Nebraska Gov. Ricketts Touts ‘Major’ Property Tax Bill in Nebraska

“Property tax reforms in Nebraska could help farmers, but not as much as some groups want.”

Source: Nebraska Gov. Ricketts Touts ‘Major’ Property Tax Bill | Agweb.com

Please have patience with me while I talk about agriculture and property taxes for a moment so I can explain why this is important for farmers and environmentalists. Talking about things like taxes and government policies tends to make my eyes glaze over and I find myself with a sudden desire to take a long nap. But if you aren’t a farmer you may not know why this move by Nebraska is important for farmers. Wisconsin already did something like this years ago, and I think it’s the right thing to do.

Property taxes are based on the value of your property, of course. If your house, for example, is valued at, oh, $100,000, you pay property taxes based on that value. If it’s valued at $200,000, your property taxes are going to be significantly higher.

It’s the same with farmland. Under law here in Wisconsin the property is supposed to be assessed for purposes of property taxes at fair market value. (That law had to be instituted because some local jurisdictions were playing fast and loose with property evaluations in order to jack up the tax money they were getting. Before that law was put in place, I knew one poor bugger who had a mobile home that was worth about $10,000 get a tax assessment for $64,000. Seriously. I saw the documents myself.)

The question now is what exactly is “fair market value”? Is it the value of the property as it currently exists, what it is being used for at the moment, or the potential value of the property if it were sold for some other purpose.

That distinction is important, because what was happening in Wisconsin and a lot of other states is that local jurisdictions were assessing property not at it the value of the property as it currently existed, but what the property could be worth if it were sold for some other purpose.

The result was that if you had a farm on the outskirts of a town or city, you were pretty much screwed. Local governments were assessing the farms not on their value as farms, but their value as if they were commercial or residential property.

To illustrate what I mean, let’s look at an example. Farmland in this area is currently going for around – well, let’s round it off to $7,000 an acre to keep the math simple. So if you have a small, 100 acre farm, it’s worth about $700,000.

Meanwhile, land being used for, oh, let’s say a fairly upscale housing development in a nearby town, is going for about $20,000 per 1/4 acre lot, or about $80,000 an acre. Over time the town grows, and now you find that your farm is on the outskirts of the town. And as a result of that, the local government is now assessing your farm not for what it is worth as a farm, but for what it would be worth if it were sold for a housing development. You are now being forced to pay property taxes not on a farm worth $700,000, but property worth $8 million. Your property taxes just went up more than ten times what they’d been before.

While that’s a bit extreme, it isn’t exaggerated by much. I knew farmers who were seeing their property tax bills shooting up into the astronomical range because the jurisdiction they were in decided to evaluate their property not for what it was, but for what it could be. Their taxes were going up five, eight times what they’d been before when their property was evaluated at commercial or residential rates rather than agricultural.

There was some very heated debates over this, of course. The towns (and the developers) claiming that the new value was fair because that was what the property was actually worth if it were sold off to some developer, and the farmers on the other side saying no it isn’t because that’s not what it’s being used for… It was nasty.

I don’t think anyone ever actually proved that the governmental jurisdictions, seeking ever more tax money, along with developers smelling profits, abused the system by ratcheting up the taxes on farms specifically to force farmers to sell at bargain basement prices to a developer, but it was pretty much an open secret that this was exactly what was going on. At the time the laws curbing this were under consideration dozens of farmers appeared before the legislature claiming that this was exactly what was going on. Developers would find a nice farm in a good location near a town, smell the heady scent of money, convince the local government that it would be to it’s advantage to annex the farm into the town, evaluate the farm as commercial or residential property rather than farmland, and the farmer would be forced to sell at cut throat prices to the developer or go bankrupt from the taxes… It was nasty.

