Farm Catch Up: Why Are We Seeing Shortages?

Oh, oh, GF is trying to do artsy stuff again.

I haven’t done one of these in a long time so I thought it’s high time I took a look at what’s happening in the agricultural world. Especially now because the situation is difficult, to put it mildly. Well, not exactly agriculture directly in this article. I want to try to explain why we’re seeing empty shelves in the grocery stores when we actually don’t have any real shortages of product.

Empty Shelves

We all know that when this started almost immediately stores were stripped bare of sanitizer, sanitizing cleaners, hand soap, protective equipment like masks and gloves, etc. This was followed by store shelves being stripped of toilet paper, paper towels, and then food products, especially staples like rice, beans, flour, canned foods, butter, etc. And, oddly, even things with short shelf life like milk and cream. (Why in the world would people who almost never drink milk in the first place suddenly need to buy gallons at a time? I have no idea.)

But despite the bare shelves there are no real shortages, at least not of consumer food products. There are several factors behind the empty shelves you’re seeing in the stores. Hoarders (how much hoard could a hoarder hoard if a hoarder could hoard hoard?) and profiteers are behind some of this, of course, but the biggest disruptions are due to the way our manufacturing and distribution systems work.

We have what amounts to two almost entirely separate production and supply systems. The first is the consumer system that makes and sells product to you and me. It provides products that individual consumers want, in relatively small quantities that are suitable for individuals or families. The second is the commercial system that sells in bulk quantities to institutions like restaurants, schools, hospitals, prison systems, etc. and industrial processors that use those products to make still other products, like the processed food industry.

The result of this system is that we are in a rather bizarre situation where we have surpluses and shortages, of exactly the same products, at exactly the same time. Dairy is an example of this. Even while a lot of people are reporting shortages of milk and grocery stores putting strict limits on how much milk people can buy, we have such a surplus of milk on the supply side that a lot of farmers are dumping the stuff down the drain because they can’t find a processor to buy it.

So how the hell can you have a shortage and a surplus at the same time?

Well, we have a situation where most schools are closed, most restaurants are closed, a lot of businesses are closed, and a lot of people who would normally be at work or at school are now stuck at home. This means that meals that normally would have been eaten at school, work cafeterias, food trucks, restaurants, etc. are now being eaten at home. (About 50% of the money we spend on food here in the US is spent on meals eaten away from home.) Which means people are buying a lot more groceries, and more milk and dairy products in general for consumption at home. Add in the hoarders who, for some reason, think they need to buy six gallons of milk at a time (seriously, I’ve seen people doing this) despite the fact it will go bad long before they’ll ever use it, and it puts pressure on the whole distribution system delivering milk to grocery stores.

At the same time, schools are a major buyer of milk for the school lunch program, and they are largely shut down. As are restaurants.

So at the consumer level, the grocery store part of the market, we’re seeing increased purchases of products, while at the same time on the commercial side of things we’re seeing a dramatic loss of sales of similar products. So we’re having both shortages and surpluses, at the same time, of the same product.

Why not switch the commercial production facilities to produce for the consumer market? Well, you can’t. Production facilities used to make the half pint cartons for the school lunch program can’t be switched over to making gallon jugs for grocery stores. They use entirely different manufacturing and bottling equipment. The same is true for other sectors of the market. Attempting to switch from production of products for institutional and commercial markets to production for consumer markets is extremely difficult and very expensive. By the time a switchover could be done, the pandemic situation will have subsided and manufacturers will find themselves with manufacturing facilities that are now set up to make the wrong product.

Instead of dumping milk make cheese out of it? Can’t do that either. Cheese makers were already running at nearly 100% capacity even before this started. And even if there was the capacity to produce cheese, there isn’t any market for it because the cheese market is saturated to begin with.

