U.S.

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marijuana field

Is Marijuana making the California drought worse?

California continues its struggle against crippling drought-everyone is looking for someone or something to blame. The latest “villain” to come under attack is an easy target for headline-hungry media – cannabis farming, legal or otherwise, is ” sucking rivers dry”, according to Mike McGuire, Chairman of the California State Senate Joint Committee of Fisheries and Aquaculture.…

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grain elevators

From wheat to rice to beans, US agriculture has big appetite for expanded trade with Cuba

U.S. agriculture has a big appetite for freer trade with Cuba. From wheat to rice to beans, the industry stands to be one of the biggest beneficiaries of President Barack Obama’s plan to ease economic and travel restrictions imposed against the communist-ruled island.

Agricultural exports have been among the few exceptions to the half-century old U.S. trade embargo, though they’ve been subject to cumbersome rules — requiring cash payments up front before products are shipped, and that the payments go through banks in other countries that charge hefty fees for their services.

As a result, Latin American and Asian countries with fewer restrictions and easier financing have gained market share in recent years.

The removal of such trade barriers will make U.S. agricultural products “far more price competitive” in Cuba, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Wednesday as the Obama administration announced plans to restore diplomatic relations and to try to persuade Congress to lift the embargo.

Major U.S. farm groups including the American Farm Bureau Federation and National Farmers Union, as well as leading agribusinesses such as Cargill Inc., have long advocated normalized trade relations with Cuba, a market of 11 million consumers just 90 miles off U.S. shores.

Sales of U.S. agricultural products to Cuba peaked at over $710 million in 2008, before the recession, but fell to $350 million by 2013, according to the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. Frozen chicken, soybeans and soy products, and corn are the main products Cuba now buys from the United States.

It’s hard to quantify just how much of a boost the planned changes will give to U.S.-Cuban agricultural trade, said C. Parr Rosson III, head of the agricultural economics department at Texas A&M University. But he predicted it could grow to $400 million to $450 million within a couple of years.

“That’s just a back-of-the-envelope estimate on my part … but the market can make those swings very readily,” he said.

Cuba remains a poor, relatively small country, Rosson said. Its economy shifts depending on remittances sent home by Cubans living abroad, tourism, and nickel exports, he said. But liberalized rules for remittances and tourism should provide an early boost in demand, he said, and easier banking rules will eventually make a difference too. The boost would be even bigger if Congress ever dismantles the embargo, he said.

“We’re talking a monumental move to lift the embargo right now,” he said. “But things can change.”

Wheat growers in the Midwest expect new export opportunities since Cuba now buys nearly all its wheat from Canada and Europe. Cuba hasn’t bought U.S. wheat since 2011, but could import at least 500,000 metric tons of it annually, according to the National Association of Wheat Growers.

“If Cuba resumes purchases of U.S. wheat, we believe our market share there could grow from its current level of zero to around 80-90 per cent, as it is in other Caribbean nations,” Alan Tracy, president of U.S. Wheat Associates, said in a statement.

Dry beans, dry peas, lentils and potatoes are also big parts of the Cuban diet. That creates more opportunities for farmers in colder states like North Dakota, though they’ll still have to compete with cheaper Chinese beans, said Bill Thoreson, president of the U.S. Dry Bean Council.

“If we have normalized trade relations with them and are able to do away with some of the banking regulations, I believe there’s some real potential to do business with Cuba,” Thoreson said.

Rice producers in southern states and California are hoping to resume exports to Cuba for the first time since 2008, according to the USA Rice Federation.

“It’s an enormous rice market,” said Dwight Roberts, CEO of the U.S. Rice Producers Association. Roberts said believes imports of U.S. rice could someday reach the levels Cubans bought before the revolution.

 

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fresh blueberries in a bucket

Business booming for berry growers

KENAI, Alaska (AP) – Alaska Berries, which started out as a hobby for Brian Olson and his wife Laurie Olson, has expanded into a full-fledged business. Located on West Poppy Lane between Soldotna and Kenai, Alaska Berries sells a variety of jams, syrups and wine, all of which are produced from fruit grown on the Olsons’…

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christmas tree farm

Shoppers at Whole Foods know which cucumbers are organic and which are locally grown. They can choose grass-fed beef and eggs with a variety of stamps that certify the chickens were treated well.

The choice of which tree to put up in the living room, though, usually stopped with the breed and size — a six-foot Douglas fir or a nine-foot noble?