And for those concerned with urban sprawl it was nasty as well. This kind of thing was driving the construction of huge housing developments on the outskirts of cities and towns with McMansions sitting on quarter acre “estates”, endless cookie cutter boxes, hastily constructed, looking exactly alike…

Wisconsin did finally change the property assessment laws, but local jurisdictions and developers are still griping about it and occasionally manage to bribe convince some legislator to try to introduce a measure to “reform” the system, turn back the clock and let local jurisdictions snap up all that yummy, yummy tax money by assessing farmland at utterly absurd valuations.

The change didn’t halt urban sprawl, but it did help to slow it down a tiny bit. Maybe. Depends on who you talk to, really. Certainly it helped a lot of farmers whose property is adjacent to towns and cities.

Give Me Land Lots of Land

screen-shot-2017-01-04-at-4-37-48-pmOne trend in agriculture has been making me nervous for some time now, and that is how large quantities of farmland are being concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer people.

This has been going on for some time, of course. When I was a kid the road we lived on was dotted with small farms of various sizes ranging about 80 acres to 150 acres or so. Ours was actually one of the larger ones when I was a kid, with 140 acres and about 120 under cultivation. If memory serves me correctly, there were ten or twelve farms just on that one stretch of road when I was a kid. Today the houses and even many of the barns are still standing, but they aren’t farms any more, they’re residences. The actual farmland is now owned by one of three huge farming operations.

Whether or not this is a “good thing” is open to debate. But there is one trend that I think is definitely not a good thing, and that is that large amounts of farmland is being snapped up by investment companies.

Corporations like Farmland Partners (which doesn’t actually do any farming) and a lot of others, located both in the US and in other countries, are buying up farmland wherever they can find it and then renting it back to real farmers. For, of course, a profit

One can understand their point of view. People have to eat, after all. Therefore there is always going to be demand for land on which to grow crops. If a farmer can’t afford to buy land, he or she has to get it from somewhere, so they’re forced to rent it from a land owner. To an investor this seems like a fairly safe type of investment, especially with the stock markets being as volatile as they are.

But for farmers, for agriculture in general, this practice is disturbing in more than one way and is potentially damaging for consumers, farmers and agribusiness in general.

These companies do no farming, grow no crops, harvest no grain, raise no cattle. They do nothing to improve the quality of the land they own. They exist for only one reason, to rent land back to real farmers for the maximum amount of money they can squeeze out of them. They contribute nothing to agriculture. I dislike the term ‘parasite’, but, well… Isn’t that what you call an entity which does nothing but syphon off the resources of others and provides no benefit to those it feeds off of?

So far these companies have had little adverse effect on agriculture. Up until now they have been picking off the ‘low hanging fruit’, so to speak, snapping up deals here and there, in widely scattered areas. But as they acquire more, as more farmland is taken out of the control of farmers and placed in the hands of a few companies that care only for making profit… Well, the potential for abuse is obvious.

This kind of thing is legal. I certainly can understand the attraction people may have for this kind of an investment. With the stock market going through endless series of boom/bust cycles over the last few decades, a fairly stable investment like farmland is certainly attractive.

But what kind of effect is this going to have on agriculture as ever increasing amounts of land are being held in perpetuity by companies whose only goal is to squeeze as much profit out of farmers as possible?

Drought, Climate and Agriculture. Like it or not, Change is coming.

Water is an increasingly precious commodity across the country, and lack of water has become an extremely serious issue in Southern California where a years long drought continues. I ran across this item over at Ag Professional’s website and while brief and far from in depth, it does talk a bit about the problems that are going on and the changes that are starting to take place.  California Drought is a U.S. Problem | Ag Professional

The ongoing drought in California is driving a lot of farmers over there into bankruptcy and causing others serious problems as they scramble to fight with cities and other users over an increasingly scarce resource. During his campaign Donald Trump claimed that there is no real drought in California and the other south western states, and he could bring the water shortage to an end if he was elected. But no, Trump is not going to end the drought by simply claiming it doesn’t exist. Even if the new administration changes or repeals existing water regulations, it doesn’t do you much good when there isn’t any water to begin with, which is the situation southern California and Nevada are facing.

