I very much appreciate the opportunity to testify to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food. It is an honour, and I hope I can justify the invitation with information that is useful to your deliberations.
Today I will speak about the effects of debt on the ability to expand any farm and to transfer an operation between generations. To begin this discussion, I would like to give you a brief personal background that relates to issues of debt and young farmers.
My parents immigrated to Canada from the Netherlands in the late 1950s. As many who came from the Benelux countries after World War II, they came seeking the opportunity to farm, an opportunity that was not available to them due to conventional rules for intergenerational transfer at the time, in which the eldest son was gifted the farm, and to the relative economic opportunities outside of western Europe.
They came to Canada with very little, but thanks to good fortune and hard work, they achieved their dreams and built a successful farm operation. As I will argue later, they may have been one of the last generations able to move into commodity agriculture without significant capital behind them.
Along with one of my younger brothers, I had full intentions of taking over this family farm. We both came back to the farm in 1984 after graduating from university. He had an undergraduate in agricultural mechanization, and I had a master's in agricultural economics. He took over the dairy end of the operation from my parents, who then focused on the cash crops. I worked part-time on the farm and had a full-time job as a credit manager with a major bank.
The timing of this job coincided with a farm financial crisis. Since my portfolio was largely farm-based, I saw first-hand the effects of debt beyond the repayment capacity of farmers. This experience was partially responsible for my decision to pursue a Ph.D., which was likely in the best interests of both me and my brother. As I will discuss later, the circumstances of this farm financial crisis of the 1980s are unlikely to play out today, but there are policy lessons to be learned.
I was fortunate to obtain a faculty position at the University of Guelph upon graduation from Cornell in 1989. A constant over my time at Guelph was teaching a fourth-year class of students in the food and agricultural business major, in the bachelor of commerce degree. There have been two trends in this major over time, reflecting the changing perceptions about agriculture in general, and farming in particular.
One is the increasing number of students from non-rural areas, who are attracted by the employment opportunities in the agrifood sector.
The second is the increasing share of students from farms who want to go back and take over the family farm. The number of students with a farm background who are enrolling has not changed due partially to the shrinking number of farmers, but more of that number want to return to the farm. I think this reflects the excitement about the long-term prospects for agriculture and the challenging skill set required to be a successful operator.
However, there are significant challenges facing the transition of a business that has become so capital-intensive. Family members, including my brother and two brothers-in-law, are now facing these challenges.
The committee has been asked to deliberate on three points with respect to debt: young farmers and intergenerational transfer; start-up farms operating 10 years or less; and the ability to expand farm operations. I will start with the latter, debt and the ability to expand.
Debt is incurred as a means to pay up front for investments deemed to be profitable for the operation, without having to use personal funds. The likelihood of borrowing increases with the annual returns to the farm business from the purchase of that asset, while demand for credit falls with increases in borrowing costs. Thus, the increase in debt level alone can be a sign of strength in the agricultural economy. It signifies the sector reinvesting in technology to increase its productivity and competitiveness. Financial institutions, such as Farm Credit Canada, are providing loans based on a similar assessment on the value of purchases made through credit.
The debt levels alone are not a measure of financial stress. As noted by several other witnesses to the committee, asset values have increased at a faster rate than liabilities, resulting in an increase in equity to the sector. In addition, arrears on loans at FCC at least are at low levels, suggesting no major concern at the current time about the repayment ability for the majority of operations.
This could change with production, market, and policy risks, as outlined by Dr. Ker. There will be continued downward pressure on agricultural returns in the short run, I believe, but the long-term prospects are bright.
I would concur with Dr. Ker that the biggest risk on repayment capacity is associated with an unexpected and dramatic change in policy. The farm financial crisis was arguably brought about by such a policy change. Negative real interest rates had become the norm in the 1970s. Inflation was greater than the nominal interest rate. The U.S. Federal Reserve's attempt to reduce inflation through a dramatic cut in the money supply resulted in record high rates in the space of a short period of time. For example, the Bank of Canada prime rate nearly doubled in 1982 to nearly 22% in less than a year. We were charging 2.5% to 3.5% above that for operating lines to customers who were so-so.
The rise in interest expense, in combination with lower commodity prices, pushed many farms into farm bankruptcy. There were 550 in 1984, for example, whereas the average annual number has been approximately one-tenth that over the last several years. One of the lessons from the farm financial crisis that I observed as a lender is the importance of distinguishing between social policy and farm policy. In the 1980s, the two were interlinked. For example, interest rate reduction policies for all did little to help the farmers really struggling financially and arguably slowed the adjustment within the sector. Farm policy should ensure a competitive sector that is efficient and able to weather the inevitable storms. In contrast, social policy should help the disadvantaged. There were many distressed farm families during this crisis and there were some very important and effective efforts to provide counselling to aid farmers in that difficult transition away from the farm. Hopefully, there is no need for such policies in the future, but if there is, the distinction between farm and social policy is important.
Another lesson from the farm financial crisis was the need for the farm sector to distinguish between the owner and the operator. It used to be that the farmer felt it necessary to own all assets necessary to operate the farm. Purchasing, rather than leasing, puts the farm at greater financial risk. One of the major discussion points in the 1980s was how the sector could attract outside equity. The growing farmland rental market provided by non-farmers is an example of the provision of outside equity that reduces the financial risk to the farm business. This type of market can also help new farmers enter into the sector.
Regarding debt and young farmers, while debt levels are not acting to constrain existing farm operations, I would argue that access to sufficient credit can serve as a barrier to some entrants, but it depends on the type of new farmer. Christie Young of FarmStart, who will be a witness to the committee next week, has identified four types of new entrants: first, young people moving into an existing family operation; second, young people seeking entry into a niche market; third, the middle-aged looking for a second, supplemental career; and fourth, new Canadians. I think the distinction is important. Each of these groups has differing interests and needs. For example, the first group tends to have issues with intergenerational transfer; the middle groups, with obtaining equity; and the latter, the new Canadians, with understanding institutions to produce and serve a growing ethnocultural market. It is not equity that is an issue for them. I'm assuming Christie will discuss the latter three groups and I will focus on the traditional new entrants.
For new entrants looking to transition into a family farm operation, the issue is asset levels, rather than debt per se. The asset value of most commercial farm operations is in the millions of dollars. The financial worth complicates the means of transferring the operation, as a single unit, to the next generation. The transfer needs to balance the desires and financial requirements of the retiring parents, the new entrant or entrants, and other family members. At the extremes, the farm debt could be passed on free to the new farmer with no debt and no compensation to the parents or siblings, or the new entrant could have to pay the full market value of the farm and incur significant debt. The financial viability of the operation revolves around how the farm is gifted to the next generation and subsequent debt levels. Thus, it is the market value of the farm assets and how it is transferred that influences the financial success of the operation, rather than debt levels directly.
While the growing net worth of farmers has enhanced their financial well-being, it has also complicated the intergenerational transfer of their operations.
It was simple for my grandfather. The farm went to the oldest son, who was not my father, and it left my parents with no choice except to move to Canada if they wanted to farm. They were able to do so because—