Gene Logsdon and Friends

Are Food Prices Too High Or Not High Enough?

In Gene Logsdon Blog on May 11, 2011 at 7:34 am

From GENE LOGSDON

These days I doubt there is a correct answer to any of our social problems. We can only choose to act on which wrong answers do the least harm. Recently I listened to a news report on the rise in global food prices that didn’t quite add up to me. The foregone conclusion was that climate change in the form of too much rain was causing food shortages and rising food prices around the world. No attempt was made to give evidence that climate change was the cause; it was simply presumed to be the case. The report focused on what farmers were doing to cope.

I can’t speak to the rice problem because I’ve never grown any, although I do know that much of the crop spends quite a bit of its growing season standing in water so maybe heavier than usual rain could be helpful. If we could get our corn and wheat to grow in standing water, we would be way ahead of the game right now.

But what the report then said about American farming sounded vaguely lopsided to someone who has been around corn and wheat a long time. First of all, the report seemed to be contradicting its opening fears of coming starvation. Actually, the commentator said, American grain production was generally up, not down, although perhaps not up enough to feed an ever rising world population. If that is so, maybe global warming has helped, not hindered. But there was not one word about how rising population might be part of the problem.

But after having primed the listener with the notion that we are all in danger of starvation because of grain shortages except the rich, the report did an about face and said that American farmers were coping with the heavy rains fairly well. Farmers were adapting to climate change three ways: 1) new varieties that responded better to adverse conditions; 2) spraying more fungicides to ward off fungal diseases; and 3) using bigger equipment.

I have a hunch this report was inspired by a news release out of the ivy halls of agrimonsantaclaus. I am standing here looking at our fields in Ohio covered with water or mud. Well, yes, if you bioengineered corn and wheat varieties with some rice genes, I expect farmers could respond to this adverse weather better, but first you’d have to get the plants in the mud or water. Maybe we could transplant our bioengineered corn varieties the way many Asians do their rice: by hand.  And yes, spraying them with more fungicides might ward off diseases, but again you have to have something out there to spray. Bigger equipment? It would have to be equipped with pontoons. Bigger equipment is the primary problem in a wet planting season. It causes compaction seven feet down unless the soil is perfectly dry, soil scientists are telling us.

Not one mention was made of the best way to be farming this year: letting the animals graze for their food as they turn untilled pasture into meat, milk and eggs. It has been so wet that you did dare put cows on some pastures some days but, on the whole, pasture farmers are happy with all this rain: we could graze twice as many animals as normal.

Not one mention was made of the small farm alternative. In 1947 we could not get into the fields at all until May 28. Believe it or not, we got the crops all in with our puny little tractors and teams of horses and no one starved. Since there were three times as many farmers dividing up the job, none of them were faced with the awesome task of navigating five or ten thousand acres with tractors the size and shape of Spanish galleons.

Not one mention was made of the fact that on the other food front, we are in good shape considering the weather. Gardeners with raised beds or super-loamy soil have their peas, carrots, radishes, lettuce, onions and potatoes up and growing, and early sweet corn planted. Where there are many hands to make light the task, we can handle adverse weather a whole lot better than anybody’s bioengineered, triple-stacked, hybrid wonder plants can do.

I want to say that population pressures are far more a cause of high food prices than climate change, but I’m not sure that is the right story either. Maybe higher food prices are good if they persuade more people to get out there and grow some food. The problem is not (yet) overpopulation, but too many people involved in non-productive work.

Meanwhile, the disastrous drought continues in Texas and the southwest. Global warming, no doubt.
~~

  1. I shook my head when you mentioned bigger equipment. My lawn tractor has been sitting out as my DH decided to take a shortcut across the mud and it sank. Someday it will be dry enough to get it out, but in the meantime it’s covered up and become an(other) ugly lawn ornament.

    Here’s how I’m coping with the wet. Our garden is thoroughly overgrown, so much so that I need DH to weed whack it so I can mow before we rototill. Of course the mower is sunk and it’s too wet to rototill. So nothing is happening there.

