REYNOLDSBURG, OH – The Ohio Department of Agriculture today announced it will receive $478,600 to help growers and handlers of organic agricultural products recover part of the cost of their U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) certification.
COLUMBUS, Ohio – The National Climate Assessment finds climate stressors, such as weeds and diseases, are threatening the future of farming.
But the report also suggests that sustainable agriculture practices could help slow the pace of climate change.
Mud Run Farm in Stark County is a small organic operation. Owner Alex Dragovich says changes of his farm’s position in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s plant hardiness zone maps indicate a shift to warmer temperatures for growing.
And he admits there have been some changes in weather patterns impacting agriculture in Ohio.
“The season went from very cold to warm in a short amount of time and then a lot of rain,” he points out. “Can I say that that’s climate change? Maybe in the long-term but not in the short-term. It’s like a chronic illness, you don’t realize you have it until it’s too late.”
Dragovich says his farm uses earth-friendly practices that reduce carbon emissions.
He’s cut back on the use of diesel fuels by powering his farm mostly with horses and also manages cover crops, which reduce the amount of tractor time needed in the fields.
The National Climate Assessment found that the resiliency of the agriculture system can be increased through sustainable methods such as diversifying crop rotations, integrating livestock with crop production systems and minimizing off-farm flows of nutrients and pesticides.
Dragovich says he’s hopeful the next farming generation embraces sustainable methods, and considers the impact agricultural practices have on the environment.
“I see a lot of young people taking up the organic mantra and trying to save this planet,” he says. “So hopefully these young people will be a little more respective of Mother Earth and hopefully will be better at it than my generation.”
Recent research found organic farming methods that encourage soil health create higher yielding crops better able to cope with weather-related stressors compared to conventional farming.
On Saturdays at the Worthington Farmers Market, Licking County rancher John Wiley sells every piece and package of beef he brings.
Thanks to historic high prices for both beef and live cattle, Wiley’s grass-fed cuts aren’t cheap, but that hasn’t hurt his sales, and he’s working to produce more.
High prices, unrelenting demand and decent weather have Ohio’s cattle herds once again on the rise. Buckeye ranchers added 2 percent to their stock this year over last, one of the few states to do so, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said.
But unlike businesses that make toys, cars or computers, adding production capacity at the ranch level isn’t as easy as throwing up a new building or contracting with another manufacturer. It’s complicated by fickle markets, biology and weather, say Wiley and other experts.
Beef is a different sort of animal.
Americans have a love affair with beef, and insatiable demand in a headwind of historic prices proves it.
“We’ve seen demand continue to increase,” said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic, which tracks the restaurant industry. “Consumption is up. Consumers like their beef and burgers.”
The U.S. beef herd has long been in decline. The nation’s herd size peaked in the 1990s and has lost 38 million head since. It is now as small as it was in 1951, when there were half as many Americans to feed, according to USDA and U.S. census records.
Recent droughts — the widespread calamity of 2011 and the current rainfall deficit in the West — have prompted ranchers to cull millions from their herds because they have become too expensive to feed.
“We are starting to see signs of some hints toward expansion,” said Elizabeth Harsh, president of the Ohio Cattlemen’s Association. “Ohio has been fortunate. … We have been in a different weather pattern. Beef producers are at the mercy of Mother Nature.”
Ohio’s pasture and range lands are in good shape, with 93 percent in fair to excellent condition, according to the USDA’s latest crop report. In major beef-producing states such as Texas, Kansas and Colorado, 20 percent to 35 percent of pastures are in poor to very poor condition. In California, the report rated 75 percent of pasture as poor to very poor.
Partly because of good grazing conditions, Ohio’s ranchers kept more heifers (young female cows) to breed and are looking to grow their herds as their operations allow, Harsh said. Wiley has added 20 cows to his operation, Up the Lane Farm, through the past couple of years, but he is now at capacity.
Wiley said his fellow ranchers struggle with the decision to cash in their cows at today’s prices or hold a few back and grow a bit to see if tomorrow brings even better returns.
“Some of these guys are more likely to hang on when the prices are up,” Wiley said. “The animals are worth so much money, it is almost too expensive to turn them into meat.”
Calves are sold by weight, and weigh between 450 to 800 pounds. Prices for calves in June 2013 ranged from $640 to $1,000, the USDA said. This June, prices ranged from $1,000 to $1,600.
“We keep raising our (retail beef) prices to keep up,” Wiley said. “But everything we do keeps costing more; everything from hay and the price of calves. I would say it has doubled in about five years.”
