Under the Agridome

35 Years of Writing Under the Agridome

Philip Shaw
By  Philip Shaw , DTN Columnist
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A young Philip Shaw in 1986. (DTN photo courtesy of Philip Shaw)

So, you think you can write, do you? I'd like to pretend it was something like that 35 years ago, but it was not. Last week marked the 35th anniversary of me writing Under the Agridome for various publications across the United States and Canada. At the time, I was a young farmer who was working diligently on my master's degree in Agriculture Economics and Business. My editor and mentor John F Gardiner wanted an agricultural columnist and I stepped up to meet the challenge. Thirty-five years later, after myriad life challenges, here we are.

That was a long time ago and there was no software or computers to make it happen. As I've told you before, when I started writing this column it was in longhand with pen and paper. I know, I'm dating myself, where have the years gone?

Simply put, they went one-by-one, each week a new challenge to write something interesting but also to satisfy an expanding audience which now spans around the world. Nobody knew what the internet was back in those days. Ronald Reagan was president of the United States and Brian Mulroney was Prime Minister of Canada. Nobody knew what agricultural biotechnology was or Green Star or Trimble guidance. We planted our crops in a cloud of dust and hoped something would grow. China was an economic backwater and Brazil wasn't much better. It was a very different agricultural world.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention how the agricultural economic world was stark and bone-chilling in those first years of writing the Agridome. In 1986, things were still pretty tough as farmers were trying to pay off loans and mortgages which had double digits in front of them and in some cases the memory of 20% interest rates were fresh in our memory. Where today some farmers in 2021 have prepaid fertilizer accounts this year in anticipation of much higher prices next year, back in 1986 that would have been practically impossible. There wasn't a lot of capital around to be spent and what there was from the cold hands of bankers had a long paper trail. It was so different than today where money is sold like a commodity.

When writing this column, I have always been true to the tenants of agricultural economics. If you study that dismal genre, you will know that agricultural prices are usually historically low based on the vicious cycle of agricultural efficiency which constantly fosters huge agricultural production surpluses. That fact alone has dogged much of my career sending farm prices to unprofitable levels. With that reality, I was always a proponent of a strong Canadian agricultural income stabilization safety net which over several decades we never got. I can say 35 years down the road it is one of my greatest disappointments. However, times change and with those changing times comes different priorities and even some saving grace.

In 2022, Canadian farmers are well-placed better than they were in 1986 when I started writing this column. Keep in mind in 1986 most of us were starving for any type of capital availability, while today it is completely the opposite. Add a lot of new technology into the mix and you have an agricultural world today completely unrecognizable to that young kid 35 years ago that thought he could write.

Back in those days, I wrote a lot about agricultural policy and what I thought might be good for us. Today, I write much more about agricultural markets and how that might be good for us. The difference now is striking. In 1986, total corn usage for the U.S. was 6.95 billion bushels. In the last USDA report in November, 2021 corn usage was 14.830 billion bushels. In 1986, there wasn't even a line in the report for ethanol. Then of course we have our friends in Brazil, Argentina, the Ukraine and other places who never grew the crops that they grow now back in 1986. China was just a place on the other side of the world.

I continue to farm every day over that time and oh, how that farm has changed. Farm machinery with microchips embedded within it complete with computer screens and GPS signals leading me through the field. It beats the heck out of open station tractors amid the dust of yesteryear.

Over that time, my writing started turning up everywhere. Do a Google search with my name and almost any agricultural subject and you'll find a plethora of opinion and information. I've been on these pages at DTN since 1994, and I will always be appreciative of the opportunity that they gave me so many years ago. I do a fair amount of speaking, at least in the pre-COVID era, across eastern Canada and I always run into people who have read me on DTN.

I am 62 years old now, but back in 1986 I was just a young impressionable young man of 27 trying to understand our agricultural world. On the way to today, I got to lead a 10,000-farmer protest in front of Parliament Hill and speak at so many other venues across Canada and the U.S. If you dropped that 27-year-old kid into 2022, he wouldn't recognize where he was. Fast forward 35 more years into the future and let's just say I hope I have some cognition left to see what's next. I hope my swarm of drones get everything planted, sprayed and harvested in the year 2057.

What is next for me? Well, just watch me. The winds of change will surely blow someday. Remember, change is the only constant on the farm. Our agricultural economics don't lie, the vicious cycle of agricultural productivity will continue. I will ride that horse as long as I can.

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The views expressed are those of the individual author and not necessarily those of DTN, its management or employees.

Philip Shaw can be reached at philip@philipshaw.ca

Follow him on Twitter @Agridome

Philip Shaw

Philip Shaw
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