    But in the meantime, the side yard is a sea of mud. The geese chose that area for roosting all winter. It is very fertile, yet has been too wet for grass or anything to sprout. AHA! I took my languishing tomato and pepper plants out of the hydroponic trays on the porch, and planted them in the muck, then fenced around them to keep the geese out. The plants are literally shooting up with the yummy goosey soil and the 3 (count ‘em) days with sunshine.

    In the back of my mind I am remembering farmers in my old home state of Wisconsin who grew something called “muck crops” in bottom lands. Things like carrots and other rooting crops as well as mint. Perhaps I’ll try some of my own “muck” crops over in the rest of the mud of the side yard.

    Farmer Deb in SE Ohio

  2. Climate change and global warming are probably not affecting food prices as much as the current speculation on “commodities” or using edible crops for ethanol. Well, not that the corn they grow is “edible” anyway…
    I remember the time when food prices were guaranteed for a year. Nowadays, a ship carrying soybeans has its cargo sold and resold several times during the trip between South America and Europe. I have personally seen a small farmers coop in France do it, and actually buying and reselling the same cargo twice, because prices were rising at the time.

    There was a recent report on global warming that mentioned that although it caused reduced crops in some areas, it was more than compensated by the displacement of cultures to more northern territories, where you couldn’t grow them before.

    http://feeds.arstechnica.com/~r/arstechnica/science/~3/Im_yTOTCqYE/climate-change-cuts-a-frances-worth-of-wheat-out-of-global-agriculture.ars

  3. One of the main reasons for rising food prices is that most of the money is going towards the middle man for processing and services Only like $0.16 of every dollar goes to the actual food.

  4. Just heard your story on Here and Now. Can’t wait to read more of you blog.

  5. After my first season of vegetable gardening, I decided that organic food is way too low in price. Maybe market gardened food too. I discovered that growing food is really hard work, so I’m a lot more appreciative of folks who farm intensively. I’m not so sure about the big agribusiness type outfits, although I am very grateful for flour. Someday, I hope to try growing some wheat in my yard; I have this swell book called Small Scale Grain Raising which I hope will be of huge help. But that’s a little ways off yet; I need to get my front yard fenced in first.

    I truly hope that monoculture quickly becomes a thing of the past because I don’t think that it’s a good way to farm.

    But I also have to feel for farmer that are up to their cheeks in mud and water, as well as the ranchers that have to sell off their cattle because it’s too dry to feed them. But there was a news story last night about a rancher in Texas who sold off all his cattle because of the drought; he’s trying a much more drought-resistant herd: goats.

  6. I think “food prices” are the wrong way to go about measuring the value of food. Better would be “how much labour do you have to perform in order to obtain your food.” Given that wages have been stagnant or falling while food has increased, I’ll bet this way of measuring things would make the personal labour cost of food look even worse.

    Except for the person who grows their own. Yes, perhaps the return on hourly investment of time is not so good as being a wage slave in a cubicle farm, selling your life for bits of coloured paper that you then take to the supermarket to exchange for real sustenance, but the important thing is that the person who grows their own has seen no increase in the cost of food, as measured in their personal labour.

    A friend in a “cubicle farm” used to make fun of me for heating with our own wood. “Your time is valuable. It’s so much cheaper to just pay for electric heat, and much more convenient, too”

    So we did a little experiment: the time I spent preparing for winter, versus the time he spent in a cubicle in order to pay for his heat. There was no contest, I only spent about 2/3rds as much of my own time heating my house as he did. And I didn’t have to pay for gymn membership to keep active and physically fit while doing so!

    I suspect the same may soon be true for food. Food costs are at historic lows — even pre-historic people spent more of their time on food than we do. As the fossil sunlight that’s produced this miracle declines, the cost of food is going to return to historic — or even pre-historic — levels, but the person growing their own will not see such an increase.

    • Jan – that is a great experiment. Would be interesting to see the figures on it. If it were possible to scale it up to cover the carbon foot prints as well finding the break even point it would be even more interesting. I.e., when/under what circumstances is it cheaper to actually go out and chop you own wood? etc.

      Interesting stuff! I do the same experiment with cooking almost weekly – it’s the only way I can explain to people that I save money by eating out once a day (good food that is – lot’s of vegetables and good cooking at proper restaurants, no fast food for me!) rather than cooking for myself.

