Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Rules To Accept When Living On A Farm Or Ranch

This is a “living” list that will continue to grow as time marches on. I have personally experienced each of these and have been able to accept the humor in each event (some more than once). Hopefully, after reading them, you will be quicker to find the lighter side as you experience, or have experienced them.

Pertaining To Children:

Rule #1: DO NOT leave keys in 4 wheelers, trucks & tractors. If U have to ask, you don't have kids.

Rule #2: Hide clippers, or dogs WILL get hair cuts.

Rule #3: If they see an animal or bird eat it, they will.

Rule #4: If there is a mud puddle, leak around a riser, ditch, sprinkler or hose, they WILL get wet.

Rule #5: DO NOT leave ladders leaning up against hay stacks.

Rule #6: If you do not secure slides at the bottom of elevated grain tanks, they WILL open them.

Rule #7: Don't leave partial buckets of hydraulic fluid by water faucets, they will get "re-filled."

Pertaining To Self:

Rule #1: Invest in phone contact backup. It's not for IF you loose your phone, but WHEN you loose it.

Rule #2: When the government agent says “Trust me.” DON’T!

Rule #3: When the thermometer reads 87 degrees, the roof that needs fixing is at least 117.

Rule #4: When operating equipment with hydraulics, the line that breaks is always the one closest to the person.

Rule #5: There is NO dry way to fix a drain plug, early in the morning, on a pressurized wheel line.

Rule #6: Never stand above a pressurized riser while opening the valve. At 80 psi a valve will knock you out and you wake up very wet. Ok on a hot day, not on 50 degree morning.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Sustainability, Some More Thoughts

Over the past couple of weeks I have participated in several discussions regarding sustainability and what it “means” to different people. Definitions of sustainability vary between urban people and rural people, environmental activists and active environmentalists, organic producers and conventional producers, “small” producers and “big” producers, and everyone between.

Urban Pressure
With ever growing metropolitan, urban and suburban areas, productive agricultural land is being forced out due to the “annoyance” of smell, noise, etc., resulting from normal farming and ranching activities, the Colorado State Dairy is a prime example. Others are simply bought out, since the value of the land for development surpassed its agricultural value as demonstrated north of Sacramento, where hundreds of homes and the ARCO Arena were built. Without better county planning and more strategic growth of cities, this trend is going to continue at an alarming rate. Additionally, environmental concerns are also ever increasing. Farmers and ranchers are continually being faced with more restrictions and regulations limiting their use of their land and water rights which both increases production costs and decreases productivity.

Environmental Pressure
Farmers and ranchers have always been active environmentalists, providing habitat for birds, wildlife and fish, the same cannot be said for development. However, since those in agriculture have “shallower” pockets, they have been the target of the masses, not “deep” pocketed developers and growing municipalities. The misconception is that developers can buy and set-aside “open space” as a mitigation for building. Yet, that open space is often producing agricultural ground that then goes out of production and into buffer zones. Too often, agency personnel fail to understand and realize the healthy, symbiotic relationship that exists between agriculture and the environment. When agricultural land is regulated out of profitability, the only option is to sub-divide and sell, further reducing food production capability and increasing degradation of wildlife habitat.

Organic v. Conventional
Once again, I am not against organic production. We live in a country where people are able to choose their product and the method in which it was produced. Having said that, one method of production is not any more, or less, sustainable than the other; both are faced with similar market challenges, rising costs of production and transportation of goods and pressure from the urban and environmental communities. Sustainability for both operations hinges on the ability to earn a net profit for the product produced.

Big v. Small
While it is possible for both to be sustainable, it is often much easier for larger producers to absorb changes in the market, and diversify production in order to deal with cyclical changes in both the market and climate. Often times, small producers are left at the mercy of the market and are unable to survive short term challenges in product value and climatic events.

