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May 08, 2008
Todays Farming - Joad Family or Bill Gates-esque
EAGLE, Idaho (STPNS) -- Farming today isn?t the vision of Steinbeck?s Joad family; hardscrabble, eek out a living kind of farm. Nor is it the image some carry of the picnic in the farm yard with fried chicken, potato salad and fresh cold milk one might be tempted to remember from their youth. (at least those of us old enough, over fifty, in case you are wondering). Nope, today?s farmer is a cross between an entrepreneur and a Wall Street hedge fund operator.
Let?s take a recent series of articles on milk, and the raising of the cows to provide the delectable drink of highly diverging health claims. In the olden days, say 10-20 years ago for you younger folks, milk came from small dairies on farms with 75-150 cows, all giving 7-9 gallons per day of milk. Today?s milk producers are a prodigious lot, with 3,000 cows and up, all producing milk for drinking, cheese, cottage cheese, ice cream, and anything else you can think of with milk in it. Quaint, rural, simple folk, not on your life. These are smart, savvy men and women that understand futures and commodity pricing better than the Chicago Board of Trade. Milking is milking, put on a vacuum pump and out comes the liquid gold. Ha, and that?s all there is to it, right? Oh baby, is that wrong. For example, what exactly does one do with around 150 tons (yep, 300,000 pounds per day) of the, to put it delicately, poop. Ask Dallas Isom of OLD Consulting, an integrator of technology for, well, poop. ?Glamorous isn?t a word I hear very often, yet, it is the newest and most efficient way of dealing with a real problem?. He is referring to anaerobic digestion, or as he says: ?poop to power?. Actually the proper reference is manure to methane. Sounds better, but in our world of political correctness, it is as indirect as a politicians pledge of fidelity. The rest of the ?products? from this digestive process area are as follows: moss or bedding for the cows, fertilizer, clean water, heat and electricity. How about that for technology. Does this have any relationship to your concept of farming?
So, between potatoes (take that, Dan Quail), wheat, milk and hay, what else does Idaho produce? Well, pretty much everything. There a few cash crops, hops for beer, corn for ethanol (gasohol), and animal feed, sugar beets (those things you see on the road) and very recently, grapes for wine. The problems surrounding farming today are labor, government, environmental regulation, marketing, selling, planting, weather, buyer fickleness (if there is such a word), reports on fat, oils, carbohydrates, sugar, seed technology, and where does this menu stop? Record prices for all of these crops, are driving folks to analyze the food they eat, the liquid they drink, the vegetables that grace our tables and even the source of our laborers who provide the food. Given the list above of all the mitigating factors on what to plant, when to plant and guessing on the outcome of your choices, is it any wonder we have anything at all to eat, much less choices of what to eat. My personal favorite is the commodities market driving prices and trends in the industry of agribusiness. Last year we took 11 million acres out of soy bean production to raise corn to sell to the ethanol industry. Corn crops were lower than expected due primarily to weather, so the price went through the roof, but, so did soy beans. Why, duh, take 11 million acres out of production and what happens to any commodity? Corn and soy beans feed cattle, cows, pigs, chickens, cereals, yadda, yadda, and when raw material prices hit record highs, so does the food costs. Where does the escalation finally stop? When the buyer says it isn?t affordable. What?s our option though, start eating grass off the front and back yard? Maybe with a good bleu cheese dressing, oops, bleu cheese is from cows, right?
Farming today is a complex story of regulation, oversight by a myriad of groups, whimsical variability of the buying public (milk is good for you, no it isn?t, yes it is; what about eggs, now there?s a conundrum for you), weather, water, trends, manipulation of the markets by suits in Chicago and New York, transportation and labor. However, do not feel too bad for the farmer, remember, the hardscrabble guy is gone and the dawn of the mega-agribusiness is upon us. And use the lesson from the dairy to see the potential for the farmer. ?Poop to power?, sends electricity to each of us to light our homes and run our businesses. So, drink milk, beer and wine and eat yourself sick, you?re helping the economy. And possibly by the next installation of this column, we?ll figure a way to capture what comes out of the people, who have drunk and eaten their way into an economic ?stimulus? for Idaho.
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