I received an e-mail today from an old friend. To paraphrase the executive in the movie classic Network, my friend, lets call him Tom, is mad as hell and he's not going to take it anymore — at least not without expressing his opinion.
He has an IV after his name, which I needle him could easily stand for ‘intravenous’. Tom is the fourth generation of Toms in his family, and the previous three generations have been farmers — just like him.
After reading his e-mail, I decided a phone call was a better option than responding by e-mail. We had a good conversation, but I don't think he felt any better about having to continue to ride his proverbial horse with the same burr under his saddle.
He asked my opinion on high fuel prices and why the American public seems to be quick to place the blame for high food prices on the farmers who grow food, rather than on the oil industry, where he reckons the blame rightly belongs.
Tom is irate that he pays over $600 per ton for the same fertilizer that cost him $200 a ton a couple years back. Likewise, he can't understand the tripling in price of glyphosate-based herbicides in the past six months, though he suspects that's also tied to high oil prices. This frustration doesn't even include the $4 a gallon diesel fuel it takes to operate his 3,000-plus acre row crop operation.
Tom says he and his economist friend estimate to stay in business in 2008 an irrigated grower better be making 215-plus bushels of corn, 2.5-plus bales of cotton and 2.5-plus tons of peanuts.
Those are high yields that require the stars to align right year in and year out, he muses. “I talked about it with one of my USDA economist friends, and all it is going to take is a new pest, extreme drought and heat, and or bad harvest weather and even the best growers could be on the wrong end of the stick when the dust settles on 2008,” Tom figures.
My friend can't understand why so many Americans are quick to point the finger at ethanol as the cause for high food prices. Ethanol, poor as it might be as a source of alternative fuel, is after all the best option we have right now, he contends.
I pointed out that biodiesel would be a better option, but unfortunately 90-plus percent of American automobiles are gas powered, not diesel powered. Plus, what consumer in his or her right mind would go out and buy a diesel-powered car or truck, knowing diesel prices are 50-60 cents a gallon more than gasoline.
Clearly, big oil companies want to keep diesel prices higher than gas to encourage Americans to continue to buy less fuel-efficient gasoline engines. Soybean stocks worldwide are so low and prices so high, soybean oil isn't a viable option for high volume biodiesel production.
Biodiesel production is a simple process compared to making ethanol from corn. In the Southeast and Southwest we could grow non-edible peanuts with enough oil to produce 150 gallons or so of biodiesel per acre. Not to mention, canola, sunflowers and oil bearing crops endemic to every part of the United States.
My friend's family has been in the peanut business since the War Department encouraged his great grandfather to grow peanuts to help the war cause — the big war, World War II. Neither peanut growers nor the peanut shellers or grower associations support growing peanuts for oil — lowers the value, he says.
I pointed out a crop you can't grow for less than it costs you to grow it has no value. If farmers continue to see input costs escalate, even $500-600 per ton peanut contracts won't be profitable enough. Five hundred acres of edible peanuts and 500 acres of non-edible peanuts — two different crops, I contend, may make more sense in the future than 1,000 acres of edible peanuts and 1,000 acres of corn.
Satisfied we would not solve the nations energy crisis, Tom switched to politics. Who should I vote for president? Which of the three candidates would be best for agriculture?
I'm hard-pressed to recommend any of the current candidates, I replied. I don't think agriculture can survive another four or eight years of Republican business as usual. On the other hand, I don't trust either of the Democratic candidates any further than I can throw one of those parked 18-wheel diesel rigs that drivers can no longer afford to drive.
Tom says his grandfather told him a long time ago, “when the Republicans get elected, you better buy two pairs of shoes, because you won't be able to afford another pair until the democrats come back.” Being a college-educated progressive, conservative young agribusiness leader, Tom laughed off his grandfather's backward thinking. Tom isn't laughing anymore!
I told him, I get an opportunity to talk to a lot of farmers and their political views are much the same: We are not anti-American, but we've got to stop the war. We're not liberal, but we can't survive any more right-wing politics. Quietly, they whisper, “I'm going to have to vote for him or her, seemingly not able to vocalize the words Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama.
Most farmers I talk to agree that their most stable economic years in recent history came during the William Jefferson Clinton administration. Assuming Hillary and Bill share the same economic philosophies that would seem to be a point in her favor. On the other hand, she is a part of the Democratic-controlled Congress that seems to be determined to undermine agriculture.
Obama is an unknown. Maybe that's a good thing, I told Tom. If he does what he says he will do and stops the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that would give us an extra trillion dollars or so to use for something else. What that something else is concerns both Tom and me.
Then there is venerable old John McCain whose main claim to fame is being captured and held for several years by the supposedly technologically inferior North Vietnamese. “Just another W, Tom says, and the W doesn't stand for win”
It was good to hear from my friend — hadn't talked to him since we won a golf tournament a few years back. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, economics and politics are not among our scarce intellectual specialties. Being concerned about the future of agriculture is.