  7. It has been wet and cold here too until the last two days, but I was able to get onions and potatoes in before it got too bad and they’re doing well. Of course the winter wheat and the garlic love all the rain and are not at all bothered by it. I ran the sheep in the garden while it was too wet to mow the cover crop down and then seized the first opportunity to till it. Unfortunately I didn’t get another dry day where I could plant anything until yesterday. Of course the fruit trees look OK, though I don’t know if they pollinated, given the weather and the stories I’ve been hearing about bees, but my point is that if you have enough different stuff going on, it takes a lot to mess them all up.

    DH?
    -Chimel

    I’ve seen this before. Of course it means “Designated Hitter” which gives those of us who follow National League teams a bit of hesitation since we make our pitchers take their turn at bat. I’d guess that in this case she’s using it to mean whoever gets the job of cutting the grass when someone else can’t do it. Probably the old “men run the power tools” thing. What is odd about this particular usage is that I see it only on the web and exclusively from women, who are not usually as prone to use sports analogies as men. A puzzle.

  8. Since most of the money we pay for food goes to fancy packaging, marketing and store “ambience”, I’m betting the higher prices have little to do with the growing costs and more to do with the frills, transportation and speculation. If the Victory gardens in WW2 could equal the fruit and vegetable production of all the commercial growers, it’s pretty clear we don’t need agribusiness to feed ourselves. We need to just keep growing, teaching and spreading the word (not to mention the manure! By the way, I suspect DH stands for “Dear Husband”.

  9. Thanks, Beth, Dear Husband fits better, probably an Ohio thing…
    I hate these cryptic acronyms! ^-^

  10. Jan: You nailed it. As food prices escalate, I feel pretty secure knowing that a good chunk of my food is outside my door.

    Maybe this works: More people + global markets + less oil + speculation + many other random factors (drought, etc.) = higher food prices. Seems simple to me.

  11. low supply = high prices = industrial agriculture still going strong (in spite of 2x the input costs).

    how about a couple high supply years? = low prices = industrial agriculture screaming for subsidies (50 to 100 billion $?).

    Are the arguments strong enough in the agroecology/local food movement to show that there is another way? Cus the day is coming when the argument will be put forward…”pay us or you’ll starve! There is no option!”

    High prices, in a way, keep the non-sustainable model in business.
    We have to be ready when the prices come down.

  12. DH= Dear Husband. But in my case it = D*MN Husband (LOL) (which equals Laughing Out Loud)

  13. Rice farmers like to let their rice stand in water because the rice plant is highly resistant to water while weed is not. Rather than spending time on weeding plots it’s easier to just flood it, not necessary, but easier. Once the rice plants has grown large enough to dominate any late coming weed, water is no longer supplied to that field.

    Rice is the prefect plant in hot/wet climates.

    Wasabi is another example of a plant that thrives in water, but it needs to be clear, running water to yield high quality crops.

    If you have the time and energy, you could try a little patch of rice in your garden, with or without the water. It’s fun and relatively easy.

    Love this blog by the way.

    • I’d love to grow rice, it looks like a whole sustainability cycle in itself, with ducks, algae and fish all growing and feeding each other. Unfortunately, while some rare places might get too much water, fresh water is globally a dwindling resource. In the past, floods like this week’s on the Mississippi would have been welcomed, bringing nutrients to the soil. But nowadays it probably brings heavy metals, toxic compounds and whatever chemicals leach from the flooded areas.

  14. Rare case where I can be useful: DH is a company out east (Maine or Vermont) which manufactures sort of heavy duty lawn/garden/driveway equipment for homesteader/yuppie type people. Their original product (I think) was a heavy duty field and brush walk behind mower. I bought one maybe 16 years ago, wore it out, and found another at a garage sale real cheap. I call it a bush piglet (8 H.P., 22″ mower) in that it’s awesome what you can mow over (1 1/2″ saplings) and the kind of ground conditions it accommodates. It will give you good cardio! Mine is a crude, simple belt and pulley deal with hard rubber 18″ wheels, but now they have transmissions and pneumatic tires (chill out, Gene), snowblower attachments, log splitters and generators. I don’t know what DH stands for, but I admire your suggestions.

