Overall farm incomes in the US have reached record highs. That doesn’t look good, given the price of food. Yet nearly half of farm households there say they are in the red – expenses for the materials (or “inputs”) used for farming are out of sight, and even high prices aren’t offsetting farmers’ costs.
Inflation isn’t unique to America. But while governments cross their fingers with each economic report their staff presents, hoping that food prices and inflation will start tailing off, farmers have a different reality.
In a few months they’ll be putting their crops in the ground, which requires a lot of pre-planning. Among the most fundamental challenging is figuring out how much acreage to dedicate to the crops they plant. They’re making decisions on how they think markets will swing, what they think will make them some money, and on what they can afford.
If certain crops require higher production costs – if they need more costly fertilizer, for example – farmers might eye an alternative. They must make such decisions long before planting season arrives, to make sure the seed and other inputs they need are available.
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Some farmers’ nerves will fray over these decisions, especially with the world at odds with its own future. How do you plan with confidence?
The US isn’t taking a wait-and-see approach on agriculture. In winter meetings in Puerto Rico this week, United States Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced funding for several new projects designed to help steady the ship.
First, he dedicated $81million to increase US fertilizer production (that’s in addition to the $500 million he announced in the fall), followed by $12 million in grants to expand meat processing and production. He’s been critical of big companies holding farmers for ransom, forcing so many of them to take off-farm jobs to pay for their input costs while prices soar and company profits skyrockets. Ditto for monopolistic meat operations that chisel livestock producers while recording increasing profits.
Vilsack summed up his efforts this way: “All of this is designed to create an opportunity for us to allow folks to stay on the farm because that’s part of the plan in terms of changing the thinking and trying to get to a point where American agriculture is not only incredibly productive but it’s profitable for all, it’s sustainable for all and resilient.”
Separately, the American Farm Bureau has been fighting a separate battle with another huge agriculture firm, John Deere, over farmers’ right to repair equipment they buy from the company. Also in Puerto Rico, bureau president Zippy Duvall announced the organization had finally convinced John Deere to bend and allow farmers to get under the hoods of their machines.
Many details remain to be worked out, but the bottom line is that farmers who think in certain situations they can repair their own machines cheaper and faster than company reps will get their chance.
All this is leading to the next US Farm Bill, which will be assembled this year. Through this week’s actions, we’re being given more clear indications of the themes that can be expected, and the overall message that the US will show global leadership in supporting farmers.