Originally published February 9, 2011 at 9:04 a.m., updated February 9, 2011 at 9:19 a.m.
Callaway County farmers not only make substantial contributions to the nation’s food supplies, they also make significant purchases at local stores to help boost the economy, says Hadley Linnenbringer of Auxvasse, president of the Callaway County Farm Bureau.
This week the Missouri Farm Bureau is urging Missourians to observe Thank A Farmer Week.
Linnenbringer, who farms 1,300 acres in the Hatton area, says farmers today need to make major investments in land to be able to produce enough grain to justify purchases of large farm equipment.
The American Farm Bureau reports the average farmer today produces enough food to feed 155 people.
Linnenbringer said farmers like himself help support several city businesses. “When farmers go to town they make purchases at several places. We also go to the grocery store and buy our food there like everyone else,” Linnenbringer said.
“The average person does not support as many businesses as farmers, who have to buy so many things at a wide variety of businesses,” Linnenbringer said.
Jim Zerr, a Williamsburg area farmer, said “agriculture is critical to the survival of people. People need food to survive. That makes farmers important. Americans have the most wholesome, affordable and safe food in the world,” Zerr said.
A member of the board of directors of the Callaway County Farm Bureau, Zerr said biotech research is improving seeds and has made other advancements that allow farmers to produce more abundantly and efficiently in order to help keep food costs low.
Grain produced for food also has byproducts that contribute to other products. Corn can also produce ethanol for gasoline and soybeans can produce biodiesel in addition to a myriad of food products.
“We had about 12.5 billion bushels of corn raised last year and 4 billion bushels were used for ethanol. But of that 4 billion bushels, at least 1 billion bushels of byproducts were created that went back to the farm in the form of livestock and poultry feed. So that means that only 3 billion bushels of corn are used for production of ethanol,” Zerr said.
As a mainly livestock farmer, Linnenbringer has a slightly different perspective.
“Ethanol has helped grain farmers but it has really hurt the livestock and dairy farmers because it has inflated the price of corn and raised the cost of raising cattle,” Linnenbringer said.
“Unfortunately,” Linnenbringer said, “we sell at wholesale prices but we buy everything at retail prices.”
Unlike retail stores, farmers cannot set the price for grain and livestock they produce and sell. In a good year when grain is abundant, prices to farmers tend to go down because of the economic law of supply and demand.
But when prices to farmers go down, they often stay the same or even increase at the grocery shelf.
“As a farmer we have to take whatever the market price is. We can’t say we need to have at least this much to cover our costs. If our costs are more than what we receive, that’s just tough,” Linnenbringer said.
“People think there’s a lot of money coming to farmers now but they don’t consider our expenses. In 1970 I sold beef for 30 cents a pound and bought gas at 19 cents a gallon. I could basically buy two gallons of gas for one pound of beef. Beef is now about $1 and gas costs about $3 a gallon. So now we are on the opposite side of where we were when I began farming about 40 years ago,” Linnenbringer said.
“It looks like a lot of money coming out here but by the time all expenses are met there’s not much left to live on,” Linnenbringer said.
“When a tractor takes 100 gallons of gas and you use it all up in one day, that’s a $300 you’ll never see again. And that is just one of the expenses for that day,” he added.
With corn at $6 a bushel and feeder cattle as expensive as they are now, Linnenbringer doesn’t see much prospect for a profit.
Linnenbringer said the price of beef has been going up lately because farmers are reluctant to raise livestock. “The number of cows in the nation is now reported to be the lowest it has been since 1950,” Linnenbringer said.
Linnenbringer said farmers are environmentally beneficial because they can use the land to reproduce each year but they must conserve and use the land wisely to keep it efficient.
“Americans can go to grocery stores and buy just about anything they could ever want at reasonable prices. But in a lot of other nations that’s not the case. There may be only one thing on the shelf and it might be too expensive,” Linnenbringer said.
One way food stays so cheap, Zerr says, is through biotech improvements. Farmers are finding ways through improvements in seeds and fertilizers as well as control of weeds and insects to produce higher crop yields.
“We can produce more corn per acre. The national average last year was slightly over 150 bushels per acre. I think Missouri’s average was about 127 bushels per acre. Last year we had excess moisture in the spring and high humidity in the summer, which cut the yield in some areas. Improvements in corn seed the last few years have bumped that yield per acre up,” Zerr said.
Unlike many other nations, Americans spend only about 10 percent of their disposable income on food. “That proves we are producing efficiently,” Zerr said.
The nation’s balance of payment trade is improved by exports of grains from the United States. “We now export one row in four of soybeans,” Zerr said.
With 2 million U.S. farmers, they are less than 1 percent of the nation’s population. But Zerr said agriculture-related jobs account for 10 percent of the population in the nation. “The number of people required to get food to the grocery store takes a lot of people,” he said.
Farmers also provide the nation with more than food. The Missouri Farm Bureau reports the list includes such things as clothing, cosmetics, cleaning supplies, paint, fuel, ink, and pet supplies.
“Farmers are not looking for a pat on the back,” Zerr said, “We are just trying to make a better effort of informing the public on how the process works and the important role that farmers play.”