Tuesday, August 01, 2006

It Had to be Said

Some of this is repeated, but I think it's worth mentioning again. I'm also putting this at the top of the blog until the end of the month as I want to be sure everyone reads it. This is not a "oh, woe is me" post, truly... it is more a "we're all in this together and someone better do something soon about it" post.

As promised, here is my lesson in agriculture for those of you who didn't know milk came from a cow, bacon used to be Wilber, and what is out there growing in the field is not a.) sweet corn or b.) green beans (To be fair, in some fields there probably is sweet corn and green beans, but for our purposes today, that is not the discussion. Most of this can apply to all farmers, be it food crop, dairy, citrus, or 'other'.) Please read it slowly and let it sink in. Think about it. You may not feel this has anything to do with you, but you'd be wrong. You eat. One of those things that is pretty much non-negotiable in the human being. You may not eat meat, or you may be on some special diet, but whatever you are eating came from a farmer of some type. If it didn't, you are either growing it yourself (making YOU the farmer ) or you are living off the wild berries and twigs in the forest. I'm pretty sure if you're reading this, you are not the latter.

In the world of farming, things are a little shaky crazy right now. The heat wave has hit and we're nearing 100 degrees and sweltering. We've gotten some timely rains (but small, we can use more) and that helped immensely. It isn't a "done deal" yet.

Do you know right now how much money you're going to make this week, month, year? We don't have the luxery of knowing what we'll make from year to year, and payday being once a year. Oh, we can make guesses, but they are based on how much grain is raised per acre, and how much that grain is worth - minus the costs of production. When we start out the year, we don't even know if we would have a crop. Would there be a drought? Will some disease take over the field? Will we have pests that eat the crop? We do what we can to prevent such things, but some like the weather are totally out of our control, and if we do have to spray for pests that is another cost added to the production.

As you are preparing to put gasoline in your vehicles to go to work and are in sticker shock about the prices, I would mention that we not only have to put gas in our pickups and small go-to-work cars, but in our farm equipment. Diesel fuel keeps going up, just like other fuel. Tractors easily burn 200 gallons a day while working. The cooperatives want us to fill our on-farm barrels before the price go up further. (We're talking thousands of dollars.)

We purchase LP gas to use in our grain dryers. It, too, has gone up.... as have the fertilizers and anhydrous we use to produce a crop... they are made with natural gas and therefore the price has increased for those too. However, the price for our grain right now is at an almost all-time low. We spend more for a gallon of gas than we are paid for a bushel of corn.

Everyone wants cheap food. People, more often than not, blame the farmer for any increases in food costs. Believe me, we are not the ones seeing the increase! The people on both ends of us are the ones that see the increases. Our production costs keep skyrocketing and the middle-men tack on the increases that you see. We get squeezed. Not to mention the cost of equipment and repairs. One piece of our farm equipment costs as much, if not more, than most of your houses. Let that one sink in for a minute. One piece. And, no, we can't farm with just one piece.

Is your insurance subsidized by your employer? We pay our own insurance. All of it. It isn't cheap, but is critical as we also work in one of the most dangerous jobs there are.

Do you think about the weather? Every day? Do you worry when the sky darkens and severe storm warnings are around that it may hail and that you will lose your whole years' income? Do you sit up nights praying for rain as the temperatures soar and the corn begins to curl up on itself trying to preserve moisture. Have you seen a corn crop destroyed by high winds? Yes, the grain is there - on the ground. You may be able to salvage some of it, but it is a lot of hard work. Will the frost come early and kill the beans before they've fully matured? Will the snow come early and make harvesting a pain and fall field work near to impossible? Will it rain so much in the spring you can't get the crop in... or will it wash all your newly planted seeds into the ditch?

If we do have a crop, then we have to rely on someone in Chicago (the Board of Trade) to determine what our grain is going to be worth. Will China be importing? Will Russia be exporting? Will there be rain in Chicago? In Nebraska? In China? How much grain is on hand? What is the report this week going to say? How many acres have been planted in the nation? More than expected? Less? All these things factor into our grain prices.

