Farm Catch Up

Spring has finally arrived! Well, sort of. At least according to the calendar if not the weather. It’s been too wet and too cold to be able to do much of anything outside except cleaning up the flower beds and yard. So let’s take a look at what’s going on in the ag industry since the last time I did one of these.

Dean Foods For Sale

If you’ve ever had a hankering to own one of the largest dairy processors in the world, now is your chance. Dean Foods, once the largest dairy processor in the U.S., is apparently trying to sell itself off. The company has been having a difficult time of it. It’s been forced to close processing facilities, it lost a major contract with Walmart, and its efforts to rebrand some of its products and buy into other businesses haven’t been successful, or at least not successful enough to prop up the company’s dwindling sales. It’s been missing its sales targets for something like two years in a row now, and there are no signs things are going to get any better. Supposedly Canadian based Saputo, the 8th largest dairy company in the world, is interested in acquiring Dean. If successful this would be just the latest in a wave of mega-mergers among agriculture related businesses in the last few years.

If you find these mega-mergers to be troubling, well, you should. Despite claims to the contrary, these mergers are resulting in the creation of huge, multinational companies that dominate their markets and often they have virtual monopolies on the product lines they sell.

Bayer Stockholders Angry

Speaking of mega-mergers, Bayer’s management is facing repercussions from stockholders over it’s acquisition of Monsanto. It was expected that a lot of large stockholders were going to disapprove of the board of directors’ and management’s acquisition of Monsanto at the annual general meeting of the company. While this doesn’t change what management has done, it does indicate that a lot of stockholders are very angry over the decision to buy Monsanto, and the subsequent legal problems over the lawsuits about the adverse health effects from RoundUp, and most importantly, Bayer’s plummeting stock value.

Frankly, buying Monsanto was a really bad idea from the beginning, and if the executives at Bayer didn’t realize it, the company’s lawyers sure as hell should have. Even back when the negotiations for the purchase started Monsanto was already facing thousands of lawsuits over the alleged cancer risks of glyphosate. Now there are about 13,000 lawsuits in the pipeline concerning the herbicide. No, that was not a typo. Thirteen thousand.

And that isn’t the end of Monsanto’s legal problems. There is the whole dicamba fiasco to be concerned about as well. The lawsuits over the damage the company’s dicamba based herbicide has done since it was released a couple of years ago, along with lawsuits over Monsanto’s marketing tactics for it’s dicamba resistant soybeans, are starting to pop up now and are only going to get worse. Basically Monsanto is a legal nightmare and it is dragging down Bayer with it.

Beef Industry Lawsuits

While I’m on the subject of legal problems, the beef industry has been hit with two separate but related lawsuits alleging the four biggest beef packing companies, Tyson, JBS, Cargill and United Beef Packing (together they control 80% of the US beef market) conspired together to manipulate the price they paid to cattle growers and the prices charged to consumers. Basically it’s another claim of monopolies using their lock on the market to manipulate prices. Just those four companies control about 80% of the beef market in the US. Anyway, I won’t go into depth on this one. I’ll leave it to you to follow the link and sort out the details if you’re interested.

Walmart Gets Into Beef

I mentioned Walmart briefly when I talked about Dean Foods. Dean lost a huge contract to make Walmart’s house brand liquid milk not long ago when the retailer decided to experiment with eliminating the middleman and become its own processor. It built a large milk processing facility, cut deals with dairy farms to supply milk, and cut Dean Foods out completely in one district.

Walmart is now trying to do the same thing with beef. It is developing its own end to end supply chain to supply beef to some 500 Walmart stores. This won’t take care of all of Walmart’s meat. Most of it will still be supplied by Tyson and Cargill. But it does indicate a troubling trend where these big companies are trying to develop a complete monopoly over not only sales, but supply as well. Costco is doing something similar with chicken, developing its own supply chain that will supply about 40% of its needs.

Trade Wars Continue: Updated 5/6/19

I had this section all wrapped up and ready to go when the you-know-what hit the fan and… Okay, here’s what’s going on.

I really want to talk about the China situation, but let’s deal with something closer to home first, the new NAFTA treaty, USMCA, the US-Mexic0-Canada-Agreement. The USMCA negotiations finished some time ago, a treaty was agreed to, and all is well and good now, right? (Side note: Am I the only one who thinks USMCA is the title of a Village People song?)

Well, no. Yes, the treaty was negotiated, but everything is most definitely not good because not only are we still operating under the old NAFTA treaty, the administration has still left the punitive tariffs in place that have been causing disruptions of the economies of all three countries.