    Both “food” and energy have been deliberately devalued so we can have more “disposable” income to purchase cheap plastic crap at box stores, and this has fueled our outstanding consumer based economy. Pardon the sarcasm. This worked OK until we quit making our own cheap plastic crap and started buying it from other countries. I used quotations on “food” because food used to be about nutrients and taste, but because of our fixation with bigness and efficiency, it has now more to do with ability to be harvested by machines, and transported hundreds of miles, and having a long shelf life. People seem to care more that something “looks like a tomato” rather than taste and nourish like a tomato. There should be nutritional info available at vegetable and fruit displays, but I doubt many people would care enough to read them. Seems like a lot of people are just busy making the payments on their Escalades, a product of our cheaper fuel. I’m starting to see more bicycles, so that’s a positive.

    • Roof, it’s not suggestions anymore: Deb who first used the term already answered, and it’s not Drinking Hog either! ^-^
      Yeah, I first thought about machinery equipment too, like people call their Massey Ferguson tractor or combine a MF.

  15. Interesting topic. Here is a bit of an off topic comment but it is all related.
    I have a little business grinding feed. (Just an old hammer mill and an equally old tractor and a surplus fertilizer bin with an auger on it.)
    My customers are all people who are raising chickens in their back yards or have a couple pigs.
    The problem is that is costs $3 a dozen to raise the eggs, but you can buy then in the store for around $2. However, meat chickens are way cheaper in the store than it costs to raise them.
    Other folks on here may have different cost figures but the point is that it is a little more expensive to grow your own.
    In the last three months grain prices have gone through the roof. Whole barley $360 to $410 a ton locally. I sell my ground feed for $280, just raised the price for ground pig feed to $320 as I had to buy a ton of oats and peas.
    I’ve resorted to jacking the price up for the sustainablity folks from Portland and keeping the price low for regular folks.
    My kind of rambling point is that huge companies can even out their prices and will do it if there is competition but often quality suffers.
    The big feed suppliers don’t seem to really care about demand vs price and just raise the price like the gas stations.
    However, I also have some flexibility and while I am not making huge money my business has greatly increased.
    As I get older I am more convinced that lots of small suppliers/farmers/growers do much more for the local economy that a few big ones. In fact high prices don’t matter so much because the system is much less efficient (not sure if that is the right term) and money leaks out in the form of more lunches at the cafe, ice cream at the store, small amounts of gas at the local station, hay from the local farmer and countless trades.
    Anyway, just the thoughts you inspired. I’m rained out with my not-that large tractor.

    • I think the whole point of this blog is that you should grow your own grain, especially if you buy it by small quantities like by the ton.
      Growing it organically and locally and reusing part of the crop as seed for the next year, should make much more economical sense today than a few years ago, even if you live in the U.S. where gas prices are dirt cheap: It reached $8.50/gallon at the pump in France this week, €1.56/l.
      I would actually like to see a comparison between organic and ‘chemical’ wheat culture costs. I know there has been many, but one refreshed at today’s prices, to reflect the huge recent changes in prices.

      And Budd, if the cheapest battery eggs can be had at $2 a dozen, organic free-range eggs sell for well over $4, so even your customers could save money with higher organic feed prices.

  16. Until recently, I thought the best thing that could happen for small farmers like myself was for commodity food prices to rise.

    Then, it happened in tandem with gasoline prices taking a steep hike and I find myself in the grocery store getting a little freaked out about the price of food. So much for my abstract theories from a distance…

    Great post, thank you!

  17. Budd, I’m really curious about your post; it costs us maybe a dollar a dozen to produce our eggs, and that’s with buying corn screenings (what’s left after the grain is ground)for their primary source of grain feed. Otherwise it’s food leftovers, grasses, the bugs they catch, extra milk that has clabbered, entrails from when we butcher–got a bunch of chunks of pig lung in the freezer for them right now–and their own crushed eggshells for calcium. What do the folks in your area feed?

    • How did you arrive at $1 per dozen? Did you take into account price of birds, the four months when they are too young to lay, water, housing, feeders, bedding, etc.? On one bag of feed I have to get 6 dozen to break even on just the feed, and mine free range most days and don’t eat near what they did in the winter.