This year, customers can also buy a tree with the “Socially and Environmentally Responsible Farms” logo, which means it was grown according to sustainability qualifications. Oregon produces the most Christmas trees of any state, with about 6.1 million grown each year. More than half are sent across state lines, most to California, with a good chunk shipped to Southwest states, Hawaii and Mexico. In spite of the locavore, ethical food movement in the urban centers of the Northwest, Christmas trees – one of the last Oregon agricultural powerhouses — moved around the country without rigorous disclaimers about gluten content or how it was raised.

Until now.

Betty Malone of Sunrise Tree Farm is shipping her SERF-certified trees from Philomath to Whole Foods stores across the region, enjoying access to new buyers now that her 70 acres of Christmas trees come with a conscience.

“We could see it being an advantage in the marketplace, but we’re also getting a pat on the back for what we’ve been doing for decades, anyway,” Malone said, taking a minute between filling large late-season orders.

Malone and most Christmas tree farmers struggle to qualify for organic certifications, but grow their trees with low pesticide use and experiment with ways to be better stewards of their farmland.

Some of those farmers wanted to legitimize their practices, hoping that customers will value the effort, and to influence more Christmas tree farmers to adopt the same practices.

“It this program is successful and recognized, others will see it and come up to that standard,” farmer Terry Muilenburg said.

Muilenburg grew up on Green Valley Farms in Molalla, raising livestock and other products before switching to Christmas trees.

He always planted a strip of cover crop between the rows of grand, Douglas and noble firs and only sprayed pesticides close to the base of the tree to prevent mice from stripping the bark. The grass also makes a home for insects to live.

Eventually, Muilenburg wanted to differentiate his trees from tree farmers who spray the ground bare of grass. He hoped that an official program would influence more people in the industry to ensure their soil was well cared for and that erosion was kept in check.

Miulenburg was one of the first to earn his certificate. They invested in it — the Oregon Department of Agriculture’s inspection cost them about $400 to $500, plus the months it took to count and identify the insects that live on their crops and the bald eagles and Roosevelt elk that pass through their property.

The Muilenburgs haven’t seen a sales spike because of the certification, but secured a few customers who wanted SERF-certified trees.

“As far as we’re concerned, there’s really no financial payoff,” Muilenburg said. “But, if others step up to the plate, it’s worth it.”

Bob Schaefer, who runs the largest certified farm at 4,000 acres, echoed Muilenburg.

“I didn’t expect to see any real benefits short term, but I think long term, farms that are certified sustainable will resonate with the consuming public,” Schaefer said. “It’s a long-term process, just like growing a Christmas tree.”

Schaefer employs about 70 staff members year-round at Noble Mountain Tree Farm in Salem, and found that teaching them all to identify the soil and water protections required for certification also increased efficiency.

Noble Mountain displays the SERF logo prominently on its website and Schaefer appreciates when retailers print it on banners. It’s a stamp of quality to the farmers who earned it.

“I think most farmers do everything right, but certification is about documentation,” Schaefer said. “You can be doing things right, but to be certified you need to be documented.”

However, increased sales would be the best incentive to convince other farmers the logo is worth the money and time Schaefer spent to certify their trees.

Kate Allen, who audits the Christmas tree farms for the Oregon Department of Agriculture to ensure they meet the SERF guidelines, confirmed that the farms are usually just a stack of paperwork away from the sustainability seal.

“Christmas trees are a long-lived perennial crop, so they have to be thinking about sustainability and they have to be thinking about the land and how it best supports their crop,” Allen said.

But four farmers’ efforts only go so far. The Pacific Northwest Christmas Tree Association doesn’t have enough money to advertise the program heavily, said Executive Director Bryan Ostlund.

Ostlund said he expected more of a surge of interest in the four years since the program started, because of the growing demand to know where food comes from and how it’s produced. But, the industry is handicapped in messaging.

“Whole foods advertises and markets themselves 12 months out of the year, so consumers have a long time to become aware of who they are and what they do,” Ostlund said. “With Christmas trees, we are in and out of their view in the matter of a few weeks.”

Still, Ostlund wanted the industry to be ahead of the curve, so he can tell customers who to buy a sustainable tree from when they call.

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field of corn at dusk

The US Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recently announced $9.7 million in grants to 62 community-based and non-profit organizations, and educational institutions to conduct training, outreach and technical assistance for socially disadvantaged (including tribal) and veteran farmers and ranchers.

These awards are distributed through the Outreach and Assistance to Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers Program, also known as the “2501 Program.”

