Ah, it’s about that time again, so here’s some of the agricultural news for the past week
Well, I think we all knew that the new administration’s budget was going to be painful, and it is. Well, unless you’re a defense contractor, run a private prison, etc. You people will do pretty good. The rest of us? Not so much.
If you’re a farmer or involved in agriculture in any way, the budget is indeed going to be painful. There are huge cuts to USDA, cuts in the crop insurance program, new fees for inspectors, cuts in research… The list is too long to put here.
In addition to that, there would be massive cuts to the SNAP food assistance program, cuts to the WIC program, cuts to the school lunch program and school nutrition services, all of which would have long term consequences for the agricultural sector. And even worse consequences for the people who depend on those programs. Even the venerable and highly praised meals on wheels system would be hit hard.
You can read a brief article about the agricultural implications of this over at AgWeb here, and if you spend a couple of minutes on Google you can find out more quite quickly.
Hay Crop almost Total Loss
Here in Calumet County, in neighboring Manitowoc and in other counties nearby we’ve seen nearly a total loss of the hay crop. Inadequate snow cover, coupled with February temperatures that spiked as high as 70 degrees during the day, then plunging into the 20s at night, coupled with extremely wet and cold weather this spring, have decimated the hay crop around here.
To make things worse, the almost nonstop rains we’ve had this spring are making it difficult to get into the fields and do anything. A lot of farmers will try to put in peas and oats to try to get some kind of forage crop off the fields, but it’s going to be a rough year.
Pigs Take Over World
Feral pigs are becoming a major problem in the US and even in Europe. It isn’t a huge problem here in Wisconsin, but the population is growing and becoming a concern. The DNR is putting bulletins into it’s hunting publications about what to do if you find one (basically shoot it). In other parts of the country it’s such a big problem that it’s become a public health issue and they are causing massive amounts of damage to farms.
Feral pigs are very aggressive, smart, reproduce quickly with the average sow producing two litters per year with 6-12 piglets per litter, and they’ll eat anything. If it has any kind of nutritional value at all, and they can eat it, they will. They cause huge amounts of damage to crops and property, kill and eat small animals, and yes, they are physically dangerous towards people. Boars can get to be several hundred pounds, with tusks like razors. And they carry a host of diseases and parasites and spread them over a wide area. Most states have adopted an aggressive policy towards pigs in the wild. A lot of states advise hunters to shoot them on sight.
Ah, well, yummy free pork, then? I wouldn’t eat one. Some states are advising hunters that if they do shoot one, let it lay there. They can carry some very nasty diseases and parasites, many of which can be transmitted to people.
New Herbicide Mix Not So Hot
There was a lot of hype surrounding Monsanto’s introduction of seed varieties that were resistant to both Roundup and dicamba in an effort to control weeds that were becoming resistant to Roundup alone. The biggest problem is pigweed, where a Roundup resistant variety has been spreading widely.
But the new systems don’t seem to be working all that well according to early reports. Early indications are that multiple sprayings are going to be required, and perhaps even resorting to additional types of chemicals. The manufacturer recommends pigweed be no more than 4 inches tall, but since pigweed grows at up to 3 inches per day, trying to time things right is almost completely impossible.
I’m not going to get into debates about the health safety of GM crops. But I will point out that GM plants seem to be, ultimately, a complete failure. At least in their current form. The only commercially successful GM plants right now are those that have been engineered to resist herbicides or insects. And that resistance is rapidly becoming worthless as weeds and insects become resistant to the herbicides or the traits that resisted the corn root worm. These GM plants really have no other desirable traits except that. They do not increase yield, aren’t nutritionally superior. So in the long run, these commercially available GM plants are a failure.
Politics Rears Its Ugly Head
The administrations proposed budget could have widespread and devastating effects on the entire agricultural sector, and cause ripples through the whole economy. There would be big changes to the crop insurance program which could hit some farmers pretty hard. Everyone has probably heard about the cuts to the funding for the Meals on Wheels programs that serve the elderly and disabled. It looks like USDA itself would be hit hard. If I’m reading things right USDA would be looking at losing about a full third of it’s funding.
There would be huge changes to the SNAP program, i.e. “food stamps”. In addition to large cuts in funding, states would have to contribute more money to the program themselves, and would be given more control over how the programs work, who gets help, etc. It would also allow states to institute work requirements.
I don’t really understand the work requirement thing. The vast majority of people in the SNAP program can’t work. They are disabled, the elderly, or children. About two thirds of the people who get assistance through the program fall into one of those three categories. Of the remainder, most of them already do work, but make so little money they qualify for help through the program.
It’s Hard To Be Small If You Raise Meat
The big trend these days is the whole “farm to table” thing where people try to connect directly to farmers to buy food rather than rely on the big commercial processors and distributers. I’m very much in favor of these ideas. Connecting with your local farmers to buy food is generally a good thing for many reasons.
But it isn’t easy to be a small farmer. Agriculture in general doesn’t seem to like small farmers. At all. It’s hard to buy equipment designed for small farms, difficult to find ways to market your products. And if you raise meat animals, well, it’s even more difficult because it’s almost impossible to find a government inspected, licensed slaughter facility to deal with the animals. Bloomberg has an interesting article on the issue, and it’s one that’s turning up all over the country. (Warning, Bloomberg has one of the most bloody awful websites around, loaded with auto-play videos you can’t get rid of that have nothing to do with the story you’re trying to read, along with other annoyances.)
The US market has become such a monopoly that only four companies supply 90% of the meat sold in the country, and the independent meat processors that used to dot the countryside are long gone.
So while the demand for organic, free range and local meat has increased dramatically over the last few years, places where farmers can get that meat processed have become almost impossible to find in many areas of the country. Some are forced to truck their cattle for three, four hours or even more to get them to a processor.
And the government doesn’t want to make things easier. Inspection rules, processor rules and regulations are all geared to the huge meat packing facilities, not the small processors.
Some people in congress are trying to get the rules changed to make it easier for small farmers to deal with this situation, but it’s being fought hard by the big processors, as you might expect.
A Nice Gesture But…
An organization called Dairy Pricing Association put out a PR piece the other day about how they bought and donated 42,000 pounds of cheese to the Hunger Task Force. It’s a nice, feel good kind of item. DPA makes itself sound like it’s doing farmers a favor and that the buy will help push up milk prices. And certainly the Hunger Task Force can use the help. They have over 85,000 people using it’s food pantries and other forms of assistance in Milwaukee county every month.
I hate to sit here and frown at people who are trying to do something, but it’s PR fluff, really. The people at DPA are helping people who badly need food, yes. And that is a good thing. But claiming this is somehow going to help the milk price as some of the statements imply is just silly. It won’t.
That 42,000 pounds sounds impressive until you learn that is half of a single truck load of cheese. Go down to the Sargento plant about 20 miles from here and they crank out dozens of truckloads of product every single day. From one plant.
They removed “23 tanker loads of milk from the market” in 2016. That sounds like a lot until you do the math. Let’s say a tanker holds, oh, 8,000 gallons of milk. That’s 184,000 gallons of milk. A lot, right? Well, no. A 5,000 cow mega-farm puts out up to 30,000 or more gallons a day. So that 23 tankers of milk is only 6 days of production from a single farm.
It’s a nice PR piece, sounds good, and certainly it helps feed people. But boost milk prices? No. Not even a blip.