So what the hell is going on? We have the new treaty, so why are we still operating under the old NAFTA and why are the tariffs in place yet? Because before a treaty can go into effect it has to be ratified by the US Senate, and the US Senate has been doing what it does best, acting like a bunch of petulant, spoiled brats who are more interested in back stabbing each other and playing at politics and dabbling in personal attacks than they are in actually doing their bloody jobs. Supposedly one of the reasons why the tariffs are still in place is because the administration is trying to use that to goad the Senate into doing something. And since that hasn’t worked, the administration has threatened to cancel the existing NAFTA treaty, which would cause utter chaos, if the Senate doesn’t get off its ass and actually do its job for a change.

Now let’s move on to China. Now if you haven’t really been following what’s been going on there, you can be excused for thinking that all is sweetness and goodness and we’re all well on the way to being best buddies and all of this trade war nonsense will be over soon and, well, no. Sorry, but no.

As you’ve probably found out in the last couple of days, despite all of the positive PR fluff that’s been released by both sides over the last few months, things have most definitely not been going well with the negotiations. While both sides have been putting out positive sounding press releases, there have been issues, as they say. Behind the scenes things have been more than a bit testy.

Yes, China did a soybean purchase, but that was more PR than anything else. While the amount they purchased sounds quite large to the average person, in actual fact it was little more than a token purchase to indicate good faith on their part.

Things did sound positive for a while, though. Both sides were stating that things were going well and that they were on the verge of coming to an agreement. But then something happened. I’m not sure what, exactly, but whatever it was put a definite chill on the whole thing. There are a lot of rumors flying around. One is that the Chinese are very much aware of the legal and ethics issues the administration is involved with here in the US and as a result they just don’t trust anything the White House says.

Anyway, we suddenly had the administration muttering vague threats that it was considering pulling out of the negotiations entirely. Then the administration started threatening to ramp up the trade war to new heights, doubling the cost of the tariffs and including even more Chinese products in the tariff war. Then the Chinese started threatening to pull out of the negotiations… Oh, brother…

As I write this (May 7, 2019) things look tense, and the effects from this little tiff are rippling through the economy. The stock market is down. Commodities prices have fallen. Corn is down to 3.55, soybeans are down to 8.20… Sigh…

Even more disturbing is the fact that statements being made by the administration indicate that the administration doesn’t really know how tariffs work in the first place. One statement implied that the administration believes that China is paying the tariffs and that they are actually good for our economy. If the administration really believes that, it shows a fundamental ignorance about what tariffs are. Let me explain.

A tariff is intended to discourage the importing of a particular product into the US by increasing it’s cost to the importer. Let me emphasize that by repeating it: “increasing it’s cost to the importer.” Not the country of origin, but to the person or company that is importing the product. So for the most part, China doesn’t pay anything extra on products it exports to the US (except indirectly through lost sales). The people who pay the tariff are the US companies that are importing the products. And that cost is passed along directly or indirectly to us, the consumers.

Let me emphasize that: China doesn’t pay the tariffs, we do.

This is one of the reasons why tariffs are generally a bad idea except under extreme circumstances. It causes as much economic pain or more to the country importing the products as it does to the country exporting them.

It also makes the stock and commodities markets very, very nervous, especially in this situation because they don’t know what the hell this administration is going to do next. The markets like stability. They like predictability. And this administration is providing neither of those things at the moment.

Well, I’ve been babbling along for far too long already here, so let’s wrap this up.

Hopefully in the very near future I’ll have some new radio equipment to talk about. I’m seriously considering going QRP and I’ve been looking at mag loop antennas and the Yaesu FT-818ND QRP transceiver. We’ll see how that goes.

Author: grouchyfarmer

Yes, I'm a former farmer. Sort of. I'm also an amateur radio operator, amateur astronomer, gardener, maker of furniture, photographer.

3 thoughts on “Farm Catch Up”

  1. I understand why large companies like Walmart might be inclined to “cut out the middle man” and produce their own dairy products, beef, etc., but I am concerned that they may be getting into a business which they have no expertise. That sets things up for a huge failure that could disrupt the entire industry. On the other side, they might become so successful that they…disrupt the entire industry. The USA has anti trust laws for good reason!

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    1. You’re right, Chris. There are a lot of potential dangers with this kind of thing. Market disruption already is taking place. When Dean lost the contract with Walmart, the farmers who were supplying milk to Dean to fill that also lost their market and had to scramble to try to find other processors to buy it. And Dean’s own financial difficulties, although that is due only partly to the loss of the Walmart contract. I’m not really sure what the heck happened to the anti trust laws in the US but it seems pretty obvious that the aren’t being fully enforced any longer. There are indeed very good reasons why those laws were put in place. All you have to do is see how the big monopolies abused producers, consumers, everyone, back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to realize why those laws are so necessary.

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