Is Normal Normal?

Last week, I spent a few days in Chicago attending our magazine’s annual PACE Advisory Council meeting. This group represents all levels of the ag market, from grower-customers to suppliers, ag retailers to national trade associations. In many cases, the folks at this roundtable event are the industry leaders that help shape the course ag is on and will take for years to come.

For me, one of the most interesting moments of the 2010 meeting took place during a discussion on fertilizer. One council member was saying how his company had done a “complete 360” when it came to production. During 2009’s slow time, this supplier had severely cut back on its production schedule, furloughing many workers and mines along the way. Today, with fertilizer demand rebounding strongly, this same company is working employees extra time, adding shifts as quickly as possible.

Of course, this state of affairs got me thinking. So I asked the natural question: When will the industry get back to normal so suppliers won’t be operating in “feast or famine” modes? Laughter was the response from all assembled. “Have we ever been at that place?” answered one attendee.

So I guess a better question would have been defining what normal is. For the past few years, extraordinary circumstances have kept ag retailers and their suppliers scrambling to adapt to ever-changing market conditions, alternating between extremely slow to extremely busy. Many folks I’ve spoken with have longed for the days of 2005 and 2006, when production and sales seemed more even-keeled.

But perhaps this is only an illusion colored by memory. Instead, after hearing folks speak at the PACE meeting, I’m beginning to realize normal is just another word for very busy. In this sense, 2010 is turning out to be a “normal” year.

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