I sort of saw this coming and I sort of did not see it coming and now that it is here I’m not quite sure it really is. (I originally wrote that sentence to make fun of the crop reporters who get paid big money for supplying the gamblers on the Chicago Board of Trade with price forecasting gobbledegook.) When backyard chickens again became a cultural fact in America, anyone with a farm background could have predicted that chicken manure would become a cultural fact too. But not too many people in the digitalized present realize that having one’s own eggs for breakfast means dealing with the other stuff that comes out of the chicken very near to where the eggs come out. Straw bedding, the classic solution to that reality, is as foreign to the modern mind as thatched roofs. And so I sent my book, Holy Shit, galloping to the rescue.
But then…well, the most foreseeable fact about the future is that something unforeseeable is about to happen. Suddenly straw became almost as pricey as thatch. Farmers, at least in this part of the cornbelt, decided that growing oats and wheat, with straw as a byproduct, was no longer profitable. I will not try to bore you with the numbers they use to reach that conclusion because the truth is that they mostly quit growing these grains because a neighbor did. He or she must know something, the others figure, and so one by one they all quit. I have a close farmer acquaintance who is very successful and the other farmers watch him like a hawk. If he would decide to plant sugarcane here in northern Ohio, the next year the county will be full of sugarcane.
Now the wheat price is starting to strengthen because so many farmers quit growing it, so I imagine next year everyone will plant the stuff again. But I will save that for another column. Right now, the price of wheat straw is going through the un-thatched roof and about the only people who plant oats are the Amish who use the straw for their own cow and horse bedding. So if you go into a farm supply store right now, there will be a pile of straw bales on hand for the new backyard farmers, not to mention all those teenage horse owners. Mr. Backyarder might find himself paying ten dollars for a sixty pound bale, which is something like a 500% increase over the normal price of straw three years ago. Mr. Backyarder doesn’t mind because he will only need a few bales every year to bed down his few hens. And he will get some of that money back because the straw and manure make an excellent fertilizer. Remember, he is paying a dollar an ear for corn at the supply store to feed the squirrels which is like a 1000% increase over the normal per bushel price for corn. I have a hunch that what’s coming next is more stores for locavores.
In the absence of straw, another opportunity has presented itself at least in our neighborhood. Farmers in the hay business are out looking for old and abandoned pastures or land being held by investors to mow for mulch hay. For example, I had to sell my sheep because of old age (mine not the ewes) and I was not looking forward to mowing my eight acres of pasture just to keep the place looking neat. A young neighbor came calling only too glad to do the mowing if he could bale up the residue. I pointed out to him that it was not prime alfalfa or red clover anymore but a mix of all kinds of grasses, clovers and some weeds. His answer: “If my horses won’t eat it, I can always sell it for bedding.”
So the hay/straw business is thriving. Not even rainy weather is a factor. If the hay gets rained on, it gets sold for bedding or mulch because straw is at a premium. How does that old saying put it? There’s always some kind of straw in the wind? Or, it’s an ill wind that blows no straw?