With ground water being pumped out of aquifers at rates so high it’s causing the ground to sink, that wells are drying up wells all over that part of the state, and with surface water already being rationed, simply declaring there is no drought and blaming it on regulations is ridiculous. Sooner or later those aquifers are going to be completely depleted or drawn down so far that it is no longer possible to drill deep enough and build pumping systems powerful enough to deal with it.

Are there things that could be done to improve access to water? Sure. But it would take tens, even hundreds of billions of dollars in new infrastructure, new dams, new aqueducts, new pumping systems, etc. And even then they’d have to steal water from other parts of the country, suck rivers dry and pretty much ruin every river system they tap into in order to do it. From an engineering standpoint it could be done, but economically and politically? No state is going to stand by idly and allow it’s water be siphoned off to irrigate crops, water lawns and golf courses and fill swimming pools in states like California and Nevada.

Could the situation out there be solved some other way? Sure. But it would require change. And people don’t like change. The agricultural industry would have to fundamentally change how it works. Not just changing how they farm, but what they farm. Water intensive crops that require irrigation would have to go. Some types of agriculture, like dairy, would probably have to move elsewhere entirely. Consumers would have to get used to the idea of not having “fresh” produce of certain types available every month of the year. It would require a lot of changes that a lot of people don’t want.

And it isn’t just in California and the other states in the south west. How we use water, how we manage our water resources, is going to have to change. The changes are coming whether people like it or not.

Agrimoney.com | Revival in US milk prices to continue, says Dean Foods

 

Source: Agrimoney.com | Revival in US milk prices to continue, says Dean Foods

This is one of those situations where I don’t know where they’re getting their information because what they’re saying here isn’t what I’ve been reading in the ag news.

Dean Foods seems to be trying to claim farmgate prices are going to go up significantly, that US dairy exports are robust and growing, and that the markets are giving off “buoyant signals”.

But well, no, the market is doing no such thing, and there seems to be no indication that we’re going to be seeing any kind of significant increase in farmgate prices in the US any time soon.

While milk production in NZ and the EU is trending down a bit, here in North America it has continued to rise significantly, with significant numbers of new cattle being added to milking herds and continued increases in milk production. Texas was up about 11%, Minnesota and Wisconsin were up about 2% or a little less. Overall US production is around +1.2% to +2.3%, depending on the numbers you believe, and there doesn’t seem to be any sign that’s going to stop.

As for cheese, yes, there was a blip in the cheese price last week, but that happens all the time, especially as we get closer to major holidays, and we haven’t even begun to make a dent in the truly massive amounts of cheese and butter already in storage. The USDA’s recent purchase of about $20 million in surplus cheese (if I remember the number right) didn’t even make a dent in the amount of cheese in storage. And as of this morning, cheese prices have already started to fall again, down 6 cents over the weekend.

And the statement that “foreign buyers are lapping up” US dairy products is, aside from being a horrible pun, simply not true. Exports of dairy products actually dropped 2% in September.

There is always an uptick in prices this time of year as we approach the holiday baking season. Cream, cheese and butter prices almost always begin to rise around this time of year as retailers and suppliers try to cash in on increased demand. It’s a seasonal blip that doesn’t really indicate any kind of significant improvement in the market.

Maybe Dean foods is just trying to make investors feel a bit better about the fact that Dean’s profits fell by 28% last quarter?

Agrimoney.com | ags dip, as funds succumb to pre-election nerves

Agrimony is one of my favorite sites to go to for current information on the ag markets, and for good reason. They avoid hype, clickbait headlines and pretty much focus on what is actually going on. And one thing that’s going on right now is that people in the ag business are very, very nervous. You can take a look at the current situation here: Source: Agrimoney.com | ags dip, as funds succumb to pre-election nerves

The article only mentions Trump once, but he is really the elephant in the room, and he makes a whole lot of people in the ag industry very nervous indeed.

