Sunday, May 18, 2008

Gas prices and the American farmer

I grew up in the Midwest on a farm that has been in our family for five generations, working on six. When I still lived on the farm, it was a combination ~80 head Holstein dairy operation and crop farming (corn, soybeans, oats, barley, alfalfa). In the early 1990s, my dad converted to solely crop farming as he dreaded the neverending job of milking cows (even if the steady milk check was nice). In fact, my dad currently farms all his acreage, owned and rented ~1,000 acres, as a no-till farmer. If you want to talk about keeping carbon locked up, talk to my dad.

For a crop farmer like my dad, there are several pieces of machinery needed to keep the operation going. There is at least one tractor needed to pull the chopper, baler, gravity box, bale wagon, planter and, if a more traditional farmer, plow and cultivator plus a combine. Many farmers have at least two tractors, depending on the horsepower needed for a particular job. While my dad only uses one pass across the field to plant his crops, imagine covering all those acres in large horsepower machines (remember, my dad farms ~1,000 acres of his own per year plus he plants and harvests for other farmers). Now imagine the diesel it takes to power the tractor to cover all those acres--big engines are not fuel efficient.

Not only does the price of diesel affect farmer's bottom line, but fertilizer is made from petroleum as well. Farmers need seed, herbicide and fertilizer to plant all those crops that feed us, the animals we eat and the animal byproducts we consume (e.g., milk). Therefore, the farmer's operating profit, what he makes from selling his crop minus expenses like fuel, fertilizer and maintenance, shrinks dramatically in the face of escalating petroleum prices and commodity prices that may or may not compensate the farmer for all his efforts. How would you like your earnings dependent on the cost of fuel, the vagaries of weather, the yield per acre, machinery breaking down, and selling your product at a price you hope makes a profit at and varies day to day? My dad can sell corn now that he has not harvested (or even planted), betting that he can fulfill the contract and make a profit.

Many people make noises about how all the corn going to ethanol is driving up the price of corn, which then affects the price we pay in the grocery store for all those foods that use corn in one way or another (e.g., Corn Flakes and corn-fed beef). However, other factors are involved including developing countries converting from more vegetarian diets to greater meat demand, poor crop yields in South America, and generally higher demand world wide.

So forgive me if I get tired of people whining about how awful it is to pay for gas at the prices we see now days and how compromised their lives are. I do not like paying the prices either, but I do not have to weigh the cost of fuel against my profitability like my dad. Being a farmer is tough business--and they cannot reduce their use of fuel while they work. Let us cut them a break and honor them for working hard in the face of factors they cannot control: petroleum prices, weather, and global demand.

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