Here’s the one that takes the cake for stoking resentment in readers: “We pay more, they profit more” (News & Observer of Charlotte, N.C.).
There’s some truth to the claim that these are good times for farmers. Our income is supposed to top $92 billion this year, according to the Department of Agriculture. That’s an all-time record.
Yet it would be foolish to assume that farmers are gouging grocery-store customers. The real story about what’s happening is far more complicated than “we pay more, they profit more.”
Farming is all about risk management. We can have phenomenally good years as well as catastrophically bad ones. A lot of our success or failure hinges upon factors we can control. But luck plays a big role as well, especially for an activity that depends so much on the weather.
Weather dictates that farmers take a long-term view of their operations. We need some really good income years to balance out the really bad ones. This long term view is measured over years – if not generations – and is one of the reasons beginning farmers find establishing an independent farm operation so difficult.
Just last week, following two years of below-average rainfall, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California declared a statewide drought. In the San Joaquin Delta, growers are seeing their water allocations cut by 40 percent. “We are in dire straits,” said Mike Young of the Kern County Farm Bureau.
So if your tomato prices go up in the near future, keep in mind that although some farmers may be profiting from scarcity, others are suffering. And those that are doing well right now could find themselves doing poorly next year.
My own plans have changed dramatically in just the last six weeks. We’ve had such a wet spring in central Illinois that I haven’t been able to plant as much corn as I had intended. I’m now in the process of switching hundreds of acres from corn to soybeans.
Corn can be a sensitive crop. Ideally, we’ll have a wet winter that builds up water supplies, a dry spring that lets the seeds get off to a healthy start, and a summer that’s full of warm days (but not scorching hot ones), clear skies (for photosynthesis), and intermittent bursts of rain (but not too much rain because excess moisture invites disease).
Some years are near perfect. Most of the time, however, something goes wrong. This spring, it rained so much that in many places the soil never dried out. Our problem was the very opposite of California’s, but a problem nonetheless.
Biotechnology can help, if it makes crops a little hardier than they would be otherwise. Almost always, however, I have to respond to unforeseen circumstances. When I wait until the second half of May to plant corn, I know from experience that I’m likely to lose bushels in my harvest. The longer I wait, the worse the problem gets.
So now I’m converting a bunch of acres to soybeans, a crop that’s a little more forgiving than corn when it comes to timing. I can plant soybeans in June without suffering as much yield damage.
Yet the decision to switch is not without consequences: Last fall, I fertilized these acres for corn rather than for soybeans. They don’t need extra nitrogen. Putting fertilizer in the ground last year seemed like the right thing to do at the time, but it turns out to have been a waste that will set me back tens of thousands of dollars.
Switching crops isn’t always a snap, either. It depends upon the availability of seed and there’s no guarantee that what I want will be there when I want it.
The point is that although we should be grateful that nature usually gives us what we need to survive, it can also humble us. Good times can turn to bad times very quickly.
Those who feel envy when they read reports predicting high incomes for farmers should recognize that before they know it, the next emotion they feel for farmers could be sympathy.
John Reifsteck, a corn and soybean farmer in western Champaign County Illinois, is a Board Member of Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org).