“Our nation’s farmers and ranchers are diverse in experience, background and knowledge, giving us the tools we need to build a resilient agricultural system,” said Vilsack. “Today’s announcement is part of our ongoing commitment to identify, recruit and train a vibrant next generation of farmers and ranchers who can carry American agriculture into the future. It is also part of our pledge to assist military veterans find economic opportunity as they return to civilian life.”

Secretary Vilsack made the announcement at the 2014 White House Tribal Nations Conference, a gathering of leaders from the country’s 566 federally recognized Tribes. The 2501 Program primarily partners with Historically Black Land Grant Universities (1890 Land Grant Institutions), Native American Land Grant Tribal Colleges and Universities (1994 Land Grant Institutions), Hispanic-Serving Institutions of higher education, and community-based and non-profit organizations that work with minority and veteran farmers and ranchers.

The 2501 Program has distributed more than $66 million to 250 partners since 2010. The 2014 Farm Bill reauthorized the program and expanded assistance to include military veterans. The program is administered by the USDA’s Office of Advocacy and Outreach.

Of the announced grants, 31 (50 percent) will support efforts in states participating in USDA’s StrikeForce for Rural Growth and Opportunity Initiative, an effort to direct USDA support and services to underserved rural areas experiencing chronic poverty. Twenty-five (39 percent) of the grants will go to partnerships directly targeting veterans interested in farming and are part of USDA’s enhanced commitment to expanding services to veterans in agriculture. Twelve grants (20 percent) will directly benefit tribal and native communities.

This year’s awards will be distributed in 34 states, Puerto Rico and the Federated States of Micronesia and are part of USDA’s efforts to support new and beginning farmers.

During his remarks at the Tribal Nations Conference, the Secretary announced additional support to Native communities including:

•A $5.4 million loan to upgrade broadband service for residents of New Mexico’s Mescalero Apache Reservation. This is the first telecommunications loan USDA has made under the Substantially Underserved Trust Area (SUTA) provision of the 2008 Farm Bill. Congress implemented SUTA to help USDA’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS) improve Tribal infrastructure including offering Tribal borrowers lower interest rates and extended payment terms for RUS loans. It also waives some requirements that applicants provide matching funds for approved projects.

•28 loans and grants totaling $4.1 million to 1994 Land Grant Tribal Colleges through USDA Rural Development’s Community Facilities program. This program provides loans and grants to construct, enlarge or improve community facilities for health care, public safety and public services.

•Partnerships between USDA and three Tribal Colleges (Oglala Lakota College, Kyle, S.D.; Institute of American Indian Arts, Santa Fe, N.M.; United Tribes Technical College, Bismarck, N.D.) to provide grant writing assistance and other services to help traditionally underserved communities access federal resources as appropriate.

USDA has made significant investments in economic development, housing and infrastructure projects benefiting American Indians and Alaska Natives. More information is available at www.usda.gov/tribalrelations.

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colorful bee hives

Canadian farmers may need to follow the lead of producers in North Dakota if they want to preserve their right to use modern agricultural technology such as seed treatments.

The state passed a right-to-farm amendment to its constitution in 2012 that enshrines a producer’s right to use scientifically proven agricultural practices.

“It’s going to give us a big leg up on special interest groups that come in from outside and want to tell us what to do and what not to do,” North Dakota Farm Bureau president Doyle Johannes said shortly after voters in the state approved the amendment in a ballot initiative.

“They’re not going to stop. That was the big thing, to beat these people back. We don’t need outsiders coming here and telling us how to do things.”

North Dakota Farm Bureau executive vice-president Jeff Missling said neonicotinoid seed treatments are an example of a scientifically approved practice that activist groups would like to eliminate.

The Ontario government announced Nov. 25 that it plans to cut the use of neonicotinoid seed treatments by 80 percent on corn and soybeans. Provincial officials said the reductions are necessary because the insecticides are a threat to pollinators and the broader ecosystem.

Grain Farmers of Ontario and other agricultural groups have said the policy is outrageous and unscientific.

Barry Senft, GFO’s chief executive officer, said environmental groups had a disproportionate influence on the government’s decision.

The David Suzuki Foundation and the Sierra Club of Canada helped lead the campaign against neonicotinoid seed treatments in Ontario.

Missling said the Ontario decision is a classic case of activists meddling in agricultural practices.

“Your (Ontario) example is so appropriate because we see things happening every day to our industry,” Missling said from his office in Fargo, N.D.

“Challenges to the use of modern technologies that have been proven and have been tested.”

Missling said North Dakota’s constitutional amendment doesn’t provide absolute protection for producers. An environmental group or animal rights organization that wanted to test its validity would have to initiate a campaign to alter a farm practice in North Dakota.

