OP-ED: AGRICULTURE'S BIGGEST CHALLENGES IN 2018
Dec. 12, 2017
Source: blog by Chuck Jolley as it appeared in Feedstuffs magazine
1. International trade. The Trans Pacific Partnership is dead and the North American Free Trade Agreement is not-so-quietly and uncomfortably resting at hospice, delivering two hard body blows to American agriculture. Will the U.S. Meat Export Federation be able to convince enough nations to 'play nice' to cover the collapse of those two international trading partnerships?
Will the U.S. government be able to work out export/import deals, one nation at a time, before ag is forced to endure some painful economic losses? Could supplies of cattle, hog and poultry far exceed demand, seriously depressing prices? Bet on it.
2. Labor. Agriculture has always depended on cheap and abundant immigrant/migrant labor. A porous southern border, lax regulations and a usually friendly welcome has helped keep workers streaming across the border. Not so much, anymore. Due to the changing American political scene of the past few years, there has been a net outflow of Mexicans and Central Americans. More are now going back home than are entering the U.S., legally or illegally, creating a serious shortage of critically needed labor.
According to Cattle Buyers Weekly editor/publisher Steve Kay, virtually every beef company he recently surveyed for his Annual Top 30 listing sees labor as their top problem. It might help solve the transportation problem, though. If you don't have enough men and women to harvest, no need to find a truck.
3. Transportation. You've worked hard all year and now it's time to haul the harvest to market. Wheat, corn, cows; it will make no difference. While you weren't looking, long- and short-haul trucking just got harder to find. Higher transport costs joined hands with increased government regulations to slow down over-the-road trucking. Got cattle and a rail head on your ranch? You might be in good shape. No? How about reviving those old-fashioned cattle drives and walk 'em to market? I'm not sure how grains will 'flow' into the marketplace, though.
4. Activism. They're still out there; smarter, well-financed, more sophisticated and deeply determined to end animal agriculture. Ag gag laws won't/didn't/can't end their assault. If anything, those laws gave them serious ammunition in their public relations war against you (what is 'big ag' trying to hide?). Ag gag law expert, Amanda Hitt, director of the Food Integrity Campaign with the Government Accountability Project says, "getting caught (breaking a law) might be even better than not getting caught."
Stricter hiring practices to ferret out potential employees who should never be allowed around an animal, as well as undercover agents of doom, will help. So will serious, ongoing training and management-by-walking-around. Get out of your comfy office and take a long and up close look at how your employees are handling your animals.
It might be uncomfortable but it is a necessary step to keep the Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) (you can go to their web site and sign up to learn more about their next 'open rescue') and Mercy for Animals (MFA) demons and their hidden cameras from tip-toeing into your establishment in the dark of night or broad daylight.
With a tightened labor market, don't make a deal with the devil, though. Please resist the urge to hire anyone capable of walking and talking at the same time.
5. Plant-based meat substitutes. After years of hanging around the far distant fringes of even the most healthier-than-thou hippy co-ops and vegetarian prone supermarkets, faux burgers and holiday tofurky products are becoming mainstream. Market researchers estimate total sales of dairy and meat alternatives will reach $25 billion in just two very short years.
Well-funded by recent cash injections by the likes of billionaire philanthropists Bill Gates and Richard Branson, several companies now have the money to do the serious research to make fake meat taste more like the real thing rather than what you put in a horse's feed bag. All that new money buys lots of shelf space at the local HyVee or Piggly Wiggly, too. If you're raising the grains that are often the raw materials for this stuff, good for you. If you're raising cattle, you're battling still another unwanted competitor for the center of the consumer's plate.
6. The Farm bill. What? The 2014 bill is still in effect, and it's too early to start debating the next one. Earlier this year, Collin Peterson (D,-Minn.), the ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee said he and Rep. Frank Lucas (R, Okla.), former chairman of the House Ag Committee, are going to introduce a bi-partisan bill to repeal the 2014 farm bill and have a new plan ready to go into place in 2018. Peterson also said Sen. Pat Roberts (R, Kan.), chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, has indicated he is giving consideration to introducing a new farm bill.
Peterson's promise got swept aside by a noisy tsunami of other issues more important for President Trump and the Republican party. For 2018, though, the fight for the billions of dollars controlled by the next farm bill will become bloody and fierce. A repeal of 2014 is off the table as hundreds of special interest groups, AKA lobbyists, put their usual behind-the-scenes gentle arm-twisting into maximum overdrive as they fight to influence the next regularly scheduled bill.
The business-as-usual nudging and bumping, gentle reminders and trading of favors will turn hockey game brutal. Financial assistance as we head into the mid-terms will be offered or denied, based on how 'properly' senators and members of the House line up behind the issues.