ORIGINALLY WRITTEN JERRY ENGLER
Marion County’s farm economy began 2001 boosted by beef cattle prices and burnt by drought.
Farmers ended the year beleaguered by continuing low grain prices, another season of drought and a fat-cattle market that, in the words of Mike Kleiber, was “hammered” by the Sept. 11 terrorist event.
Kleiber, owner of both Ag-Power and Ag Service, said many persons in agriculture are “hanging on, hoping to get through” the difficult conditions.
Some silver linings
At least the costs of fuel and fertilizer have followed petroleum prices down after the highs last year to help farmers for a while, noted Lyman Adams, manager of Cooperative Grain & Supply.
Adams said a year ago, farmers were on “a roller-coaster ride” with anhydrous ammonia selling for $420 a ton and threatened shortages. This year, lower natural gas prices have brought the January price of ammonia down to $200, he said.
Rickey Roberts, Marion County agricultural agent, said even though news of the cattle markets sounds bad, “when you talk about cattle market, you can’t lump it all together like you can talking about wheat.
“There are various facets of the cattle business, stockers, feeders, cow-calf and so on, some of them have it terrible, and some of them are not that bad,” he said.
“The fat-cattle market is not good at all. In fact, it’s downright terrible. The feeder-cattle business, the yearlings which is that market for thousand-pound cattle, is OK. You can make it pay.
“It is hard to make any blanket statement on the cow-calf man. Many of them are making it work, and work well, but it’s really variable according to their input expenses, what they have to feed their cows. It depends on how they’re making it work with other segments of agriculture they’re tied into.”
Roberts said new technologies such as no-till and minimum tillage, and the equipment and herbicides that go with those practices, may give farmers more efficiency and reduced costs.
Kleiber sees many local farmers looking at the new tillage practices to reduce the number of times they go over a field with equipment.
“They’re looking at lowering the cost of production, and maximizing the economic yield,” he said. “The formula is always the same.”
New markets needed
But Roberts still doesn’t expect new methods to correct the low prices for commodities afflicting agriculture.
“We just need more markets, and even that’s obviously just part of the solution,” he said. “We actually need some kind of worldwide program.”
Roberts said even though American farmers are efficient, they are living in an era when mass production of crops is possible all over the world.
Shortfalls in one crop from drought in one part of the United States probably can’t bring up prices much in any commodity, he said.
He agreed a person might have to go back to the early 1970s and the Russian wheat deal to find a massive failure anywhere in the world that was capable of boosting crop prices for any length of time.
Other factors are economic and political that tend to override agricultural interests, such as the strength of the dollar, which makes it difficult for other countries to afford American grain, he said.
Roberts said he doubted that a worldwide program to even out production and marketing to help farmers will be achieved because of the political self-interest of nations.
Kleiber said the brightest spot may be that now is a decent time for anybody wanting to get into the cattle business or begin a new practice to do so.
“You get in when the markets are low, and ride them on the way up,” he said.
Luke Lindsay, manager of Countryside Feed, said that even with the facility’s processing capacity in the tens of thousands of tons of grain a month, business increased continuously over the last year because of expanded territory.
He said Countryside has overcome some of the slack in the agricultural market by taking feed to a 150- to 200-mile radius to other cooperatives and operations such as “the integrated hog business”-corporate hog farms.
He said Countryside’s specialty feed market continues to grow, too, with especially large amounts of feed going to turkey farms.