  18. I was thinking DR. I don’t know how I got that from DH. My bad. Not enough coffee; I could have been a birther.

  19. Beth can produce cheaper eggs because she has fewer purchased feed inputs. I greatly admire your resourcefulness Beth. The only way a small farmer can make a go of it is, I believe, to develop a plan to produce as much feed for animals as possible on your own. Although I hardly qualify as a ‘farmer’ with only a small flock of chickens and a large fruit and vegetable garden, I’ve cut my feed costs by growing higher nutrient greens like kale and spinach to feed the chickens (we eat these things too). In the winter, I buy wheat at the local mill and sprout it before feeding the chickens, as sprouting greatly increases the nutrient value. Table scraps go to them too. My family had a large gathering at Easter, and I fed the birds for 2 days with just the scrapings off the plates! Creativity and a bit of work are the keys to cheap home production.

  20. I suspect what we’re seeing is not so much the cost of food rising as it is the value of the dollar falling. As the dollar depreciates those accepting it in exchange for something of actual value (like food) will require more of them. I realize the effect is the same, but looking at it that way will focus attention on causes differently.

    I never knew rice didn’t have to be flooded. We grow a lot of sweet corn on our farm but I haven’t tried growing our own grain. I may experiment with that someday.

    It’s been very wet here in Virginia too. The last time it was wet like this (and not as wet as this year) we lost all our onions and garlic. But the corn is growing great and the pastures have never looked better. Last year at this time we were irrigating our corn.

    peace

  21. I believe that food prices are artificially low due to “cheap food policy” including subsidies and other factors which favor large-scale low cost production of cheap calories and industrial inputs through unsustainable practices which amount to mining rather than farming.

    I also believe that these artificially low prices are a contributing factor in many of our social ills. The market is trying to tell us something through the pricing information and we’re using various corporate and governmental policies to mask that pain signal. These policies amount to a kind of national narcotic addiction. If we weren’t so doped up on this stuff it would hurt too much and we’d find other ways. In particular I think it leads to large urban populations living at unhealthy densities, eating badly, getting too little exercise, and with an insufficient connection with the land. When combined with un- and under-employment made possible by the aforementioned agricultural practices these people become individually and collectively unhealthy physically, psychologically, and socially. We used to say that the .gov paid farmers not to grow things. In reality what is happening is we’re paying large numbers of people to be unemployed and unhealthy and unproductive while crowed into the cities.

    My first impulse is to say “let those prices rise” but like an addict going cold turkey it would be very ugly to do that. As leery as I am of .gov programs, I think a planned increase in food costs along with a generational shift in housing, education, and property taxation (eliminate) would be needed. I’m not hopeful about it because I think our society as a whole and our government in particular are incapable of carrying through anything on that time scale. Given that pessimism, I fear that “forced cold turkey” is where it is going to end and it is not going to be pretty.

  22. Here’s my experience and thought on chickens:

    Around here a cheap broiler raised in a factory costs about $3 at the grocery store. That is cheap. When I bought my latest round of chickens I took advantage of a sale on surplus roosters, butchered about a hundred of them and a few cull hens and put them in the freezer. That paid for all costs up to that point right there. I actually have the exact numbers but not easily at hand. (admittedly without counting my time, but that is a very complex situation given the arrangements)

    A short time after that the hens started laying. Sometimes they lay more and sometimes less, sometimes they eat more or less, but on the whole they eat about $20 in feed a month and produces about 15 dozen eggs. I’ve been calling that breaking even. They have also begun reproducing which has cost a couple of dozen eggs, but produced another 10 or so for the freezer and a few more laying hens.

