OTTAWA – The state of Canadian Agriculture when John Geurtjens started working for what then was the Farm Credit Corp 41 years ago is starkly different than its condition when he retired as Guelph-based Vice-President of Ontario operations for Farm Credit Canada in April.
In 1980 farm debt was at $30 billion and now it’s in the $140 billion range, he recounted in an interview during his last day on the job. Then crop prices “were in the toilet, now they’re at new highs.” Land prices were low, now “we wonder how high they can go.”
The 1980s witnessed interest rates that at times exceeded 20 per went; now they’re a fraction of that. Inflation soared back then; now it’s in the one to two per cent range.
The contrast in farming between then and now is staggering, he said. “The willingness to invest in agriculture is strong and its future is very bright.” Agriculture has shifted into precision farming in a big way making good use of many technological tools to coax the maximum production from the land while protecting the environment, he said. The biggest headache is the sorry state of the rural broadband.
To make the most of their opportunities going forward, farmers need to build the public’s trust in the food supply. “It has to be an on-going initiative.” They also need good spokespersons who can explain what all the sector has been doing to increase production, keep food safe and protect the environment.
One area where Canada’s agrifood system really needs to improve is in its processing capacity, he said. “We need to invest more on the processing side. It has been hollowed out and so much of it has gone to the U.S. Instead of putting so much of what we produce on a boat, we need to process it here. There are tonnes of opportunities and a lot of good people in the sector.”
“The problem is a lack of co-ordination within the sector and the industry has to come to grips with this. It’s up to the industry to decide what it wants to do.”
The sector also needs to embrace lifelong learning. You never know enough about this industry. It’s hard to quantify agriculture. Lots of investors see the opportunities.”
Like many other people who reached retirement during the pandemic, Guertjens had to retire without the usual round of farewell parties. There were lots of phone and Zoom calls and other socially distanced farewells, none of which replaces a handshake. His plans are to unwind for several months and then think about what he wants to do next.
Guertjens has served the agrifood sector with stints on the boards of Farm and Food Care Ontario, the Ontario Association of Food Banks and the Centre for Rural Leadership.