Our operation is small for our area, 650+ acres. We run ~150 head of registered Angus and Hereford cattle, ~200 head of sheep (Suffolks, Hampshires and crossbreds), ~40 head of horses (Percherons, Thoroughbreds, Quarter horses and Warm bloods) and farm ~200 acres (Alfalfa, Alfalfa/Grass, and Wheat). We have done bank stabilization along the river, planted riparian habitat, built riparian fencing, installed fish screens on both diversions, have permanent rock weirs in place, eliminating the need for push-up dams, and put in locking head gates that are under the supervision of our water master. Additionally, I just installed a center pivot irrigation system to more efficiently irrigate ~120 acres. We rotationally graze, feed nutritional supplements and utilize straw and corn stover for feeding cattle in the winter. My parents run the east side and my wife and I manage the west side and we share one part time employee during the summer. We are NOT sustainable. Both of my parents had off site employment, as do my wife and I, until last year, when I returned to farming and ranching full time. Taxes, fees, fuel, labor, fertilizer and interest payments combine for nearly 85% of our annual operating expenses and over the past five years have led to a net income of 6% of our gross combined. Granted, we have been doing some major repairs and upgrades, but 6% retained net is hardly sustainable considering off site employment is supplementing. Is the land productive? Yes. Will the land be productive for future generations? Yes. Are we environmentally friendly? Definitely. Do we need subsidies to survive? No. However, they do help ensure affordable prices for consumers. Do we need reliable crop and livestock insurance? Certainly. Do we need less regulation founded on poor science, fewer costly and unnecessary permits and fewer fees to use our property and water rights in a beneficial manner? Absolutely!

Farmers and ranchers by in large, utilize best management practices (BMP’s) and adaptive management practices (AMP’s). They also, whether realizing it or not, are very holistic in their operations. However, unless we can remain economically viable, earn a profit for our product, and catch a breather from socio-economic-environmental regulation and legislation, farms and ranches, organic and conventional, big and small, will never be sustainable. Agriculture is the backbone of America. Without a strong and vibrant agricultural industry, the security and wellbeing of our country is in jeopardy.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Food Safety

The current administration and Congress want to reform our nation’s food safety regulatory system. Most of the proposals thus far have focused predominately on reforming the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) oversight of produce, with little to no attention on changing the USDA’s oversight of meat, poultry and eggs.

Americans need to have the confidence that their food is safe and that the best available science is being utilized to ensure it is also the most wholesome product. Our farmers and ranchers produce the safest, most wholesome and affordable food in the United States and the world. It is our desire as with our consumers, to have a safe, abundant and affordable food supply. We also understand the importance of food safety as it directly relates to consumer confidence and ultimately demand and product value.

At this point in time there are 15 federal agencies administering 30+ laws related to food safety, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO). The FDA and Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) within the USDA, oversee most of the food safety regulations. Responsibility for ensuring all domestic and imported food products, except for most meat and poultry, is held by the FDA. This responsibility includes insuring that the products are safe, nutritious and accurately labeled. Egg safety is shared with FSIS. FSIS regulates the safety and proper labeling of most domestic and imported meat and poultry, and the products derived from them for human consumption. The FSIS inspects all cattle, sheep, swine, goats and horses before and after processing. This oversight continues when the meat and poultry is further processed into packaged food products.

Three of the reforms that are being looked at include giving mandatory recall authority to federal agencies. Currently, USDA inspectors have the authority to detain meat at any point in the inspection process, when there is a suspicion that a product may not be safe. Products may also be removed from the market if they are suspected to be unsafe or mis-labeled. However, the USDA does not have the ability to recall meat, and relies on voluntary compliance. In reality, USDA and independent recalls are very effective, since the companies comply immediately and even act before a request is ever made.

Secondly, there is discussion of restricting or reducing the existing ports of entry for agricultural imports. This concept will not result in safer imports, but will impede the flow of trade. A consolidation would cause an increase in trade volume at the remaining port of entry inspection stations. These points of entry are already lacking sufficient resources and would be overwhelmed with an increase in volume. This reduction would likely cause retaliatory action by our trading partners and result in restrictions on the ports of entry for United States exports, which is an $80 billion contributor to the economy.

Third, is the idea of combining all food safety agencies into one entity. While on the surface, this may seem like a logical approach, it is questionable whether the new agency would be any more effective without a major increase in funding and resources. Further, each currently involved agency already has the knowledge and expertise to perform their respective duties.

There are three primary principles that should be adhered to. First, Congress MUST NOT create a new federal agency. Second, emphasis should be placed on improving the science and risk-based detection methods. Third, indemnification should be available for producers who suffer marketing losses due to inaccurate government-advised recalls and warnings. Existing laws and structure are effective in guarding against food dangers.

Four bills have been introduced so far.

HR 759 (Dingell), the Food and Drug Administration Globalization Act will be the primary vehicle for food safety reform. His bill would require the Secretary to (1) Establish science based minimum standards for the safe production and harvesting of at-risk fruits and vegetable; (2) Safety standards for growing, harvesting, packing, sorting and storage; and (3) Standards addressing manure use, water quality, and sanitation.

