By Alex Wright
I can’t recall when the last time was that we had a “normal” Spring in New York. I guess if you averaged all the years together, the really wet ones, the cold ones, the hot ones and dry ones would cancel each other out, creating the idealistic image of a perfect Spring. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works in the real world. It’s now the beginning of June and we don’t even have all of our corn planted due to excessive rainfall and cold early planting temps. The truth of the matter is it’s never easy being a farmer. There are the things we can control, such as input purchases, when and how we plant our crops, and how many cows we want in our herd. But there is so much more that is completely out of our hands.
Basically, farming is like gambling with your livelihood. So much of a farmer’s success is dependent on the weather. When we have a wet Spring like this, farmers can’t get out in their fields and plant despite how bad they want to. You see, if they attempt to plant in the wet soils, they will be creating massive compaction which will inhibit the roots from getting to the nutrients it needs and the effects last many years. On the other hand, the longer they wait to plant, the lower the likelihood of maximizing yields (which is necessary to have the feed inventory for our dairy cows throughout the winter). In fact, the later it is planted the greater chance it will die prematurely in the Fall from frost before reaching physiological maturity. So which would you be willing to sacrifice (yield or soil quality) and for how long?
Can you imagine if other industries operated the way farming does? Imagine how much business would be lost if Walmart was shut down every time it poured. Have you ever heard the saying, “Make hay while the sun is shining?” This is easier said than done and rain can decrease the quality of hay if it delays cutting or is down when it rains. Can you imagine if the quality of your dry cleaner’s work declined every time it rained? He wouldn’t be in business long. But this is just another daily struggle and reality for a farmer.
Farmers need to plant their crops every Spring in order to be successful. This means having their inputs subject to market volatility. They have little say in the cost of their input prices going up when they need that product to grow their crops. Take potash (potassium fertilizer), for instance — rock prices have more than tripled since 2006, taking fertilizer prices with it. If a potash mine closes in Morrocco, fertilizer prices go up. But farmers can’t protest the price if they need the product so they just suck it up and take it on the chin. How long would Home Depot be in business if the price of timber were to triple over just eight years? Would consumers still buy lumber from them with such a drastic price increase in such a short time? The answer, of course, is that Home Depot wouldn’t be in business for very long. But these are the gambles farmers take every day.
Imagine if, like commodity prices, the price of movie tickets varied from day to day, depending on the weather in Brazil? How would the movie theater make an operating budget? How do they know they can make a profit when they can’t control pricing? A farmer has very little control over what price they sell their grain for. The truth is, there is no other industry quite like farming and it’s never easy. But I have never met a farmer who would choose to change their occupation. It’s a labor of love. So, for those of you who criticize modern agriculture in America, try walking a mile in a farmer’s boots. You just might have some more appreciation for what it takes to fill your plate three times a day. I, for one, salute the American Farmer!