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.

Merger Fever

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If you follow ag news you must be aware of the high profile mergers and buyouts going on in agribusiness. After months of trying to sell itself or merge with another agribusiness company, Monsanto seems as if it is going to be snapped up by pharmaceutical giant, Bayer, so the German company can increase it’s ag presence. Bayer is already a major maker of pesticides and snapping up Monsanto would give it a significant presence in the GM seed market as well.

It is not a done deal by any means. It still has to be passed by antitrust regulators both here and in the EU. There seems to be considerable resistance to the merger in Germany and in the EU as a whole, and a lot of politicians over there have been making disapproving noises.

This isn’t the only big ag merger going on, either. Dupont and Dow Chemical are in the process of merging, with the details still a bit up in the air. Swiss company Syngenta, which Monsanto had attempted to cut a deal with earlier, is being snapped up by the China National Chemical corporation, which is owned by the Chinese government. All four of these companies are major players in the agricultural chemical industry. (ChemChina seems to be on a buying spree. Last year it bought Pirelli, the Italian tire maker)

Mergers, acquisitions, buyouts, etc. aren’t anything new, especially in the ag industry. It’s been going on for ages. And generally the results, at least for the farmers, aren’t pretty. Over the years we’ve seen virtually every small, independent co-op, feed processor, seed maker, machinery dealer and independent mechanic be bought up, forced out of business or merged into ever larger semi-monopolistic businesses. And while competition has dwindled, farmers have fewer choices of where to go to buy seed, fertilizer, feed, chemicals and equipment, prices have, of course, skyrocketed.

The problem with all of these mergers is that they don’t seem to benefit anyone except a handful of investors, lawyers and, of course, the upper management of the companies themselves. They certainly don’t benefit the consumers, that is the farmers and you, the people who buy the milk, cheese, eggs, meat, vegetables and fruit that the farmers produce.

We used to plant 30 to 40 different types of soybeans in the US. Today, 90% of all the soybeans planted in the US are a single variety, produced by Monsanto. The fact that Monsanto has a literal monopoly on soybean seed isn’t the only problem with the situation. It’s the fact that we could be facing a very serious biological crisis. If a new disease pops up that this one variety of bean is susceptible to, the entire US soybean crop could be jeopardized because of this lack of genetic diversity. These monopolies have resulted in such a lack of genetic diversity in our agricultural systems that many of them now lack the genetic diversity to be sustained if a disease strikes them.

What these companies try to do, want to do, is lock farmers into a specific “system” of agriculture. You buy a specific type of seed to plant. That plant comes along with a specific program of herbicide and pesticide control systems, also sold by the company. Farmers do it because it’s easy. Sort of one stop shopping. They get everything they need from one vendor. And generally these systems are profitable.

At least at first. What generally happens is the company starts to get greedy. After releasing the system at a relatively decent price, the company starts ratcheting the price up once farmers get hooked into it. Prices go up until farmers realize the system isn’t all that profitable any longer. But by that time, well, they have such a heavy investment in the system they can’t really get out of it any more. Besides, where else are they going to go because the company has driven all of it’s competition out of business.

Farmers who want an alternative have enormous trouble even trying to find one. These semi-monopolies claim there is still a lot of competition out there. And it’s true that there are some competitors. But not many, and even fewer who could provide large scale farmers with the quantity of seed they need at a price they can afford to pay.

Starving Amidst Plenty

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Not a day goes by when you don’t see a news item about more food aid being needed somewhere as enormous numbers of people go hungry or are even starving because of natural disasters, political disasters, poverty. If you follow the agricultural media as I do you will see articles about the mega ag companies like Monsanto talking about how they need to get ever bigger, absorb even more small companies, because they need to develop new seeds, new herbicides, to satisfy an ever expanding and increasingly hungry world population. Articles about food deserts in the inner cities in the US and other otherwise prosperous countries. Articles about how we need to cultivate more land, increase the yield of crops because people are starving all over the world.

But then along comes items like this story from AP at AgWeb: Why Is There So Much Food?

The US alone is producing 24 billion gallons of milk a year. We’re producing enough milk every year to fill a good sized lake or two. So much milk that it’s driven the farmgate price down so far farmers are going bankrupt. The US alone has 1.24 billion pounds of cheese in storage and 322 million pounds of butter. USDA has been buying up stored cheese and giving it away to try to keep prices from collapsing.

If milk were the only commodity we have massive surpluses of, it wouldn’t be so bad. But it isn’t. The US has 377 million pounds of strawberries and 313 million pounds of blueberries in storage. In total we have around 1.5 billion pounds of fruit in storage. We have 1.3 billion pounds of turkey and chicken in storage.