Much of this bill is redundant and simply increases production costs with little to no increase in food safety.

HR 875 (DeLauro), the Food Safety Modernization Act has six primary components. It would establish new inspection program guidelines; expand the food-borne illness surveillance system for food; establish a national traceability system for food; establish a national public education program on food safety; increase the focus on food safety research; and implement penalties for violations of food safety laws.

Portions of this bill could be beneficial if additional funding is approved for: (1) Educational programs and training for inspectors; (2) Increased research and development of scientifically based rapid testing procedures and protocols; (3) Additional science based inspection, targeted according to risk; and (4) Increased funding for the Food Animal Residue Avoidance Databank.

HR 1332 (Costa) and S 510 (Durbin), would both create: (1) New mandatory food safety requirements on farms and food companies; (2) Strengthen the relationship between federal and state agencies; and (3) Provide new FDA powers to recall contaminated food.

The first objective in these bills is unnecessary and duplicative. The second objective is highly recommended and encouraged. The third objective could work, as long as there is an indemnification program available to producers who suffer marketing losses due to inaccurate government-advised recalls and warnings.

I encourage all of you to follow the developments on food safety legislation very closely and share your thoughts and opinions with your representatives.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Further Government Pressure On Agriculture

The following is an email I received from Congressman Wally Herger this morning. "Cap and Trade" is just another example of the government making it more difficult to be sustainable.

"Knowing of your interest in agriculture, I wanted to inform you of the very detrimental impacts that “cap and trade” legislation being proposed by the House Democrat leadership and President Obama would have on our Northern California agriculture industry. Put simply, "cap and trade" is a new tax on energy consumption, which would be extremely harmful to everyone who uses energy -- from families to small businesses to family farms and ranches.

By way of brief background, a cap and trade system would require a government-mandated limit - a "cap" - on the amount of carbon dioxide that can be emitted by a certain entity -- such as a refinery, electric utility, or manufacturing facility. That entity would then have to either implement expensive emissions control technology, or purchase - "trade" - carbon permits from an offset market for emissions in order to comply with the cap. Proponents of "cap and trade" argue that it offers free market incentives, but in reality it is artificial and government-dictated that in practice would dramatically increase costs to American businesses - any entity that emits greenhouse gases. In turn, they would pass these additional compliance costs on to consumers, thus creating a substantial new national energy tax on American families.

A cap and trade scheme would be especially devastating to agriculture. Fuel, fertilizer, and other chemicals - all or most of which are petroleum based - currently make up two-thirds of the production costs of most farmers. Those costs have already increased some 40% over the past five years. It has been estimated - conservatively - that cap and trade could increase those costs by an additional 20%. In 2008 farmers across America spent $59 billion on fuel, electricity, fertilizer, and chemicals, and a 20% increase would represent an additional $12 billion hit to their bottom line. For many North State farmers, these cost increases could make the difference between staying in business or closing up shop.

As we cope with a third year of drought and ever-increasing regulation, please know I will be working to defeat this "national energy tax." Instead of passing additional regulations that will increase costs for our farmers and ranchers, Congress should instead be working to lessen their tax and regulatory burden, and to enact policies that will increase our domestic energy supplies, so that they may invest in their businesses and continue as a vibrant part of our area's economy."

Friday, May 15, 2009

Sustainable Agriculture...Is It Possible?

I find it ironic that the federal government is defining the term “sustainable” for agriculture; the same government that is unable to live within its means and is making it more difficult for agriculture to be sustainable.

Agriculture can only be sustainable when the following exists: product can be grown and sold for a profit; profit from sales allows for re-investment and improvement; and agricultural land can be kept in production

First, the profitability of production is dependent upon two critical factors, input costs and value at time of sale. Relative value of agricultural commodities has not increased at the same rate as the value of other goods and services. In 1964, a rancher could sell ten 750 pound calves or 105 tons of wheat and be able to pay for a new pick-up; today it would take 85 calves or 370 tons of wheat. American society is enjoying cheap, safe and healthy food, while the farmer and rancher continue to be paid relatively the same price as they received 50 years ago. Add on top of that, the continued rise in input costs. Equipment, power, labor, fertilizer, transportation, fuel, veterinary services, taxes, and fees, have all increased, while the value of the product has remained stagnant, thus continuing to shrink the profit margin. Farmers and ranchers have to continually upgrade and expand in order to remain profitable, seek off-farm supplemental income or make the heart breaking decision to sell out.

