Riceland Foods CEO Dick Bell, in his remarks at the Mid-South Farm & Gin Show, tongue-in-cheekishly chided me and fellow editor Forrest Laws for too seldom “writing anything good” in our weekly columns.
He's right, of course. There hasn't been much in the ag sector that would qualify as good news for the last three years or so, and our writings, for the most part, mirror what's going on in the sector. But, I suppose one can look at any situation two ways — like the young lad who, upon receiving a big box of manure at Christmas, exclaimed enthusiastically, “There's bound to be a horse in there somewhere.”
With Depression-era prices, fierce competition as a result of globalized markets, and major economies in the tank, there has been potential for a lot of farmers and agribusinesses to fall by the wayside. There certainly is precedent for it in the “restructuring” and “downsizing” of agriculture that took place a couple of decades ago, when thousands of farmers were forced out of business.
The good news, then, is that over the past three years massive infusions of government money from a reasonably compliant Congress and administration helped to avert wide-scale bankruptcies and foreclosures. True enough, most farmers would rather have earned a profit from the price of their commodities than from a government bailout, but at least the federal assistance has enabled them to hang in there.
While several long-time, large farmers in the Delta called it quits this past winter, most were either retiring and/or renting out their land, rather than going bust, and most of the departures from farming have been voluntary rather than involuntary.
Talking with farmers and agribusiness representatives during the Gin Show, optimism wasn't exactly rampant. A major concern was the continuing laggardness in getting a new farm bill out of Congress and the administration. With spring planting time just around the corner and decisions needing to be made, many farmers say their lenders don't want to talk financing until they know what kind of farm program they'll be operating under.
With the bill finally gone to conference (good news), we can hope for a speedy resolution of House/Senate differences, that the infamous Grassley amendment will be given the death it deserves, and that somewhere in all the Capitol Hill manure they'll be able to come up with a decent farm bill.
One small chunk of good news, post-Gin Show, was that Riceland Foods made another rice sale to Cuba, the second since last November. Though small in terms of Cuba's total consumption, at least it's a foot in the door, and if the government will ever agree to a meaningful easing of trade/travel with that country, it could become a major market for U.S. agriculture.
Hard on the heels of that announcement, though, came news of hardline free-trader George Bush slapping tariffs on imported steel. If this action escalates into a knock-down, drag-out trade war — as many fear — American agriculture, so dependent on exports, could take a major hit.
Good news? Regrettably, not a lot of that in agriculture these days.