Thursday, January 7, 2016

Farmers are taking a beating

Farming is a way of life -- a 24/7/365 career -- that that can grey hairs early and keep men and women up at night, even after a day of exhausting labor. It’s an ungodly stressful business to be in.

In their bailiwick, a farmer’s world changes quite often and usually at a moment’s notice. A late frost, a nasty hail storm or a fungus can ruin their crops. A disease can overtake their poultry or cattle. Then there are long-term issues to contend with such as seasonal droughts, a strong dollar, ever-changing migrant labor laws and consumers’ fickle behaviors.

Farmers don’t have it easy.

But, if you caught wind of Governor Cuomo’s press release in mid-December, you’d tend to think otherwise. The Governor’s lengthy report had indicated that the growth in New York farm receipts exceeded the national average with ag sales up 36% in the state, reaching a record $6.36 billion, a real jaw-dropping total.

After reading his report, you’d think that local farmers were swimming in cash and that the Empire State is in a Golden Era in agriculture. But they’re not and we’re not.

The December report was late to the party – it was looking at 2014’s numbers, 12 months after the fact. It overlooked the stark reality of Today and Tomorrow; while 2014 was awesome, 2015 was a nightmare and 2016 will be more of the same.

A number of factors have contributed to an incredibly-frightening decline in farm revenues across the country. Locally, the greatest impact is felt by the strong US dollar which has all but eliminated exports of milk and cheeses and led to closures of yogurt plants which couldn’t reach their much ballyhooed expectations. To that end, dairy prices fell more than 36% in 2015.

Elsewhere, avian flu wiped out whole populations of fowl. More than 42 million egg-laying hens and almost 8 million turkeys met their demise.

All said, farm income across the country was down 40% for 2015, wiping out 2014’s gains and then some.

For most people, the New Year always seems to come with great expectations. Farmers aren’t feeling it this time around. Dairy prices are still dropping. Soybean futures plummeted 16% over 2015. Corn prices are in free-fall, down 36% since 2012 and not expected to stop their decline until at least 2018. The US dollar is also getting stronger every day, which is absolutely killing the chances for any sort of agricultural turnaround in 2016.

Because of those factors, many forecasters are predicting another year of double-digit declines in farm income. Some analysts have thrown around 10%, while others are looking at losses as high as 30%.

Farming is an endless cycle of feat and famine, but too often it seems more like a famine than a feast. I can’t imagine managing a business under such conditions – running a factory is tough, but agriculture is an entirely different world. I’m glad I’m not a farmer, but I’m incredibly appreciative of those people who are stewards of the land. They are taking a beating, but they keep plugging along in their sworn duty to put food on our tables. It takes a special soul, a tough soul, to be a farmer, especially in really trying times like these when revenues, incomes, and bank accounts are looking sparse.

From the 11 January 2016 Greater Niagara Newspapers 

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