Empty Shelves and Farm Economics

My mom sent me pictures of the meat cases at her nearby grocery store. Many shelves were sparsely filled, while others were completely bare. We seem to be facing wave after wave of disruptions in our commodity markets, and there’s little sign of these oscillations damping any time soon.

Not exactly empty, but this isn’t the sort of meat case we’re used to seeing in stores.

Now, I’m not here to whip up a frenzy about scarcity. You don’t need to panic buy. Our farm is well-stocked, and as I trend things out, I don’t foresee any danger of food shortages at WDF.

But it provides a good opportunity to talk about the macro-economic issues of the day as they affect our farm. Every economic story you read sems to press three big buttons: labor shortages, inflation, and supply chain disruptions. So let’s run down each of these in brief and discuss how they are impacting our farm.

Labor

This is the easiest to address since all of the farm’s labor currently comes from within our family. The workforce is secure for the present. In a couple of years this will change as the older two kids enter college and begin to project their lives into new directions. So at some point in the near future I’ll need to consider how to incorporate outside employees, but that isn’t an issue for this year.

One area where I have been rethinking labor is in regards to my own. I’ve always done things myself: construction, repairs, maintenance. But I’m trying to let some of those jobs go, hiring out work to others so I can focus more on the management of the farm. It feels weird, almost a bit embarrassing, to bring a truck in to a mechanic to replace the exhaust manifold. This is work I’ve done for myself for many years. But the farm has needs that I’m best suited to address, and there are lots of other people who are in a better position to fix the truck. Although this change has been hard to accept, I’ve been glad to see the farm flourish in new ways as I’ve been able to focus more of my attention on it without the distraction of more periphery matters.

Inflation

Consumer prices are reported to be in the 6-7% inflation range year over year. But when I look at the bills I’m paying on the farm, most of them are much higher than their levels during this period last winter. Poultry feed prices are up 40% and will probably surge higher this summer. The new cardboard boxes I ordered are 19% more than last year. Dry ice jumped 31%. Freezer warehouse prices for our pallets in storage went up 10%. I wanted to order a trailer to replace our worn-out dump trailer, but between my first and second visit to the dealer the price increased 48%!

The only recent prices I’ve seen that are in line with the consumer price index are the new fees we’re paying for shipping (UPS raised its prices by 6%). In looking at my recent bills, I can only find one bill that is still at the same level as last year – my monthly internet service. I don’t have the data or the knowledge to argue whether the Consumer Price Index is representative, but if I were to create a “Farmer Price Index” I’d peg inflation above 10%.

Supply Chain Chaos

We have experienced some difficulty with supply chain shortages during 2020 and 2021. At various times we ran into problems at the retail side with cardboard, box insulation, ice packs, vacuum bags for meat, and dry ice. On the farm backend, we also dealt with long backorders on portable electric fence supplies, equipment tires, vehicle repair parts, and assorted pieces of hardware. I don’t know what the next shortage will be in 2022, but I’m sure something will catch us unprepared.

One supply issue of special concern is with the national Organic grain stockpile. Several key grain ingredients are unavailable or in short supply. The most proximate cause is the devastating crop failures experienced by farmers in the Canadian prairies last year. This has cascaded across the global market and translated into extremely limited stocks of the higher-protein grain crops, particularly yellow peas, sunflower seeds, and flax seeds. Organic soybeans and soybean meal are also harder to get this year. The whole Organic grain market is a mess, so we’ll have to pick our way through things carefully.

Resilient Food

As much as I like to champion the social value of distributed, local, and small food producers as an alternative to the dominant consolidated, too-big-to-fail system, I can’t pretend that our farm is immune to larger disruptions. We’re all buffeted by the same forces. Whether they be natural, political, or economic forces, they’re challenging for everyone.

But I still believe that if we want to build resiliency into our society, we would be better off by being honest about the structural fragilities inherent in concentrations of power and production. We could fashion a more stable, more dependable food system if we brought our consumption patterns into a more regionally-appropriate and locally-sourced model.

I want to see a flourishing landscape of producers. And I want more direct connections between producers and consumers. That’s my hope.

And to reassure you once again… A few people have contacted me recently wondering if they should stock up because of the food shortages they’re hearing about. While I’d be delighted to get a bunch of big orders, I don’t think we’re in any kind of panic situation. We have plenty of food. All three of our freezers are full, and we have pallets of frozen meat stored in another off-site freezer warehouse.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: