Everybody, but everybody, is trying to figure out how record crop yields could be achieved in western Canada in a growing season like 2013. It just does not fit. Long-time and young farmers alike have not seen crops turn out so well in a season in which some aspect or other was adverse through almost every phase of growth.
Through April temperatures and snow cover were more like late February. Across most of the grain belt, right down to south-central Saskatchewan where some of the most impressive results were seen, there was snow in the ditches and frost in the ground when fields finally dried out enough to support machines. Seeding was not general until the last days of May and even then many areas had surface water. June was cold and wet and by mid-July heat unit accumulation was 15% to 20% behind normal. However vegetative growth was remarkably heavy and an optimist would have seen that large, sturdy plants had good seed potential. Things turned around radically in July. Rain became less frequent and scattered and temperatures rose. In late July the daytime high was above 90C for days on end. But most fields did not look particularly stressed or withered. Flowering of cereals and canola occurred during a hot and dry period, but there was little talk of the so-called blast that causes petals of the canola plant to fall off before pollination is completed.
By mid-August it began to look like there could be a decent crop if only the frost would hold off. During the six weeks to the end of August crops progressed amazingly fast. By Sept. 1 many areas that were seeded a month late were only 10 days behind in development. Once the harvest got started it passed normal completion in many areas. It is not entirely done at this date but nearly so, and not significantly later than normal. The first frost was three or four weeks later than usual, with the result that there will be practically no frost-damaged seed of any crop this year, in itself a rarity.
It's not just the west. For Ontario to see an average corn crop is also remarkable in view of growing season weather. The spring was as late and cold as in the west. Frost was widespread in late May. The corn-soybean belt received 230 to 280 mm (around 10 inches) of rain during July, three times normal. Winter wheat harvesting was slow but quality was not severely reduced, including from diseases that tend to be worst in humid weather. Root rot could have been a problem in corn and soybeans, but incidence was not unusual. A return to dryer-than-normal conditions in August and September took care of remaining excess-moisture problems. The Ontario corn harvest has just started, though combining of soybeans has proceeded well as weather allowed and yields could be higher than Statistics Canada suggested.
David Fuller's view This is a fascinating insight into the crop
cycle gamble in which even the most experienced, hard working and technologically
sophisticated farmers are engaged. As investors, you and I are used to dealing
with uncertainty, including rapidly changing conditions. But consider the farmer's
challenge which starts with big, upfront costs. He is not certain when he will
be able to sow seeds. When he can, he does not know whether plants will flourish
or suffer from drought, excessive moisture or disease. Even when crops ripen
successfully, he needs suitable weather to bring in the harvest. Only at the
end of the crop cycle will he know approximately what he will earn from it,
although government subsidies usually guarantee a floor price.
Fortunately, Canada's successful crop cycle has been repeated in many other agricultural regions of the globe in 2013. This has ended several years of mixed to poor harvests which wiped out reserves of staple grains and beans in some countries and greatly disadvantaged the world's poorest people. When people can afford their food the emerging middle classes usually have money left over for other goods and services, and GDP growth improves. Here are 10-year weekly charts for US-listed Corn, Wheat, Soybeans, Rough Rice, Palm Oil, Oats, Sugar, Coffee and Cocoa.
They are well down from their highs which often occurred in 2008, but several more years of good harvests are required to push prices back to levels last seen in the first seven years of this century. Currently, wheat, sugar and cocoa are experiencing at least short-term recoveries. Palm oil appears to be basing. Coffee and corn are most overextended to the downside and therefore future recovery candidates.