“It would have to be challenged in the court system for it to have any teeth,” Missling said.

“We hope the language is strong enough to address issues like (neonics), but ultimately it will take a lawsuit to prove that one day.”

Keystone Agricultural Producers president Doug Chorney said activist groups might claim they are acting in the public’s interest, but typically that’s not their goal.

“It seems like they are motivated more by changing the method of agricultural production for crops and livestock,” he said.

“They have some reminiscent image of agriculture that doesn’t exist anymore…. These activists’ goal of taking us back to that is not only regressive for farmers … but it has ripples through our whole economy.”

Missling said he’s received inquiries from agricultural groups in other states that would like to follow North Dakota’s lead.

Missouri voters approved a similar constitutional amendment ensuring producers “right to farm” earlier this year.

“It would not surprise me at all if Canadian producers got together… and tried to put together some protection,” Missling said.

“The resounding theme I continue to hear is that these regulations are coming at us more rapidly than ever before. And they’re coming at us from angles we’ve never seen before.”

Missling said the pressure on agriculture is not going to abate. Farmers in places such as Montana or Manitoba should not feel safe just because they are thousands of kilometres from major cities.

“North Dakota is one of the more desolate (and rural) states in the United States,” he said.

“But even a state like ours continues to be under attack. We’re having meetings next week with government agencies galore to try and solve some issues…. Just because you have a more (isolated) setting does not mean you’re immune to these attacks.”

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thanksgiving dinner on table

Agriculture Officials Encourage Shopping Local For Thanksgiving Meals

As Massachusetts residents plan their Thanksgiving Day menus, state agriculture officials are asking that they consider buying local.

Several communities are planning to hold holiday farmers’ markets over the weekend and leading up the holiday, featuring turkeys, cranberries, pumpkins and other Massachusetts-grown food products.
For example, America’s Hometown Thanksgiving Celebration Harvest Market will be held from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday at Pilgrim Memorial Park in Plymouth.

The Department of Agriculture also says Red Apple Farm is sponsoring its 12th annual Thanksgiving Harvest Festival in Philipston over the weekend.

More than 40 farmers markets continue operating through the winter in Massachusetts.

Read the full article here.

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turkeys

Turkey production is at its lowest level in nearly three decades and wholesale prices are at an all-time high, but Thanksgiving cooks probably won’t see much difference in the price they pay at the stores for their frozen birds.

This year’s anticipated stock is 235 million, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service — the lowest since 1986, when U.S. farmers produced roughly 207 million birds.

While the estimated 2014 number doesn’t indicate a shortage of turkeys, which can remain in cold storage for a year or longer, it does reflect a pullback in recent years by poultry producers who were forced to reduce their flocks to remain afloat.

“Last year was a bloodbath. It was bad,” said John Zimmerman, a farmer in Northfield, Minnesota, who produces about 300,000 turkeys a year. He said scaled back his numbers in recent years because higher feed and transportation prices, among other things, cut into his bottom line. Even the price of soybean meal — which accounts for about 30 per cent of turkey feed — is at a historical high, he said.

All areas of livestock production — poultry included — were drastically cut after the widespread 2012 drought in an attempt to stifle losses, says Corinne Alexander, a Purdue University agricultural economist. Plus, many farmers are using feed that they bought in the wake of the drought, which cost more than the current market price.

“What’s happening in the turkey sector is a mini-story of what is happening in other sectors, where the impact has been really dramatic,” Alexander said. “If you look at beef cattle, we have the smallest beef cattle herd since 1951, and prices for beef are up 17 per cent this year.”

October wholesale prices for live turkeys jumped 12 per cent from 2013, from 72 cents per pound to 81 cents, NASS commodities statistician Michael Klamm said. And frozen turkey wholesale prices were expected to be between $1.12 and $1.16 per pound in the fourth quarter — up from $1.05 per pound at this time last year, the USDA said.

But consumers won’t necessarily see that reflected in the price of their Thanksgiving meal centerpiece.

“There’s really no correlation between what grocery store chains are paying and what they’re selling them at,” USDA agriculture economist David Harvey said.

Turkey numbers peaked in 1996, with nearly 303 million birds.

Read the full article here.

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golden wheat field

Monsanto Co. said Wednesday it will pay nearly $2.4 million to settle a dispute with farmers in the Pacific Northwest over genetically modified wheat.

No genetically engineered wheat has been approved for U.S. farming, but it was found in Oregon in 2013.

That discovery prompted Japan and South Korea to temporarily suspend some wheat orders, and the European Union called for more rigorous testing of U.S. shipments.

