that can really take a toll.”
Watson adds that stress can cause some producers to pull away from their support systems and disengage from planning structures, just when they need them most.
“Agriculture can be quite isolating, just physically isolating and mentally isolating,” Watson notes. “Even as an industry, I think we face more isolation… so physically having those networks or at least socially having those networks, whether it’s Twitter or Facebook, or things like that, connecting, making time and taking time for family… joining community groups or associations, local clubs and connecting with other people and establishing those bonds is really important.”
Back at that mid-winter meeting in Winnipeg, producers took to the halls of the Victoria Inn to discuss the implications of the NAFTA renegotiation and try their luck at getting a handshake from former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.
It was Mulroney’s government that signed the original deal in 1992 after fighting a bitter election campaign on the issue of trade in 1988. “Success in this renegotiation is not preordained,” he told the farmers.
It’s a reality not lost on Canadian farmers as we head into spring.
“It would be nice to get this one over with, but I’ve got a funny feeling that this will be a long, slow, protracted process,” said Francois Labelle, executive director of the Manitoba Pulse and Soybean Growers. For some of his members, the constant stream of NAFTA uncertainty is causing real stress.
“There is the concern over the wild cards involved in this negotiation with the protectionist attitude that we are seeing, so yes, there are people who are genuinely concerned,” says Labelle.
“NAFTA is key,” said Shawna Mathieson, executive director of the Prairie Oat Growers Association, following the former prime minister’s presentation. For that reason, she said, the trilateral trade deal remains front and centre as the months race by.
“In the past it’s always been, maybe I shouldn’t say a given, but basically a given that the U.S. has always been our biggest export market… and that’s always been the expectation, but we are looking at other markets,” Mathieson explained. “There is uncertainty.”
It’s not that farmers haven’t weathered the uncertainty of trade negotiations before, but rather that instead of debating the merit of a new trade deal, producers are facing the possible loss of a framework they’ve relied on for a generation.
“Certainly farmers are keeping an eye on the talks,” added Mark McDonald, who farms near Virden, Man. “It’s always in the news. I think as farmers you’re a bit immune to day-to-day fluctuations and events. We’ve all been through trade negotiations and NAFTA talks before, if we have any grey hairs, and it’s just part of the things we have to deal with as farmers every day,” he said. “But it is something people are talking about now more than ever.”
Added Labelle, “Canadian negotiators are as seasoned as any in the world and are able to see through those smoke screens… but we have a lot of waiting before it’s all finished.”