Second, because of the ever shrinking profit margin, it is more and more difficult to invest in the necessary improvements to remain efficient and operate successfully in very competitive global market. Every additional regulation and restriction, implemented by the government, upon the farmers and ranchers, increases the cost of production and reduces the competitiveness of American grown and produced products in the global marketplace, resulting in an even smaller profit margin. Once again, the choice left to the farmers and ranchers is to expand, seek off-farm supplemental income or sell out.

Third, never ending environmental regulations and restriction, and pressure from urban sprawl further tightens the choke hold on American farmers and ranchers. Once productive and environmentally beneficial, family farms, ranches and orchards are now housing developments, strip malls and non-productive buffer zones, due to the continued spread of our population and failure by our government to recognize the vital environmental importance of farm and ranch land. Despite historical cohabitation and symbiotic relationship between agriculture and the environment, public policy is systematically destroying the environment, their source of nourishment and threatening our National Security. Public policy does not lend itself to promoting the sustainability of agriculture.

It is important to remember that just because a farm or ranch is “organic” does not mean that is sustainable. More often than not, organic farms and ranches face an even smaller profit margin than their conventional counterparts. While they may see a potential for higher product value in niche markets, they also often have lower comparative yields per acre, and higher labor costs, negating much of the increase in value. Also, in the current economic situation, studies indicate that the average consumer will still purchase the item that costs less, thus the niche item is moving off the shelves slower. Organic and conventional farmers and ranchers are facing the same challenges to remain sustainable.

Unfortunately, there is no “magic bullet” that will fix this downward spiral of agricultural sustainability. Public opinion is against “corporate” agriculture, which while it may be “owned” by a corporation, it is managed by families and has grown to remain profitable. Public opinion is for family farms and ranches, but it continues to pass initiatives, legislation and adopt policies that are forcing families to sell out. Public opinion is for a clean environment and abundant wildlife populations, yet they continue to force family farmers and ranchers off their land, only to create non-productive buffer zones or develop it. Until the importance of agriculture is genuinely recognized by the public, sustainable agriculture that can meet the United States and the world’s demand for food is not attainable.

Agriculture (this includes forestry) naturally provides the largest carbon sink in the world. Agriculture naturally provides and enhances habitat for wildlife. Agriculture provides our food, clothing and shelter. Without agriculture, we would not exist.

It is time to stop biting the hand that feeds you.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Agriculture Is Good For The Environment

Once again, the mainstream media is putting out mis-leading and inaccurate information about beef cattle and their impact on the environment.

Family ranchers and farmers are responsible stewards of the environment. Our livelihoods depend on preserving a healthy, safe and clean environment for food production and being able to pass on a viable operation to our children and grandchildren. Family ranchers and farmers continuously implement Best Management Practices (BMP’s) that are based on the best available science, to maintain soil, water and air quality.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the entire U.S. agricultural sector accounts for only 6.4 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), and livestock production, according to the U.S. Inventory of Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks accounts for only 2 percent. Meanwhile, fossil fuel combustion contributes over 79 percent of all GHG emissions.

Environmental Protection Agency

U.S. Inventory of Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks$File/06FastFacts.pdf

Finally, the positive environmental practices implemented by family ranchers and farmers not only conserve and improve natural resources, they enhance the productivity of the land and serve as “carbon sinks” for carbon sequestration. Some of those environmental enhancement projects include: brush and weed control, grazing management, conservation tillage systems, riparian habitat management and water efficiency projects.

Support the environment; help correct the mis-information being spread by the mainstream media and anti-agriculture groups that fail to recognize the environmental importance of family ranches and farmers.

Have you thanked a family rancher or farmer for their efforts lately?

About Me

My photo
Jeff Fowle is a fourth generation family farmer and rancher from Etna, California. He and his wife Erin and son Kyle raise registered Angus cattle, Percheron draft horses, warmbloods, alfalfa and alfalfa-grass hay. They also start and train horses for riding, jumping, and driving. Their family run ranch has incorporated many environmentally beneficial and water efficient technologies and management strategies. Jeff attended college at Colorado State University for two years and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo for four and earned his Bachelor of Science degree in Animal Science. Following college, he worked in Washington State for a year as a herdsman for BB Cattle Company and then returned to Etna, California in 1995 to own and operate KK Bar Ranch and Siskiyou Percherons. The latter was started by his grandfather, Clarence Dudley, who devoted much of his time to the Percheron Horse Association of America, specifically to developing their youth education program.