The same is much the same with other products. The products are there, but those products aren’t in a form consumers would accept because they’re intended for the institutional or commercial market and are available only in bulk or in a form consumers don’t want. Toilet paper is a good example of this. While there are shortages on the consumer side, there is a glut on the institutional side of the market. With schools and a lot of businesses shut down, sales of TP for those markets has dried up. But the TP intended for that market would be entirely unacceptable for consumer use. The rolls are too big, or in sizes that wouldn’t fit a home TP holder, or the quality… Well, if you’ve used a restroom in a school you know what a miserable excuse for toilet paper that stuff is.

I have to mention the distribution system, too. Most companies, including grocery stores, switched to what is generically called a “just in time inventory” system long ago. That means that stores don’t stockpile product. You won’t find back rooms chock full of TP or canned goods or whatever at your average store. The store orders only enough product for a very limited amount of time. If they get deliveries every, oh, three days let’s say, they will order only enough product to deal with three days worth of normal sales. Why? Because storage costs money. Adding square footage to a store not only increases its build cost, it also increases its property tax bills, heating and cooling costs, electric costs, etc. So space devoted exclusively to storage of product is kept to an absolute minimum.

Normally this system works fairly well. But these aren’t normal times, so when a store gets hit by abnormally high sales of specific products, well, the whole system falls apart fast. When the panic buying started, grocery stores would see an entire day’s worth of a product sold out in an hour. Seeing the empty shelves spooked other consumers, who immediately panicked and started cleaning out the shelves of other products. Stores would restock as fast as they could, only to burn through several days worth of product in just a few hours thanks to panic buying.

If the distributors had an adequate inventory on hand it wouldn’t have been such a big problem. But they didn’t either. They were using the “just in time” system too, and were only stocking enough product to support their stores for a limited amount of time. Those stocks were depleted within days, and they were scrambling to get product from the flour mills, dried bean distributors, rice distributors, etc. to try to restock. The mills and packaging companies had more than enough bulk product on hand, but their packaging facilities couldn’t increase production beyond a certain point. Basically the entire distribution system began to fail under the strain of the panic buying and the increase in consumer sales.

The system is, finally, starting to adapt, at least around here. But as for what’s going to happen in the future, well, that’s anyone’s guess.

Farm Catch Up: What’s going on in Agriculture.

Screen Shot 2017-11-29 at 6.48.45 AMLet’s catch up with what’s been going on in agriculture.

Let’s lead off with this odd little item. So, here’s the scenario: You’ve just survived a hurricane. Your house has been flooded, your whole neighborhood has been destroyed, you’ve lost everything you own, you’re trying to cleanup and rebuild. You desperately need money, building supplies, cleaning supplies, drywall, lumber, shingles, plywood… So you’re sitting there staring at the ruins of your neighborhood and you think, “Wow, what I really need is a big hunk of cheese…”

That is apparently what some people in Wisconsin thought when they shipped 45,000 pounds of cheese to the hurricane ravaged areas of the country. Yep, they thought, what they need isn’t money or building supplies or cleaning supplies or anything else that might actually be, well, useful. What they need is forty five thousand pounds of cheese

Screen Shot 2017-11-30 at 6.25.07 AM
Little known fact: Cows are one of the few animals that can pick their noses with their tongues.

Dairy/Milk: All things considered, the dairy business wasn’t totally horrible this year. Not great, but not terrible. The average price for Class III milk (the kind that’s used for cheese and butter) for the year was in the $16.10 to $16.20 range for 2017. That’s considerably better than 2016 when the average price was about $1.60 lower. The price seems to have been propped up largely by demand for butter and cheese, which has remained fairly strong through a large part of the year.

But the ever present specter of over production is once more haunting the dairy business. Production in the US was up around 2.5% over the year, and production has been going up in other dairy producing areas of the world as well, and the market is showing signs of strain. Butter prices on the Chicago Mercantile have dropped from 2.65 to around 2.21, butterfat exports have fallen, cheese prices have dropped about 10 cents and cheese in storage has increased almost 6% over last year.

Mexico is one of the biggest purchasers of dairy products from the US, but it is actively seeking other sources of supply because, well, would you be comfortable dealing with a merchant who called you a drug-running murdering rapist? It has cut it’s purchases of nonfat dry milk from the US by around 20%, and is getting it from Canada and the EU.