If you look at grains, the situation is similar. The 2016 corn harvest is just getting started here in the US, and it looks like it’s going to be a near record breaking crop. And we still have millions of bushels of corn in storage from last year’s near record breaking crop. The price of corn has plummeted to $3.30 or so a bushel, and will probably drop considerably as the new crop floods storage facilities. The story with soybeans is similar. Same with wheat. Eggs, which suffered massive price increases that saw the local stores selling eggs at $1.75 a dozen, have fallen to $0.49 cents in our local grocery store.

Right now we are looking at the lowest prices for ag commodities that we’ve seen in many years. Retail consumer prices are flat or falling. One source I read the other day claimed retail food prices have dropped by 8% in the last six months. The UN claims food prices are at the lowest level they’ve been at (adjusted for inflation) in a very long time indeed. We have a glut of food on the market, so much we don’t have enough storage space for it.

And we still have people going hungry, even starving. Even in the most affluent countries in the world we have large parts of the population who are hungry, who don’t know where their next meal is coming from.

It isn’t agriculture that’s at fault here. It isn’t farming. It’s politics. Petty nationalistic disputes, power struggles in congresses and parliaments. It’s prejudice and discrimination. It’s greed and selfishness.

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.

Wisconsin Farmers Say They’re Hurting From Ag Industry Consolidation | Wisconsin Public Radio

Many Wisconsin farmers reported a bumper crop this year, but it’s not translating into record profits. According to the Wisconsin Farmers Union, low commodity prices and consolidation within the agriculture industry is a big part of the problem.

Source: Wisconsin Farmers Say They’re Hurting From Ag Industry Consolidation | Wisconsin Public Radio

Back when I was farming with my father, there were about two dozen different tractor and ag equipment dealers and service centers within around 15 miles of our farm. There were dealers or service people in almost every small town and city all around us; Clark Mills, Whitelaw, Reedsville, Valders, Michicot, Keil, Forest Junction, Hilbert, Chilton… Pretty much every little town had either a dealer or an independent service facility.

Today your choices are one of four mega-dealers who have pretty much taken over the entire ag equipment market in three counties or more.

Competition basically doesn’t exist any more. If you don’t like the prices at a particular tractor dealer, think you’re getting shafted on repair bills, well, too bad, Charlie, there’s no where else you can go.

Same is true with feed companies, fertilizer sales, seed sales… Competition pretty much doesn’t exist any longer. Your choices are limited to one of an ever decreasing number of suppliers, and that’s it. If you think you’re being overcharged, think you aren’t being given a good deal, well, go somewhere else.

Only there isn’t somewhere else…

Agrimoney.com | Farmland Partners unveils $197m land purchase – and plans for more

The group takes its portfolio of US land nearly to 100,000 acres – in a deal which will provide collateral for funding for more acquisitions

Source: Agrimoney.com | Farmland Partners unveils $197m land purchase – and plans for more

I’m beginning to wonder if it’s time to start to become worried about this trend. Farmland Partners is just one of dozens of investment companies buying up enormous amounts of farmland. Not to farm it themselves, but to turn around and rent it at the highest prices they can possibly get.

Given the volatility of the stock, bond and commodities markets, and the ridiculously low interest rates being paid by banks for standard savings accounts, the desire to invest in a fairly stable and relatively profitable venture like farmland is understandable. Farmland values do fluctuate, true, but not nearly as wildly as stocks and commodities. Compared to those ventures, farmland seems a fairly safe investment.

And a potentially profitable one because the land doesn’t just sit there, it gets rented for as much as $200 – $500 an acre, depending on local demand.

But I get very nervous when I see more and more farmland being concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer owners, especially investment companies who have no vested interest in preserving the long term quality of the land, and only in making a return on investment. This practice makes it increasingly difficult for real farmers who want to get into the business to get started. Land has become so expensive in many parts of the country that it’s difficult or even impossible for a small start up farm to get off the ground without having the backing of outside investors.

Even worse, because the holding companies are going to charge the maximum rent they possibly can, those who can afford to rent the land are going to be forced to engage in the most intensive, potentially damaging, high chemical input farming techniques they can in order to maximize their own profits. This results not just in increased pollution from fertilizer, pesticide and herbicide run off, but also results in the degradation of the quality of the land and it’s fertility, causing even further reliance on intensive chemical intervention to continue to get the best yields.

Is this legal? Yeah. It is. At least in most states. Some states have restrictions on the amount of farmland that can be owned by out of state investors, but over the years those laws have been changed or even eliminated to permit companies like Farmland Partners to move in and take over. And I can understand the attraction. I own a fairly big stock portfolio, and the volatility of the market often makes me more than a little nervous. Farmland seems a far more stable, if a bit less profitable, investment for a lot of people.

While it may be legal and understandable, that doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.

Personally I feel the adverse effects of these companies; the artificial inflation of land prices, potential degradation of farmland, etc. outweighs the benefits.