There used to be a thing called the Manitoba Pool Elevators. It was a grain company founded in the early 1900s, but its history and trajectory through the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool and Agricore United is not the topic of this column.
There are two filing cabinets in our basement. They contain farm records from before I was born. So, mid-1970s. The Canada Revenue Agency doesn’t need us to keep them, and I was given the green light to dispose of them by fire. This makes sense. As you may or may not know, this farm is transitioning away from burning its garbage, but for sensitive documents like farm records, there’s no better way to ensure they stay out of reach for nefarious hands and prying eyes.
So, I started to burn them. But not for long. I started to see old, handwritten line items for things like an airplane ride to find lost cattle, or a $2.50 train set for one of us kids.
I paged through those old documents with interest. As of this writing, there is a stock of manila file folders stacked precariously on the floor beside my desk. However, the thing that really stole my attention was a stack of old notebooks at the back of one of the drawers. It was my dad’s notes from his years as a Manitoba Pool Elevators delegate.
The notes were clear and plentiful, spanning over multiple Manitoba Pool-branded notebooks and multiple years of service.
I am still going through them, reporting to my dad along the way.
For context, I am quite involved in the ag industry, which is a noteworthy inclusion only because of what I am about to say: the issues represented in those notebooks are the exact same issues I am exposed to being involved in the ag industry today. There is a 35-year gap between when some of those notes were taken and 2021.
I am not exaggerating or being dramatic in any way when I say that all one would need to do is change the date on some of those pages and those notes would easily be mistaken for an astute accounting of the issues the ag sector currently faces. Perhaps more unsettling is many of the characters who were outspoken in agriculture then are still active in that space and still outspoken.
The lessons I have chosen to pull away from this revelation is that if we don’t keep a close eye on what’s been said in the past, we keep the door wide open for mistakes to repeat themselves. The other notable lesson is that agriculture would be well served to get some new players and new ideas.
If one were to observe the agricultural landscape over the past 30 or so years (the industry, not the act of farming), it would be easy to come to the conclusion that the issues are stale and it’s farmers themselves who are resistant to a pace of change represented by the rest of society.
But that couldn’t be more wrong. The problem is the players haven’t changed and things that ground their gears then, many of them haven’t been able to let go. Until someone else gets up to the mic and starts actively representing a new generation of growers more in line with the attitudes that, say, I am exposed to through reader comments I receive via this column, these stale ideas and attitudes will continue to be the face of our industry.
History is important. I’m not a historian, and I can say without any shame that I wish I knew more about how things were done in the past.
For perspective, and some of you may already be thinking this, but it is important to note some issues in agriculture, despite their age, will remain relevant. Grain transportation is one of them. Business risk management is another. As is basic farmer protection from price gouging. There is also the seemingly perennial urban-rural divide, as well as the ongoing rift between East and West.
Also important to note is sometimes these policy battles take time to achieve progress on. They are slow and require fortitude and attention to detail from the characters involved. Thirty-five years may not be such a long period of time through this lens.
It is, however, interesting that I could rip a page out of a notebook containing notes that are more than 30 years old, submit them as current and, I’m guessing, be praised for astute observations.
I’m a sucker for nostalgia. There is a lot in this stack of folders I won’t be able to burn.