Throwing a monkey wrench into the works is NAFTA, which the administration is supposedly renegotiating. Does anyone except me remember that the Ag Secretary, Perdue, was proudly claiming that the administration was going to renegotiate NAFTA in just three weeks back in early May? Sigh… I try to keep politics out of this, but it’s hard sometimes.

The end result of all of this is that the future for the dairy industry doesn’t look very good. Between over production, declining demand, declining exports, well, right now it looks like 2018 is going to see milk prices dropping by at least $1/cwt, down to the $15.50 range, and they could even get lower than that.

Screen Shot 2017-11-30 at 6.33.21 AM
This was a pasture before the pigs got into it

Wild Pig Population On The Rise: Wild pigs are a huge problem. It’s estimated that there are 6 to 11 million wild pigs running around out there, and according to the National Feral Swine Damage Management Program they are responsible for up to $1.5 billion in damage every year.

They’re trying to get approval for a poison based on sodium nitrate called “Hoggone” which would apparently be placed out in the field in “a species-specific feeder”.

The problem with that kind of thing is, of course, that other animals other than that target species often consume the poison because these “species-specific feeders” often aren’t all that specific. Then there are problems with poison residue left in the carcass being consumed by predators and scavengers. And if you read the article tagged up there you’ll see that some of the experts don’t think poisoning is going to do all that much to cut down the size of the population.

Can you hunt them? Hell yes. You need to check the regulations in your own area for specifics, but most states strongly encourage hunters to take wild pigs, and have few restrictions and no bag limits, and no restrictions on size, gender, no specific season.

Can you eat ’em? Ah, well… Here’s where I get a bit nervous. A lot of DNRs encourage people to eat them. But that’s because they hope you’ll go out and shoot a lot of the buggers. I know people who wax poetic about the joys of eating wild pig. Me? I wouldn’t touch one. They carry a lot of diseases, many of which are infectious to humans and pretty nasty. A lot of them are infested with parasites… No, I wouldn’t eat one.

Cranberry Glut: We are growing way, way too many cranberries. We have so many cranberries already in storage that even if we’d lost the entire 2017 crop, we still would have had a surplus.

The Cranberry Marketing Committee is trying to get USDA to issue a marketing order that would require cranberry growers to produce 25% less cranberries than market demand.

The problem with cranberries is that except for the holiday season, there is really little demand for them. Despite efforts by marketing companies to boost demand, consumption of cranberries in any form has been shrinking. Cranberries, at least by themselves, just don’t taste very good. They are so sour and so bitter on their own that they are virtually inedible unless you add a huge amount of sugar to them, or use them only in very small quantities as a flavoring agent.

What The Heck Is Actually In That Stuff?  You might like to think that manufacturers are required to list the ingredients in a product on the label, but there are all kinds of loopholes in labeling regulations that let them refuse to tell us what exactly is in the products we use. But California has passed new legislation that will lift the veil from at least one category of products, cleaning chemicals. When you see that term listed, it means that chemicals have been added to make the product smell nice. But what exactly is “fragrance”, or the ever popular “cleaning agents” that are listed on the labels? Turns out “fragrance” can contain one or more of thousands of different chemicals, some of which, it seems, are highly toxic, and even are known to be carcinogens. Some labels don’t tell you anything at all. This will will help a bit, but the law doesn’t really go far enough. It only covers cleaning products, for one thing.

Note: The article at Mother Jones that I’ve linked to here seems to be focused on fragrance for some reason, while the bill itself (yes, I’ve read the thing) does not seem to be restricted to chemicals added for fragrance alone. Fragrance is specifically mentioned in the bill, yes, but the bill seems to cover all chemicals in a product not just those used as fragrances.