Because of the high price of calves and low herd count, fewer animals are being sent to slaughter this year, the USDA said. Harsh and Wiley agree that there are fewer cows at local processors.
If true expansion happens, it’ll come slowly.
“Predictions aren’t for a rapid expansion anytime soon,” said Stephen Boyles, a beef expert with Ohio State University Extension. “I see interest, but I’m not sure I have seen a lot of action.”
To hold back a heifer to expand a herd through breeding and raising a calf is a two- to three-year commitment, Boyles said. That is a long-term investment without a guarantee that prices will remain high. Just buying a calf and raising it for slaughter takes 12 to 18 months.
Wiley said his customers often ask why he doesn’t bring more meat to the farmers market when he knows he has a strong customer base.
“What I tell people is that the animals I have now are the ones I bought two years ago,” Wiley said. “I didn’t know you’d be here two years ago.”
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there now are federal commodity checkoffs for beef, blueberries, Christmas trees, cotton, dairy products, eggs, fluid milk, Hass avocados, “Honey Packers and Importers,” lamb, mango, mushrooms, paper and paper-based packaging, peanuts, popcorn, pork, potatoes, processed raspberries, softwood lumber, sorghum, soybeans and watermelons.
Let’s see, that’s 1, 2, 3… whoa, 22.
These 22 federally mandated, largely nonrefundable, commodity checkoffs raise most of an estimated $750 million per year from U.S. farmers and ranchers to promote everything from, well, avocados to watermelons.
Wait, there’s more
Long as that menu is, however, it’s not the whole checkoff enchilada. USDA operates another 35 or so federal commodity marketing orders and many states oversee dozens more local commodity checkoffs.
For example, there are at least 22 state corn checkoffs — for varying amounts per bushel; some refundable, some not — that contribute a portion of their money to a coordinated national corn promotion effort.
Also, many state beef groups either now have or are pursuing statewide beef checkoffs to add up to another $1 per head to fund state-specific beef promotion programs on top of the $1-per-head nonrefundable federal checkoff each beef and dairy producer already pays upon sale of their animals.
Combine state and national checkoff collections and it’s guessed — because checkoff data is not compiled — that American farmers and ranchers pay $1.25 billion per year for commodity promotion and research.
That pile will grow if the Organic Trade Association, a self-described “membership-based business association for the organic industry in North America,” is able to sway federal lawmakers to endorse an organic checkoff in the next two years.
OTA claims a checkoff would carry benefits for farmers and industry alike. It sees the money, pegged between $20 million and $40 million per year, as a way to “distinguish organic in the market place, grow demand and help the consumer understand all that organic delivers.” (Links to documents are posted at http://farmandfoodfile.com/in-
To raise the money, OTA is pushing an assessment plan it calls “broad and shallow” for everyone in the organic “supply chain.” Everyone “means not only producers,” according to OTA, but also “handlers, brand manufacturers, co-packers (and) importers.”
Exempted from paying any checkoff, however, would be “organic certificate holders” (most players in the U.S. organic market must be “certified” organic by USDA) with gross annual sales of $250,000 or less.
The proposed assessment advocated by OTA is 1/10 of 1 percent of gross organic revenue greater than $250,001 per year. “For example,” OTA explains, “there would be a $1,000 assessment at $1,000,000 gross organic revenue.”
While OTA’s checkoff plan is relatively broader and cheaper than its federal siblings, most organic farmers see little need for it.
Ed Maltby, executive director of the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance, recently posted a lengthy discussion on NODPA’s website on what he calls OTA’s “one-sided propaganda campaign” for the checkoff.
In fact, writes Maltby, the push by OTA, “a trade organization using emotive language and a well-financed program,” will be “counter-productive at a time when the [organic] community needs to be united in the face of many marketplace and USDA threats…”
Most farmers and rancher, however, continued to support state and national commodity checkoffs despite little independent evidence to suggest any of billions spent on checkoffs in the last 25 years has had any material impact on prices received by farmers and ranchers.
Indeed, checkoff detractors often point to the dramatic drop in farmer and rancher numbers over the life of current checkoffs as simple proof that farm- and ranch-financed promotion efforts have had little to no impact whatsoever on farm and ranch prices, profits and lives.
They’re right, checkoffs should be about more farmers making more, not fewer maker more. As such, it’s hard to see how the latest checkoff scheme is little more than more of the same.