    Around here free range brown eggs go around $3.50 a dozen, organic maybe 50 cents more. Since I don’t buy organic feed mine don’t qualify there but it is still not a fair comparison to make to the $1.69 a dozen white tasteless things at the grocery. I think this is one of the most difficult factors to account for in small scale farming, you get *very* high quality produce, which you could not afford at retail prices. The temptation, therefore, is to compare to what you would have spent rather than to a comparable product. Understandable, but it mis-represents the situation. Home brewing works the same way for me. I can’t beat cheap beer from the grocery on price, but I wouldn’t drink that stuff anyway. I *can* brew beer similar to the $8 a six pack craft brews for only a little higher cost than the cheap stuff. Bread is the same way…

  23. Farmer Brown: I’m interested in my own food production with maybe a few to sell, so I’m not trying to make money with my chickens–that may make a difference. I prefer Australorps; they lay very well and are thrifty birds, big enough that the excess roosters can go into the stewpot and make a reasonable meal, even if they aren’t particularly tender as a frying bird. They set very well for me, so the cost for new birds is basically just having a hen out of production for a while. I don’t feed commercial feed, period–no lay mash, no grow mash, nada. I might not even feed the screenings if we didn’t have them around for the pigs and the milk cow. My feeders are salvaged things like the cracked bottom of an old clay planter or the lid from a metal trash can (the can finally rusted through). Housing is an old dog shelter–probably fifteen years old at least and scavenged wire for a pen. We have plans to build something a little fancier one of these days; we always have scraps around from the wood milling, so we just collect them until we have enough for a project. Makes for interesting shapes sometimes as it’s not what you would call standard lumber! Bedding is either sawdust, shavings from the aforesaid milling projects, or shredded newspaper, old envelopes, etc. (I could get my news from the Internet quite happily, but my husband wants to sit in his chair and read a paper). There’s no question the big savings is because I don’t buy commercial feed. There’s a heavy dose of Scot in my genetic makeup, and the rest of the genes are from thrifty English and Germans, so I’m always looking for ways to do things on the cheap:-)

  24. I see that my comment inspired some discussion which I didn’t see as I got out of my easy chair and went to work.
    I just repeated back the cost points that a couple of my customers agree on. I did figure it out with one of them a while back and I was shocked at the price.
    My feed is 1/3 oats, 1/3 barley, 1/3 wheat plus I add 10% (of the total lbs of the previous three grains) alfalfa hay, 10% heavy clover screenings, 10% Camolina (when I have it) and a little molasses. No added vitamin or minerals.
    I do not attempt to be organic as what I’m doing is fairly labor intensive already. I think the organic label is a bit over rated. I could get more $$$ but wouldn’t be able to shop around for cheap surplus grains.
    Yes, chemical wheat is expensive. Here we have problems with rust and disease which require expensive sprays. Once I bought buckets of ladybugs to control aphids which was moderately successful.
    I think smaller farms and a few animals per farm is the way to go. Of course if I were not a bit old-fashioned I suppose I would not be following this blog.

  25. @Budd Now that camelina is getting high premium prices for being used for jet fuel, you might want to switch to flax! ^-^
    Whatever you use, it should probably be a permanent ingredient of your feed mix if you want to claim the high omega content, not “when I have it.” Just my 2 cents.

    Cheap surplus grain is usually 2 years old or more, it is just starch and proteins, some oil from the germs, but vitamin content is reduced a lot. There was a shocking story some years ago about pasta being made from even older EU surplus wheat. That’s why I suggested that you grow it yourself, or at least team up with some farmers directly, because if you are “old-fashioned” indeed, you’d want to control your grains from the source.

    • I am so pleased with my clever scheme I have to tell someone. I discovered a few years ago that people in the neighborhood often end up with partial truck loads of grain, or perhaps a combine tank that has several hundred pounds in it. The nearest cleaner is 30 miles away and no one knows what to deal with this small surplus. I buy it, or sometimes trade or get it for free and make it into chicken feed. I also get the heavy screenings or cracked seeds from a local farmer with his own cleaner. As long as I am small scale it works quite well. The camolina is a problem. The weather didn’t cooperate and I didn’t get the camolina planted. I almost didn’t get my barley planted. This might be a tight year for surplus feed!

  26. Ah well, if it’s recycling of the latest crop, then it’s the best usage for that grain, and the smartest indeed, not the type of ‘surplus’ I had in mind. But I think it’s cam’e’lina, Budd, not ‘o’.

    I don’t know about the American varieties, but you should expect 13,600 lb / 6.8 tons per acre with the best cultivars of camelina sativa.

    It’s probably still not too late to sow flax, if you missed the camelina season.

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