Farm Catch Up: Rail Strike Again, Fake Meat Fizzles, Barges Grounded, Bird Flu

I haven’t done a Farm Catch Up in ages. I used to do these on a regular basis but I’ve been so busy with other stuff that I haven’t had time, so let’s see what’s been going on in the ag industry.

Rail Strike Still Possible

After union leaders, the railroads and the White House announced an agreement that would prevent a rail strike, I warned people that it was too early to do a victory lap. Union leaders may have accepted the deal, but it still had to be voted on by the union membership. Almost immediately one of the 12 unions involved in the talks rejected the deal, although a small one, and reports coming from out in the real world indicated that the rank and file of some of the other unions were not happy with the deal either. While the deal did give substantial pay raises and improved some benefits, it did little or nothing to fix the real grievances that the unions had, the biggest of which was the RR’s scheduling system which some employees called draconian and even downright sadistic. (I’ve read how the scheduling system works and if half of what I’ve heard is true, I would have quit the moment that system went into place. I won’t go into details, you can find that out yourself if do some searching for the railroad employee scheduling system.)

Now the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division Union (BMWED) the third largest of the unions involved, has rejected the deal, and we could be looking at a strike by mid-November unless the situation is solved.

The railroads have been having serious problems for decades, but you don’t hear about them because the media is too busy chasing after the latest celebrity gossip or bizarre conspiracy theory. Unless a catastrophe occurs, like a major derailment, you hear almost nothing about how the whole rail system has basically been falling apart.

What does this have to do with farming? A lot. A rail strike would cripple the agricultural sector of the economy. Ag businesses and farmers depend on the rail system to move bulk cargo like grain, beans, cattle feed, fertilizer, propane, fuel and many other products. Then add in everything else that is shipped… A rail strike would be a nightmare for all of us.

Fake Meat Markets Fizzle

Before I start this I should point out that I am not anti vegetarian or anything like that. My personal opinion is that we eat way, way too much meat to be healthy for us and we’d all be a heck of a lot better off if we could get people to eat more fruits and vegetables and less meat. But these fake meats are not the way to do it.

JBS, one of the three or four companies in the country that have a virtual monopoly on meat processing and distributing, announced it was shutting down its Plantera Foods division which was producing the “Ozo” brand plant based fake meat products, just two years after launching the company, because of disappointing sales. JBS says it will stay in the alt-meat business (that sounds better than ‘fake meat’ so I’ll go with that term) but not in the United States.

It isn’t just JBS that’s been having problems selling this stuff either. Sales of alt-meat products haven’t been doing so good. Beyond Meat’s stock value has plummeted. As of Sept.28 it’s stock value had fallen 75% this year. Sales of alt-meat products have falling by 10% in just this year along according to some data I’ve seen.

So why isn’t the stuff selling as well as they predicted? Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat’s products are supposed to be “healthy” and good for the environment and all of that and they’re supposed to be just as good as actual meat, so why aren’t people lining up to buy the stuff?

First is cost. Last time I looked the grocery store where we shop the Impossible Burger was selling for more than twice the cost of real hamburger. I haven’t bothered to look recently because frankly I don’t care, so I don’t know if prices have moderated a bit or not. What matters is that at most of the stores where I’ve found the stuff sell it for a lot more than regular hamburger 🍔 (Oooo, I just discovered that this goofy Macbook’s little status bar above the keyboard suggests emojis for me. Isn’t that just so – so useless?)

Second, the food industry as a whole has a long, long history of outright scamming the consumer and selling us garbage laced with salt, fat, sugar and artificial ingredients and labeling it not only as “food” but also claiming it is healthy. So people are justifiably skeptical of just about everything the food industry tries to tell us these days. If you read the list of ingredients on the Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat products, you will find almost nothing in that list that actually looks like real food. What you’ll find is a long list of chemical names, added vitamins, modified starches and other products that come out of the back end of a factory. There basically is nothing in that list of ingredients that I want to put in my mouth and I suspect a lot of people feel the same way after reading that list.

Third, these products just aren’t that good. I tried eating one of these things once, an Impossible Burger that I found in the freezer at the local grocery store. I made it according to the instructions and… Well, I’m sorry, I don’t see how anyone could ever mistake this stuff for actual meat. The texture and mouth feel was just -wrong. The aroma was extremely odd and the taste was, frankly, unpleasant. I couldn’t finish the thing. Slather it was ketchup and mustard and onions and I might have been able to choke it down, but eating it plain? No way. I’d rather eat a Bocca Burger. Still frozen.

Shipping Problems

As if disruptions with railroads and trucking weren’t bad enough, now the Mississippi River is giving us problems. A huge amount of product of all types is shipped on barges on the Mississippi River. Farmers and agricultural businesses in the midwest depend on river shipping to not only get grain and beans for export down to the Gulf of Mexico, they also depend on it to ship fertilizer, cattle feed and other products back up the river to co-ops, fertilizer distribution facilities and other businesses that sell bulk products to farmers. And thanks to scarce rainfall the Mississippi water levels are extremely low and barges are running aground. Reports are that water levels in the river system are at “historically low levels”. There are backups of barges at choke points on the river system. Barge loads have had to be reduced by up to 30% or more and towboats which usually push many barges at one time have had to cut the number of barges they can push. As of Oct. 4th the cost of shipping on the Mississippi had jumped up over 200%.

If you’re interested in actually watching shipping along the river, both barge and rail, there is an excellent live camera operated by Virtual Rail Fan in Ft. Madison Iowa that shows both the massive amount of rail traffic going across the Mississippi and a historic swing bridge across the river that has to open to allow river traffic to pass. The camera is on 24/7 and generally has a camera operator running it. In the spirit of full disclosure I should point out I am a VRF member and sponsor and you’ll occasionally see my name (No, not grouchyfarmer, my real name) listed on some VRF camera sites as a sponsor.

Why Are Egg Prices So High? Blame The Flu

I don’t know what it’s like where you are, but around here eggs are pushing up towards $5 a dozen. I was in a local grocery store three days ago and the price there was $4.79/doz. Why? Bird flu is at least part of the problem. Since February we’ve lost 47 million birds, mostly chickens and turkeys, to avian influenza in 42 states in the US. So between losses of birds to flu to increased costs for fuel, grain, labor shortages, etc, yeah, prices have shot up.

It’s affected chicken and turkey prices as well. Unless grocery stores use turkey as a loss leader you’re going to find a lot of families looking for a substitute for the traditional thanksgiving day turkey.

And that’s about it for now. I’m getting bored and I’m sure you are too. As always, comments are welcome. (Note: All comments are moderated and yours won’t appear until it has been checked.)