 

Farm Catch Up

 

Syngenta Loses Lawsuit

Hundreds of farmers in both class action lawsuits and individual suits, along with Archer Daniels Midland Co. and Cargill are suing Syngenta, claiming that the company misled them into believing that it’s GM corn was accepted for import by China when it wasn’t. They claim that the company cost them billions of dollars in lost sales and shipping fees and caused corn prices to plummet.

One trial just ended last week, and Syngenta lost. It was ordered to pay $217.7 million to Kansas farmers. It’s not over yet. Syngenta is going to appeal, of course, so this Kansas suit could drag on for years yet. And this is just the start. Lawsuits involving 350,000 corn growers plus ADM And Cargill have yet to go to trial. Another suit is scheduled to start in Minnesota in August for more than $600 million. Cargill’s suit is supposed to start next year, and another one is coming up in Louisiana yet this year.

Still More Dicamba News

It isn’t just Arkansas with reports of dicamba drift causing crop damage. Now Tennessee has been hit with problems as well. As of June 26 there have been 27 reports of crop damage caused by dicamba drift. Not many compared with Arkansas, but Tennessee doesn’t get its crops in the ground as early as Arkansas does so it’s still relatively early in that state. No one seems to know yet if this is a problem with the herbicide blend itself or if it is a problem with the application techniques and equipment. Monsanto, of course, is claiming that either A) no such thing is happening at all, B) the product wasn’t used in accordance with proper application techniques, or C) insert your favorite excuse here. I don’t know, maybe fairies are killing off hundreds of acres of beans.

German Grocery Invasion

The Germans are coming. Lidl, the no frills German grocery store chain, is coming to the US. They’re planning on opening 500 new stores over the next five years. They’ve opened 10 new stores in the Carolinas and Virginia. The store is similar to Aldi’s model; no frills, very limited selection of product, lots of private label products at cheap prices, no shelves, just boxes of product stacked up.

Will it survive? My best guess is that they’re going to have a rough time of it. Most of the areas where they want to put stores are already more than saturated with grocery stores, and the chain has little to distinguish it from the other no-frills outfits like Aldi and Save-a-Lot. And it’s going to have a difficult time competing against Walmart which has fairly good prices and much better selection of product.

I have two major problems whenever I go to one of these places. The first is that if you really watch what the prices are, they generally aren’t all that cheap when compared to other stores. If you average out the overall cost of all the products, except for a few loss-leader items you aren’t really saving all that much money. The second is that the quality of the store brand products often isn’t all that good.

Beef Exports to China Begin

Well, sort of. A packing company sold a whopping 40 boxes of ribeyes and other steaks to somebody in Shanghai a couple of weeks ago. And I suspect most of those were eaten by US politicians for photo ops where they were trying to take credit for China announcing it was going to start buying US beef.

There are, of course, some problems. One of the biggest being that the vast majority of beef raised commercially in the US doesn’t meet Chinese health and safety standards. China bans the use of growth promoting drugs and hormones, feed additives, antibiotics and artificial growth promoting tricks US growers use. As the Farm Bureau pointed out, “only a small proportion of commercial beef production would fit the current parameters”. Commercial growers who want to get in on the market are probably going to have to start from scratch, raising cattle from birth to meet Chinese standards. As of right now, it’s going to cost growers more to meet the stringent health and safety requirements than it’s worth for most of them.

The articles I’ve seen on this subject all seem to also ignore the fact that the primary reason China is suddenly interested in US beef is because their suppliers in Brazil are now embroiled in a massive corruption scandal that seems to involve much of the Brazilian government. The scandal included bribing inspectors, shipping out diseased and contaminated beef and I don’t know what all else. The president of Brazil has been formally charged with corruption, allegedly taking $150,000 in bribes from the huge JBS meat processing company. China, like the US and most other countries, has banned imports of beef from Brazil until they get the situation straightened out down there.

“Pink Slime” Case Finally Over?

It seems that ABC has settled out of court with BPI in the slander case BPI brought against ABC for it’s stories about so-called “pink slime”, a heavily processed, treated meat substance made from scraps and trimmings, and then injected into hamburger. BPI was suing ABC for almost $2 billion. With damages and other penalties, ABC could have been on the hook for $5.7 billion if it lost the case.

