The beating heart and soul of the vegetable industry (or any horticultural enterprise) are the growers that produce and market the product that consumers purchase. As I view the landscape and think of the growers that I have worked with over the years, they represent a tapestry of ages, experience, personalities and sizes of operations but they all share one important thing – a love for the land and a passion for growing and marketing a crop. I believe that each day we should thank the dedicated growers who put food on our tables. As one grower said to me, they look at two things: weather and markets. There is no bigger gambler than a farmer who plants and nurtures their crop, hoping they will earn a little profit from what they have invested.
You know what the growers are up against this year with fertilizer and fuel costs on an upward trajectory with no end in sight. The cost of diesel fuel for my own small tractor has at least doubled; you can see the effect this will have on a farming operation that has multiple tractors and other machinery. I was talking to Chris Harner of Harner Farms, a retail market in State College, PA. He said that he picked up some urea fertilizer and the price was 155% higher than 2020 prices. If you compare the prices of other fertilizers to September 2020 prices, ammonia has increased over 210%, liquid nitrogen has increased over 159%, urea is up 155% and MAP has increased 125%. DAP is up over 100% and potash has risen above 134%.
These costs of production for growers must be passed on to the consumer in the higher price of produce. It’s not only the cost of fuel on the farm but also the cost of transportation of the produce – in the case of large growers, to the terminal markets or to the warehouses, or in the case of produce auctions to the site of the auction house. Think about a load of broccoli being shipped from California to Massachusetts. In the 1980s I was working on producing broccoli in North Carolina because we were viewing the cost of transportation to ship a load of broccoli from California as an opportunity for us to gain some share of that market. Today there is a big integrated research/Extension/grower project to produce broccoli up and down the East Coast which has increased the large-scale production by growers such as Brian Campbell Farms, Berwick, PA, which produces 250 acres of broccoli. Brian mentioned his costs for pallets and bins have gone up 30%, seed costs 20%, fertilizer between 30% and 50% and of course fuel costs.
Labor is a continuing problem each year. Brian’s is a large operation; in addition to his broccoli, he produces 400 acres of pumpkins, 400 acres of sweet corn, some peppers and cabbage for an autumn market opportunity. Brian believes the relationships he’s developed over the years are key to being successful in today’s volatile environment.
It seems to me that growers selling to auction houses this season could see a potential challenge. They have all the increases in costs associated with production but won’t know the price they’ll receive until they deliver the produce to the auction. The question is what buyers are willing to pay for produce. Hopefully that amount will cover the increased cost of production, the fee that the auction charges and allow for a margin of profit. Relationships come into play in these markets too. Jeff Stoltzfus, Penn State Extension, who works with growers in Lancaster County, acknowledged the increase in cost of production but said that his growers have a shorter value chain and thus produce reaches the consumer quicker and that family labor was a benefit in times of increased costs of production.
On the other side of the scale is Plowshare Produce in McAlevy’s Fort, PA, run by Micah and Bethany Schonberg who farm a small organic CSA operation. They said they were farming almost four acres of mixed crops, but they double crop as much as two-thirds of their acres and are very intensive. They have around 90 people in their CSA. They raised the price of membership this year and said that last year was a good year. Increased cost of fuel and other inputs affect them also. Again, knowing the grower and being close to the food chain is a positive aspect to their operation.
I also checked in with Steve Groff, Cedar Meadow Farm in Lancaster County, who has been an innovator in growing cover crops and incorporating soil improving techniques and minimum tillage on his farm for a long time. He told me that he’s probably reduced his nitrogen cost by half and his fuel costs are also lower because of less tillage operations and trips across the field. These are substantial savings. In my own research on cover crops I saw the power that nitrogen-fixing legumes such as hairy vetch and Austrian winter pea provided to vegetable production systems. Steve believes that if fertilizer costs get high enough, growers will begin to transition in larger numbers to cover crops and low-till techniques. He wrote an excellent book (“The Future-Proof Farm”) which relates his personal journey to where his farm is today. He said growers that want to move to more cover crops and low-till systems should find someone near their farm who is moving in the direction they want to go and learn from them.
In talking with growers, I believe that the buy local movement, whether in supermarkets, retail stands, auction houses or CSAs, will continue to expand, especially in periods of uncertainty and concern over shortages. We have the greatest food system in the world and dedicated farmers of all sizes and kinds of operations feed into it each day.
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