It gets nuts trying to figure out what prices will be and why. There used to be some kind of a rhyme or reason to that, but even common sense has gone out the window where marketing is concerned. The internet has even had it's effect. Now some doctor in California can get on his computer and buy 10,000 bushels of corn. He can buy and sell on a whim, in one day out the next. It's all speculation... it's all on paper. It isn't real to him. When he does this, along with several hundred of his kind, it can change the market prices and give it the instability that makes it so difficult for the farmer to determine when to sell his own grain. (Hubs has often said the way to cure this is for someone who buys bushels like this should have to take delivery of the grain. That would bring all this day-trader crap to a screaming halt. "Where would you like your 10,000 bushels, Mr. Doctor?")

They've recently been putting up ethanol plants like there is no tomorrow. This has been touted to the farmer as a saving grace, getting the best of both worlds... creating ethanol to lower gas prices and less dependence on foreign oil, and a market for local grain. HA!! Do you hear me? HA! As of today, ethanol is higher at the pump than regular gas and the farmer isn't getting any more money for his grain than he is selling it to the elevator. Plus, the plant is such a prima-donna that it is closed half the time to delivery because they are "cleaning out silos" or "have enough grain for today" or some such crap. Again, the farmer is not seeing that fuel price increase. It's going somewhere else, but not to the farm.

It's a good life, don't get me wrong. I love living in the country and some of the freedoms it provides. You have to be a very self-motivated person, however, which my husband is. He's done this his whole life, except for the four years he served his country in the Navy. You have to be disciplined and get yourself out there every day to do what needs to be done - and in the fall and spring when there is planting and harvesting to be done, you won't be home for dinner. Ever. They are long days. But it is good. I couldn't see him selling out and going to work for someone else. Besides? We need people like him. You may not see it, but that steak you had for dinner was a cow fed by some of our corn or the tortilla chips you had with your salsa - that was all provided to you by some farmer somewhere. We as a nation are spoiled rotten with our supermarkets and our wealth of food. The fact that there are people starving in our own country is another sore subject that I'll probably get on the bandwagon about at a later date.... but do not blame the farmer for that one!!

It would just be nice to have a fighting chance at making an income that is reasonable. Yes, reasonable is all I'm asking. Not that I would turn down a lottery winning, grant you, but just to not have the stress and worry hanging over our heads would be a nice thing. To get a good price for our grain that would pay all the input costs and possibly give us some extra, instead of feeling like we're living from hand to mouth most days. We sold some land which may give us another year or two of a fighting chance. Once more we are trying to decide if we can really keep this beautiful house we've grown to love. (Never love anything that can't love you back, tho', as Hubs always says... so I like it alot, but still, it's a house. I can do without a house. Family? Hubs? Critters? That's another thing. But a home I can make anywhere.)

I grew up early on in some small towns and later in a large city. In my years in the large city there were no rural kids to speak of. At all. We never thought about where our food was coming from. We didn't know any better. It wasn't a priority. When I moved to the country to be with Hubs, it was a whole new world for me. The idyllic setting you see in the movies about farm families... well, it just wasn't. You smile at your neighbors while telling lies about how many acres you farm and what your yield was. It isn't unusual to find yourselves in a bidding war for the same piece of ground to cash rent. There is only so much to go around and everyone wants more. In 1984 the movie Country came pretty close to the truth at the time. Farmers were being foreclosed on left and right. Personally, our bank was closed and some years were taken off Hubs' life during that time. Things haven't changed a lot since then... prices still suck, costs still increase. We're holding our breath hoping the other shoe doesn't fall and the "powers that be" will feel we've gone through enough in our lifetime.

I just keep saying "how long can it be this way"? How long can we continue to farm with things so out of balance. How long can we continue with all our input costs being so high and getting higher and our grain prices getting lower? I keep saying something has to change. I hope the something is not less farmers. If that's the solution, everyone will suffer. Think about it.