ABC is claiming the stories “accurately presented the facts and views of knowledgeable people about this product”, while BPI claims it’s product is “safe, wholesome, and nutritious”.

What bugged me the most about the whole thing wasn’t the “pink slime” itself. I’ve eaten raw eel, lutefisk and cheese that smells so bad it wouldn’t be allowed in a landfill. What bothered me about it was no one told me this stuff was in the hamburger in the first place.

Ethanol Still Doesn’t Make Sense

While this was sparked by an article about ethanol production possibly ramping up in the UK, this is more of an editorial comment, so feel free to skip this one if you like.

I’m not a fan of ethanol. It makes no sense at all. At least not the way we’re doing it. If you look at the entire production cycle of ethanol production and it’s overall effects, one could argue that producing ethanol is actually worse for the environment than producing the equivalent amount of energy in traditional fossil fuel. If you trace back all of the energy inputs into the system, the things like transportation costs, fertilizer costs, herbicide costs, the energy used to plant, grow and harvest the crops, it quickly becomes apparent that ethanol, as a “green” fuel, isn’t all that much better than gasoline. Yes, it produces less carbon and pollution when it’s burned, but that is just looking at the end product and its use, and is ignoring everything else that goes into actually making the stuff. When everything is added in, the adverse environmental effects of ethanol production and use is almost as bad as fossil fuels, and according to some studies, actually worse. Go look it up. You got Google. If you ignore the industry funded fluff and nonsense studies and look at the truly independent research, you’ll quickly find that the whole ethanol system is far from being environmentally friendly.

Then there is the economics of the whole industry. Without massive government subsidies, tax breaks, usage mandates, and other taxpayer funded subsidies, i.e. “corporate welfare”, the whole system would fall apart like the house of cards in an earthquake.

Disconnected from Reality?

That’s what I suspect a lot of “experts” are when it comes to milk prices, disconnected from reality. While various experts are claiming milk prices will be pushing $18/cwt “real soon now”, things out in the real world are considerably different. The market has actually been trending down for a while now, with prices on the commodities market falling on the futures market.

Of course the futures market isn’t what farmers actually get paid for their products. What a product trades for and what the farmer is actually paid for the physical product often have no relationship to one another. As a lot of farmers found out when Grassland told them they were going to have to find a different place to sell their milk and some got offers as low as $6/cwt from some processing facilities.

Agrimoney.com | China’s pork imports to ease from record, as domestic output grows

The top pork consuming country will see its imports ease, a bit, next year as the boost to domestic output from high prices works through

Source: Agrimoney.com | China’s pork imports to ease from record, as domestic output grows

The agriculture industry is going to have to begin to accept the fact that in the future China is not going to be the massive importer of food that it has been in the past. Unfortunately it seems that a lot of agribusinesses in the US, South America, NZ and the EU haven’t figured that out yet. This is especially true of the dairy industry which still seems to be betting the farm on the hopes that China will return to the days when it was importing all of the milk and milk products it could get its hands on.

For years now China has been pushing hard to improve its agricultural systems. It has been investing heavily in almost every type of agriculture, from grain production, to meat, to dairy, China has been putting a great deal of money and work into improving and modernizing its farming techniques. The ultimate goal of the country is to be at least 90% self sufficient in food production within the next ten to twenty years.

Whether or not China will succeed in reaching that 90% goal I don’t know. But even if they don’t, it will still have a profound effect on world agriculture. We’ve been treating China as a guaranteed market, a buyer of massive amounts of product that will always be there to help absorb our products. But it won’t. And the effects will be profound, as they were when China abruptly cut back drastically on milk product imports. The result from that was the price of milk and milk products plummeting by almost half, and the dairy industry still hasn’t recovered from that.

There will almost certainly be a China market, but it’s almost certain to be far smaller than it has been in the past. If agribusiness can’t learn to adjust, other agricultural sectors are going to find themselves in the same situation dairy is in now.