In the middle of August, my neighbour Vern Bunton and his son were leaning on the box of my half-ton down by the mailbox enjoying a visit, when I made a polite remark about the lovely crop of beans young Matthew had grown on 50 acres across the road. This was Matthew’s first crop and it was a good one. Vern raised an eyebrow and lifted one index finger in the air as if to test wind direction.
“The writer is correct. It is in fact, an excellent crop,” he agreed. “What’s more… the price of beans is also excellent.”
He paused for dramatic effect and looked at us both significantly. When Vern does this he achieves the same effect as Gandalf or Yoda and he carries it off without the benefit of white robes or a staff.
“Pay attention to this moment, Matthew my son,” he said solemnly. “For, like a great comet, it comes around only once in a person’s lifetime. I am an old man and I have witnessed many combinations of yield and price in the great tapestry of agriculture. This alignment of the stars is most rare.”
We pondered this thought in silence.
“Revered Father,” said Matt, for he has inherited Vern’s oracular turn of phrase, “I have never heard you speak this way about a crop that is still standing in the field. Stuff happens between here and the elevator. There’s crazy weather, shattering, dockage…
“… and the thousand shocks that life is heir to,” Vern completed Matt’s thought. “All very true. But consider this. Already we have taken in winter wheat and canola in abundance and the horse people are lined up like the Israelites leaving Egypt, ready to pay famine prices for hay. It doesn’t get much better than this and there’s a good chance our luck will hold another few weeks. When did any one of us ever say that?”
“Not in living memory,” I said dryly. Vern ignored me.
“And this leads us to the fateful question. Will the little grasshopper sell his excellent crops now for an excellent price, or will he hold back and wait until it’s too late and the bottom drops out, as I have always done?”
Matthew shrugged. “I don’t know. I was in a chat room on AgLine this morning and lots of people are saying there is still plenty of upside to the price of beans…”
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 must suffer. That is the way of it. Why just this morning I was talking to my brother-in-law, and where he is in Alberta, the canola flowered in the heat. It looks OK 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, and other places where the corn is never going to see a combine. Twenty states south of the border have endured a punishing drought so that you can be handed this gift price of $15 a bushel.”
“Really?” said Matt. “Our success depends on the misfortune of others?” He frowned and looked to me for guidance.
“Your father has had maybe a little too much sun,” I said. “He is beginning to rave a bit. But he makes a valid point about taking a good price when you have the chance. Historically, two-thirds of farmers sell into the bottom third of the market.”
“So you think I should sell now?”
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. Who knows what Matthew will do? Who knows what any of us will do? I drove home and parked at the barn and looked at my little flock of lambs. Vern sure is right about the inverse relation between yield and price. These are the best lambs I have raised in 25 years but the lamb market crashed this summer and it looks like I will be giving them away as usual.
But I will seek comfort in the idea that my suffering may help some poor soul out there.