Agriculture Department officials said the modified wheat discovered in the Oregon field is the same strain as a genetically modified wheat that was designed to be herbicide-resistant and was tested by seed giant Monsanto a decade ago but never approved.

St. Louis-based Monsanto said that it is settling the case rather than pay for an extended legal battle.

The company will put roughly $2.1 million into a settlement fund to pay farmers in Washington, Oregon and Idaho who sold soft white wheat between May 30 and Nov. 30 of 2013.

Monsanto will also pay a total of $250,000 to wheat growers’ associations, including the National Wheat Foundation, the Washington Association of Wheat Growers, the Oregon Wheat Growers’ League and the Idaho Grain Producers Association.

Representatives for the growers’ groups could not be reached immediately for comment.

The USDA said in September that it believes the genetically modified wheat in Oregon was the result of an isolated incident and that there is no evidence of that wheat in commerce. The report said the government still doesn’t know how the modified seeds got into the fields.

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dry soybeans in field

Low Crop Prices to Weigh on North American Farmers’ Bottom Lines-BMO Economics

TORONTO, ONTARIO and CHICAGO, ILLINOIS

North American farmers are facing the lowest crop prices in years as a record harvest drives up supply – especially for corn and soybeans, the continent’s top crops – according to a report from BMO Economics released to coincide with the Fall harvest.

Despite the challenging environment, most farmers should weather the downturn in relatively strong form, as it comes after several years of near-record farm earnings. Soaring hog and cattle prices will also allow diversified operators to offset lower crop revenue with higher livestock earnings, noted Aaron Goertzen, Economist, BMO Capital Markets.

In the report, Mr. Goertzen also points to large crop stockpiles, muted global export demand and limited rail capacity as key factors that will likely continue to depress prices for leading crops into 2015.

Furthermore, overall crop production is not expected to drop much next year because the high cost of land and machinery will drive most producers to forge ahead with planting even though market conditions are weak. Mr. Goertzen notes that crop prices could begin to recover once the size of next year’s crop can be gauged.

“After an atrocious growing season in 2012, North American farmers are now in the process of cultivating a second straight bumper crop,” Mr. Goertzen said. “Yields on corn and soybeans, the continent’s two largest crops, approached all-time highs in 2013 and look to have blown the previous records out of the water this year,” he said.

Crop prices in North America were flirting with all-time highs just two years ago, spurred by several years of lacklustre growing conditions and the worst U.S. drought in 25 years. Crop prices have declined sharply since then, with corn and soybean prices down 34 per cent and 25 per cent year-over-year respectively.

Prices for corn and soybeans fell sharply amid rising output, with corn production up 3 per cent in North America this year, and 10 per cent over the previous record in 2010. Soybean production in North America is up 17 per cent over last year.

Crop sizes will likely remain high next year as well because farmers will have few alternatives to reallocate acreage in an environment where prices for most key crops, including wheat and canola, are low.

“Crop prices are unlikely to rebound with gusto any time soon, and scarce rail capacity will also exacerbate the supply overhang, particularly in U.S. states where oil producers compete against farmers for space on the tracks,” said Mr. Goertzen. He noted that a more moderate harvest in Canada will make transportation less problematic north of the border this year.

“Our clients have experienced a big improvement in growing conditions since the lingering effects of the drought in 2012 and delayed planting last year have worn off,” said Sam Miller, Managing Director and Head, Agriculture, BMO Harris Bank. “The result of this year’s vast crop, however, is that prices have trended downward for much of 2014. As we look ahead to 2015, margins will be squeezed with prices declining at a greater rate than costs of production. Supply and demand in grains will eventually come back into balance if there is a reduced overall supply, continued increase in global demand, and weather that would keep excess yield in check.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that total U.S. crop revenue will decline around 7 per cent this year, or some $15 billion. BMO Economics notes that Canada will likely be hit even harder, with crop revenue estimated to be down 9 per cent for the year. The USDA expects corn, wheat and canola will all be exported in lower quantities from North America this year.

The good news is that most farmers should be relatively well equipped to handle the dip, even if it lasts a while. Since farm incomes are backing away from near-record highs, most producers should be able to weather temporarily lower profitability.

“Fluctuations in crop yields, production and prices are nothing new,” said Andrew Bowman, National Director, Agriculture, BMO Bank of Montreal. “But as a group, farmers are highly proficient risk managers and, as such, we remain confidence in their ability to manage through fluctuating crop prices.”

The full report can be downloaded at www.bmocm.com/economics.

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