No one has been able to really pin him down on anything, really, but one thing is certain, is he has an extremely antagonistic attitude towards China. His campaign speeches and his off-the-cuff comments have portrayed China as some kind of economic super villain that has decimated the US economy. While most people understand that most of his comments are largely campaign rhetoric and could very well change 180 degrees the next time he opens his mouth, it makes a hell of a lot of people in the ag business very nervous indeed, and for good reason.

China buys massive amounts of US agricultural products, and making vague threats and uttering dire warnings about what he’d do to interfere with China’s business interests, is a very dangerous thing to do when China could easily put barriers in place to restrict the importation of US farm products.

Has China damaged our economy? Probably. But it was done with the full cooperation of the US companies who gleefully started snapping up Chinese products instead of making them here because it was more profitable. And with the full cooperation of the US government which did little or nothing to try to stop it.

But that point is moot right now. It’s already happened. Pointing fingers and uttering vague threats isn’t going to do anyone much good at this point in time. And it could make things far worse. If Trump gets elected and continues to try to use China as a scapegoat for our own largely self created economic problems, the end result could be very nasty indeed.

Like it or not, we are in a world wide economy. US ag exports are a relatively bright spot in what is an otherwise overall mediocre or even worrisome economy. If Trump becomes elected and continues his blustering, threatening attitude, China could simply take its business elsewhere.

Meal Kits? What the heck is a meal kit?

Yesterday I ran across an item over at Mother Jone’s website talking about meal kits, which are supposed to be the hot new thing in the food service industry. These things started up a fairly short time ago, offered by companies like Blue Apron, HelloFresh and many others, and according to the press (some of it anyway, not all) meal kits are the best thing ever.

So what exactly is a ‘meal kit’? The idea is this: Every day a box arrives on your doorstep. Inside of it are all the raw ingredients to make a dinner. Everything you need from the entree, to side dishes, to seasonings,to condiments are pre-portioned and individually packaged. And a recipe telling you how to make it.

And that’s it. You get a box full of raw ingredients and a recipe.

You still have to cook it. You still have to use a stove, oven, etc. You still have to mix and stir. You still have all of the dirty dishes to deal with.

Well, they at least deliver it to your door so you don’t have to shop, right?  Uh, well, no, because these are only dinners. Unless you’re eating breakfast and lunch at a restaurant every day, you still have to go shopping for food.

So you still have to shop. You still have to mix, stir and actually cook. You still have to clean up afterwards and deal with the dishes. So this is useful for, well, who, exactly? People who can’t plan a meal, I suppose?

Then there is the cost. These things seem to be just a wee bit on the pricey side. We’re looking at anywhere from $9 to $50 or more per meal, per person depending on the service you’re talking about. Now I don’t know what restaurant prices are like where you live, but around here that basically means you’d be paying more for a box full of raw ingredients that you have to cook yourself, than  you would pay for a comparable meal at a restaurant, even at the low end of the meal kit price structure. I took a look at some of the menus from these places and figured that one chicken based meal they were sending out for $9 per person could be made for about $3.75 per person.

So just what is the point of all of this? Apparently the only thing this service does is relieve you of the horrible responsibility of — of planning what to have for dinner?

The ads for these places tout the ‘freshness’ of their ingredients. They wax poetic about ‘sustainable’ this and ‘environmental’ that, about how their “chefs” partner with “trusted farmers”. And all of that means pretty much nothing because all of those terms could be applied to just about anything.

The Mother Jones article linked to at the start of this turned up some rather troubling information about these meal kit companies. It seems that I’m not the only one who looks at meal kits with a skeptical eye. Apparently their own customers do as well.

