Choose Your Own Disaster

So as some of you have noticed I have been granted the honor of providing the annual speech at this year’s state of the union for Ulster County CCE. I have worked hard on this project to fulfill my personal theme of “putting humanity back into agriculture.” In working through that theme I explored several avenues and one of them was the creation of a choose your own adventure to highlight some of the major issues facing producers right now. Ultimately it wasn’t a good fit, didn’t get the point across, and was kind of a bummer. So I scrapped the project but decided to share one of them as a little exercise. Below is the beef producer scenario. It’s not perfect, but it an interesting exercise as it shows some of the real issues facing our producers right now. 
 Choose your own adventure Beef

After the passing of your father you and your wife inherit the family farm. You run beef on a 100 acres just the way your father had for the last forty years except for the debt that you have incurred from the purchase of your big tractor and hay making equipment that, according to the dealer, will allow you to “make the best hay this side of the Hudson.” You leave the cattle out all summer in one continuous paddock and then come fall, you bring all the cattle into the barn and feed them hay that you have been making. 
 You have 10 animals that are finished and ready for processing. It may seem like there is not a lot of money put into the beefers but in reality there was all the fuel for the tractor, the bailing twine and replacement mower blades, and of course, all of the personal time that you have invested in the project. Because you and your wife both work full time jobs you do not have the time to work at farmers markets to sell your meat locally. You really need to recoup the money that you spent making hay and buying grain to fatten up these animals so you have to get the best price that you can get for them.
 Do you

  1. Take them to the auction to be auctioned off to the highest bidder?
  2. Have the animals processed at a USDA processor and attempt to find wholesale grocery buyers to purchase your meat for retail purposes.
  3. Shut down the beef operation and sell the grain bins to the local cell phone company to install cell communication equipment.
  4. Keep them over for a couple of months to see if you can better price on the spring market.

1. You take your animals to auction.The beef market is in a slump.This is due to a few factors but mostly because of die off and shortage of animals two years ago.These prices nudged producers to ramp up production without realizing that here would be a glut of animals in two years as everyone was doing the same thing.You get less than half per pound what you did one year ago, lose money on the cattle and hope that next year will bring better prices.
 2. You are lucky, there are several USDA processors in the area.You are not lucky because they are so busy that they have been booked for 9 months ahead of schedule.Fortunately there is an opening and for an additional fee you are able to get your animals in and broken down into primals for sale to the local grocery store.When you return with your truck load of product the manager regrets to inform you that they can no longer pay what they had originally contracted.They have just signed a contract with a producer in Brazil who is able to raise and transport his beef at half the cost of your product.When asked what the animals were fed and how they were handled the manager shrugs and says the only things he looks at is the bottom line.You reluctantly take his price, lose money and hope that next year will be better.
 3. You shut down the beef operation, sell the grain bins to the cell phone company, place solar panels in some of the fields, and sell a corner lot for new houses.You are able to go on vacation but every day you miss you cattle, you miss the smell of the grass and you miss your place in agriculture.
 4. You wait and wait with the animals consuming more feed because they need more calories during the colder winter months.In February one of the steers gets stuck on a gate and requires a vet visit and stitches.Come spring, you find the market hasn’t really budged.You take them to auction and they receive a discount because they are ultimately too fat.

These scenarios may seem extreme but each one of these has happened to someone that I know personally. It’s tough for our farmers to make a living in our globalized economy. That’s why it is so important that we shop local and get to know our producers. The American food system may be complex but finding the best food and keeping your dollars local is just a farm visit away (don’t forget your boots).