Ag in the Midst of a Crisis

Ag in the Midst of a Crisis

I am a self-confessed news junkie. I listen to NPR daily on my 45-minute commute to and from work.  Just in the last couple of days, there have been stories about the high suicide rates among farmers, the plight of dairy farmers across America, the effect of the trade wars on agriculture and on today’s StoryCorps segment, they featured the wife of a farmer who had committed suicide. Not one of these stories was positive for farmers and listening to them and remaining upbeat about our industry was near impossible.  I learned today that 450 Wisconsin dairies went out of business last year. More frightening, the same story reported that 80% of all farm asset value is the real estate the farmers own.  Farmers across the nation are financing losses by increasing the debt against their land. Sounds a lot like what homeowners did before the great recession, and that worked out not so well.

Agriculture is facing a crisis on several fronts!

Think about what is being asked of us? We need to produce more, higher quality products for a lower cost without using technology such as genetics without slighting an animal’s perceived comfort level and without emitting an ounce of ammonia or other naturally occurring gas into the atmosphere and in a labor market with virtually zero unemployment (let’s be real, if you want to work you have a job). And if someone gets sick from eating something we produced, even if the contamination happened a few links down the chain from the production, we are toast. We feed over three hundred million people two to three times every day. That is over 275 billion meals a year and most have more than one ingredient. Only God himself could produce that much food without getting anyone sick. But as the Yuma lettuce farmers can attest to, our bar is exactly that high. We can get no one sick. Reasonableness.

I am a firm believer in the JFK quote that striving for perfection does not mean you will achieve it, but not striving for it will guarantee you don’t. At the same time, I know there is no chance I can do what only God can do.

Of all these ag-related challenges, the retail wars pose the greatest threat. As the large retailers fight for market share, they continually demand more from their suppliers. For most of us, our customers are retailers or food service companies. We don’t sell directly to those who consume our products. The retailers have trained their customers to expect low-cost food, plentiful year around, 100% safe and in such a variety that it makes 31 flavors seem a cakewalk. My mother-in-law turned 85 last year and my daughter made a poster for her that captured some facts about the year in which she was born. One was the price of eggs which was 29 cents a dozen. Sadly, there were eggs being sold in parts of the South for that amount in 2016.

We all expect prices on cars, designer jeans, purses and other things to go up. No one thinks they should be able to buy a house for $9,000 like my parents did in 1954. But we have trained the public to think they should be able to buy eggs at the same price as they did in 1932.

Taking in all of these threats and being farmers, we will need to figure this out. We will need to make some changes. Americans can live without cars and purses and maybe even designer jeans, but they cannot live without food. We need to fix this. And there is only one way, and it is the very point of this story. We need to work together. Dairymen and lettuce farmers and egg producers and cattlemen, we have to unite. We have to work together. We have to put away all that makes us different. All of the outside pressures affect us all. The activists who want to put us out of business see us as one, yet we act as independent entities.

We should learn from the Red4Ed movement. The History teachers didn’t go talk to the Governor while the English teachers talked to the Majority leader while the P.E. teachers hired lobbyists to get raises just for the P.E. teachers. Walking downtown during one of their protests, they all wore red shirts and all united for a better situation. Can we do any less?

It is time to put our differences aside. It is time to ask the lettuce farmer, “How can we help.” It is time to ask the cattlemen north of I-40, “Who can we talk to get you some assistance to weather this drought.” I am not a second or third or fourth generation farmer. I am new to agriculture, born and raised in the big city of Phoenix. That said, I love it and more importantly, I see how hard farmers work and how little they complain when they fight off curveball after curveball. I appreciate that I play a role, albeit a very small role, in the incredible variety of inexpensive food I see in ubiquitous grocery stores. It kills me to see farmers who work their butts off struggle because of market forces. It kills me to think of the effect this Romaine scare has on people I know to be the salt of the Earth and who I know do everything in their power to provide safe food.

I whole-heartedly believe there is not a more noble profession than farming. I value the cattleman and the lettuce grower and the dairyman as brothers. And if someone, anyone, would attack one of my biological brothers, nothing would stop me from standing by his side to defend him. Why can we not band together as brothers … and sisters … in farm and ranch country and make all of our lives more tolerable. In-fighting has toppled more governments than have outside forces. Et Tu, Brute? Let’s work on not emulating ancient Rome. Let’s fix this together. 

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