According to independent marketing data that MJ dug up, half or more of the people who sign up for these things cancel the service within the first week. And only 10% or less kept the service after six months. Despite massive injections of venture capital, none of these companies have managed to achieve a positive cash flow from the scanty data I’ve tracked down. They’re continuing to exist only by burning through hundreds of millions of dollars of venture capital as they desperately try to attract new customers to replace the customers who almost immediately cancel the service once they’ve tried it.

The companies themselves vehemently deny that their customers abandon them in droves after trying the service for only a brief time, but refuse to show any data that supports their claims.

Still, the hype goes on. Celebrity chefs are hooking up with these places, the food service press waxes poetic about the ‘potential’ of meal kits. There are services that offer specialty kits, like strictly vegan, or “all organic” or vegetarian or, hell, places that only ship their product in ‘free range’ cardboard boxes, I suppose.

I don’t know, is it just me? Am I the only one who thinks this whole concept is, frankly, ridiculously silly?

Disconnection from Reality in Agriculture

I often find myself irritated by what appears to be a serious problem with how some ag news outlets and their various pundits report on the dairy industry. Ever since milk prices plummeted a couple of years ago, I’ve been reading an endless string of opinion pieces by the so called experts, the pundits, even actual news reports, that indicate that milk production is dropping, or is going to drop, the number of milking cows is going to shrink, and there is going to be a significant improvement in farmgate(1) prices.

Even as I was reading some of those items I was scratching my head because the actual data I was seeing was telling me exactly the opposite of what the pundits at the ag web sites were claiming. While there was some shrinking numbers in some parts of the world, like New Zealand, what I was seeing in the rest of the world was a significant increase in production almost world wide.

The experts were claiming that production in the US was shrinking as well. They were claiming that production was flat or even shrinking as farmers culled herds and halted expansion plans.

The problem was that at the same time I was seeing new permits for mega farms being applied for, news stories about expansion plans, and other indications that exactly the opposite was happening.

The new USDA report that came out yesterday supported what I’d been seeing in the news, and indicated that the pundits don’t read the news reports in their own magazines or websites.

August milk production was up almost 2% in the US. Texas’ production was up 11%. The report said that 16,000 milking cows were added in July alone, and 45,o00 were added over the past year. And just ten minutes ago I was reading about yet another application here in Wisconsin for a dairy CAFO(2) to expand to 5,000 head.

The problem with a lot of these experts seems to be that they look at a specifically local condition and extrapolate from that and apply it world wide, while ignoring what’s really going on.

Some of the claims that production in the US was in decline was due to California. Production there has been declining significantly for the last ten years for a variety of factors. But they’ve been ignoring the fact that almost everywhere else in the US production has been going up. Wisconsin, North Dakota, Arizona, Minnesota… almost every state with any kind of significant dairy farm presence has been increasing production, often dramatically, as with Texas.

It’s been the same thing with the EU. They focus on a single country that’s seen a decline in production, and from that claim production is going down through the entire EU. When it isn’t.

It’s been a similar story when it comes to demand for milk products. They seem to focus on a small part of the world that is experiencing an increase in demand for milk products, and apply that world wide.

Even worse, they’ve gotten in the habit of looking at Global Dairy, a milk marketing system in New Zealand, as an indicator of world wide demand. But they tend to ignore the fact that GD is not an independent market. It is a wholly owned subsidiary of Fonterra, the New Zealand milk processing giant, and that it has a history of deliberately manipulating supplies flowing through the market in order to manipulate prices. Neither the amount of product flowing through GD, nor the prices of the products sold, is an accurate picture of supply and demand.

 

 

  1. Farmgate price is not the commodity futures price, but the actual price that the farmer gets for her/his product. There is often a significant difference between the commodities prices and the farmgate price. For example, a couple of months ago when the corn price on the Chicago market was running about 3.49, the actual price farmers in this area were getting for their corn was 2.78.
  2. CAFO is the term used by government for a mega farm. Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation. It applies not just to dairy farms but to any animal operation that has more than a certain number of cattle, pigs, etc. Generally around 500 – 700 animals.