The Age Of Positive Negatives

As a trade magazine editor, I spend a few hours each day reading through e-mails, press releases, and news stories searching for information. Reading over the English language daily in this way, I pretty much tend to skim over items in a quick fashion, usually watching for keywords that might invite a closer look.

Given this fact, it’s rare that a headline will cause me to do a double-take. Then there was the other day, when I did a triple-take. Reading through my e-mails, I came across the following headline: “CF 3Q Income Off Only 18%.”

Let that sink in a bit: Here was a high-profile fertilizer company celebrating the fact that its third quarter sales volume had declined by almost one-fifth. Of course, considering a few days earlier I had read stories about other fertilizer suppliers with revenue drops in the 90% range, I understood why this headline was worded the way it was.

Still, this troubled me. What kind of world are we living in where a double-digit loss in sales volume is hailed as a triumph? Unfortunately, this is the reality of today’s world when looking back at the past year and a half.

There’s no sugarcoating it: The end of 2008 and whole of 2009 have been some of the most bleak, downtrodden years I can remember. In the general economy, employers were shedding jobs at a record pace and once-healthy profits for manufacturers disappeared, seemingly overnight. In this atmosphere, market observers celebrate any news that was “less bad.”

The ag retail market suffered as well. During the summer months, I had many industry friends tell me they “couldn’t wait for 2009 to be over.” Others were more frank: “2009 was one of the most challenging years I can ever remember,” said one long-time retail rep. “And I was in this business back during the fertilizer crash of the early 1970s.”

With this in mind, I’ll admit I’ve fallen into this positive negative trap myself. When compiling numbers from this year’s CropLife 100 surveys, I was relieved when I saw sales volume fell by $200 million. Back in 2006 and 2007, I would have treated a $200 million decline in any revenue as a harbinger of doom. In 2009, this same figure elicited a sigh of relief from me.

Looking ahead to 2010, I’m not certain what fortunes awaits our industry. Elsewhere in this issue, you will find our first annual State of the Industry report, with insights and comments from dozens of industry insiders regarding where the ag retail marketplace stands today, in December 2009. This will hopefully serve as a bridge between the CropLife 100 retailers survey reviewing the past year and our forward-looking Outlook edition, coming next month.

As for me, I’ve obviously been affected by the events of 2009 just like everyone else. I’ve caught myself looking for news that’s “less bad” and sales declines that are small. But I equally look forward to the day when our industry gets back to a state of normalcy and negatives no longer equal positives.

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