June 25, 2008

The chopping block

Shannon Hayes is an author of several books and the host of grassfedcooking.com. Her recent blurb to subscribers lays out the drama of the current grain situation, which I've gone into at some length here...

Your Turkey Is On The Chopping Block

June 2008

Last Thursday was meat cutting day at the farm. Usually, processing days are pleasurable. Cutting and wrapping requires that we have extra hands on duty, and the long hours spent breaking down a couple beef carcasses inevitably results in a steady flow of bawdy humor and happy camaraderie. But on this particular morning, as I pull into the farmyard, the mood is black. Clint, who runs the saw in the cutting room, hurries by. "Look out", he mutters, as I shuttle my daughters toward the house to see Grammie, "It's bad in there."

I find Grammie (a.k.a. my mom) in her office, staring at the farm spreadsheets, one hand on her forehead as she clicks through the numbers.

"What's wrong?"

"The price of broiler mash went up $20"

"What else is new?" My tone was sarcastic.

"In one week."; It went up $20 per ton in just one week. The feed mill says there's no end in sight.

Price hikes are a grim reality for everyone. The cost of transporting our meats to farmers markets has doubled since 2005. So have the costs for heating the brooders and hauling the livestock. The week prior, the price of casings for our handmade sausages tripled. And in only one year's time, the price of grain has doubled.

We've grown used to it. We are a diversified, pasture-based livestock farm, which means we are in a far better position than most folks when it comes to surviving rising fuel costs and a global food crisis. Grazing ruminants -- cows, sheep and goats, can convert forage into good food. And they can make use of our hilly, rocky, frost-prone hillsides that simply can't grow crops. Poultry and pigs are not ruminants. They are omnivores, and require grain to supplement their diet if we are to produce enough to sell. Because we keep them out on pasture, our grain requirements are minimal compared to producers managing concentrated feeding operations. Still, feed costs make up a good portion of the farm budget. The survival of our family business is like plate spinning, where we focus simultaneously on several elements of the family farm equation: greater diversification, stepped-up marketing, cost cutting, and increased self-reliance.

In truth, we find plate spinning rather enjoyable. Today's small farmer must be into such a game, willing to assume some risks and to be creative with business management. Generally, we are stimulated by the challenges, forever ready to sit down with calculators, pens and pads to hash out whatever confronts us. If this didn't hold appeal, we'd all have 9-5 jobs. So I am surprised at the gravity in my mother's voice.

"Mom, Stop seeing the glass half-empty. We'll figure out something."

"Damn it, the glass is half-empty, Shannon!" And her eyes fill with tears. "It's the turkeys. I can't control the costs on the turkeys! What are people going to do for Thanksgiving?"

But, I think to myself, the glass is still half-full. The hard times we all face are marked by a generosity of spirit within our community. Daily, I am inspired by the little things folks are willing to do with the understanding that we all need to pull together: The feed mill faces fuel surcharges on all its products. It passes none of them along to the farmers, figuring the increased grain prices are too great a burden already. Many of our expenses have doubled, yet our grassfed meat prices remain steady. Our poultry and pork prices have only gone up 11% in two year's time. Neighbors call before driving to town to see if anyone on the road needs something. Interns offer to take reductions in pay.

My mother, however, isn't wrong. The glass is half empty, because the generosity stops with the common man. Like the big oil companies, agribusiness is getting fatter and fatter while the common folks’ bank accounts grow lean.

Last year, neglecting to mandate conservation measures, Congress mandated a five-fold increase in the use of biofuels. According to a story in The New York Times, one fifth of our national corn crop is now used for ethanol production. Increasingly, farmers are planting more and more corn, which cuts the acreage available for other crops, like soybeans, thus driving up those prices as well (1). Next, take a disaster, like the flooding in Iowa, and add it to the mix. I called our local feed mill to find out why our broiler mash prices went up $20 a ton.

"Itís the floods in Iowa," explained our account manager.
"But those crops weren't even close to harvest! The prices you are quoting me are for crops that were already harvested. Those expenses have come and gone"
"Well, you know what they say: investors can kill a crop three times and still make money on it" The feed mill has no control over the grain prices. They have to pay the going rate as determined by the Chicago Board of Trade, whether the feed they buy is local, or brought in from the Midwest. Thus, the price of grain isn't actually determined by the farmers who grow it. Itís determined by the investors. The results? Staggering profits for a few multinational agribusiness corporations. According to a May report on Marketplace Radio, in their last quarter, Bunge (a major soybean processor) increased their net earnings by 1,964%; Cargill netted over one billion dollars (an 86% jump over one year ago), ADMís profits were up 42%, and Monsantoínet income more than doubled (2). It bears repeating - All these profits are from one quarter only.

The real cost of foods, in which fair wages are paid and environmental stewardship is assured, is a price we willingly pay. But when food costs are inflated by greedy speculation on uncertainty, it is the masses who either pay the price, or go hungry.

Back at the farm, Mom shuffles through her turkey orders. Everyone who placed their order by May first was quoted a set price on their Thanksgiving bird. We made the same deal with customers who pre-ordered their chickens. Ordinarily, our return to labor for the annual chicken production is $10,000. As of last week, it was down to $4,000. We have already begun wildly cutting back the number of chickens we will produce for the season in efforts to prevent further financial loss. We consider whether the same must now be done for the turkeys, which ordinarily would be arriving on the farm in the next few weeks. At this point, we will have to drop our turkey production by half and ask our customers to pay a higher price to stem our losses.

This is a seemingly simple business decision, easily made in hard times. But there sits my mother at her desk, tears falling on her calculator as she runs the numbers. My daughters, ages four and one, scrambled up to her lap. My eldest daughter earnestly brushes her Grammie's hair out of her eyes. And then I understand.
Sap Bush Hollow Farm has been in business since my family moved to West Fulton in 1979. To keep it afloat, my mother has learned to be a shrewd businesswoman. But she is also a grandmother. And Thanksgiving is her favorite holiday, where we celebrate abundance, family, community, generosity, and love. Those turkeys have come to symbolize all of that. My mom is not fretting over the dollars we will inevitably lose. She is thinking about the families who will not have enough food this year, and the corporations, not held accountable, who will reap a great harvest.

  1. Martin, Andrew, “Fuel Choices, Food Crises and Finger-Pointing,” The New York Tomes, April 15, 2008.
  2. Gardner, Sarah, “Corporate Giants Get Fat on Food Crisis,” Marketplace, May 8th, 2008.

Shannon Hayes is the host of grassfedcooking.com and the author of The Farmer and the Grill  and The Grassfed Gourmet. She works with her family on Sap Bush Hollow Farm in Upstate New York.

Posted by rich at June 25, 2008 07:56 PM