Tuesday, February 23, 2010

When families visit local pick-your-own farms for some summer entertainment and tasty fruits and produce, harvesting crops can be fun in small doses. But, anyone who has frequented a berry patch or sweet corn farm to “pick-your-own” knows that there is a fine line between a fun way to connect with our farm heritage and really hard work. Picking berries for an hour is fun, digging carrots for 8 hours is work — hard, hot, dusty, physically demanding work.

Even the most avid pick-your-own berry patron would think twice about a seasonal job in the fields harvesting vegetables for $10 or $12 an hour. This puts the farmers who produce these crops on a wholesale scale in a tough position to find the necessary dependable labor, even with today’s high unemployment levels. 

After their 12 children grew up, Russell Garber and his wife struggled to find adequate labor for their 190-acre vegetable and ornamental crop operation in Darke County many years ago. Initially, local high school students were hired to do the seasonal and intense labor during the growing season.

“In the produce business, you have to have dependable help. When the crop is ready, it’s ready,” Garber said. “When we reached the point in time when we couldn’t find farm boys to help anymore, we started using Mexican help.” 

This group of laborers also proved to be undependable so Garber sought help from a local employment office that suggested he consider the H-2A program, which allows foreign workers to work in the United States for a specified period of time.

“This is a way to legally bring in foreign workers,” he said. “If we were going to continue to grow our operation, we had to go that way with labor. We just couldn’t get labor here.”

While an important tool for farmers like Garber, the H-2A Program is not a favorite of unions, labor groups and, depending upon the leadership, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). As a result, farmers who use the H-2A program (including Garber) have been targeted by lawsuits, extensive red tape and mind-numbing regulations. Garber actually is one of the few farmers who fought and won a frivolous lawsuit filed against him involving the H-2A program, though it cost him over $100,000 in legal bills. 

The DOL has once again targeted H-2A by reversing a Bush Administration rule that made it easier for farmers to hire temporary or seasonal foreign workers. According to a DOL press release, the new rule announced by U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis will bump up the average pay for temporary farm workers by nearly a dollar per hour. Farmers also will be required to list job openings on a new online job registry, while state workforce agencies must inspect worker housing before employers can hire foreign workers. In addition, an H-2A visa petition cannot be approved unless the DOL certifies that there are not sufficient U.S. workers qualified and available to perform the labor involved in the petition and that the employment of the foreign worker will not have an adverse effect on the wages and working conditions of similarly employed U.S. workers.

The bottom line with the H-2A changes is that it renders the program nearly unusable for farmers or anyone else seeking to hire foreign labor.

“The American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) is extremely disappointed at the changes to the H-2A program temporary worker program announced today by the Labor Department. The new program will be the most difficult ever for agricultural employers to administer. It also comes at a critical time of economic uncertainty and undoes a number of improvements implemented by the department only a year ago,” said Bob Stallman, AFBF president. “There continues to be a labor shortage in U.S. agriculture and agricultural employers need an efficient, affordable temporary worker program to help put food on Americans’ tables. Even with the slower economy, farm labor remains physically demanding, periodic, all-weather work and it is often impossible for farmers and ranchers to find the workers they need.”

As for the almost 80-year-old Garber, who just paid off the last of his legal bills from his H-2A legal battle that started in 2001, he has little choice but to downsize his operation due to the lack of labor.

“My father worked on the farm until he was 85, and I was not planning on retiring now,” he said. “But the rules are more onerous than ever. I’ve spent 40 years building up this business and in one year they have put me out of business. I will still be growing crops for the local farmers market, but as far as wholesale crops, that’s done. The small- to medium-sized vegetable grower is becoming an endangered species in this country because you can’t find the labor.”


Matt Reese writes for Ohio’s Country Journal and lives in Baltimore, Ohio. For questions or comments, please contact him at mkcreese@yahoo.com

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Once the faint glow of the laptop battery died and the coffee grew cold, a recent winter power outage forced a certain busy agricultural journalist to pause and ponder our precarious dependence on energy. In the absence of a generator, we are just one blast of winter weather away from the lifestyles of our forefathers, without their fortitude. When the lights go out, we are a soft society in a hard winter world.

With no power and blizzard conditions, travel is arduous and dangerous, we spend the evening hours toiling by candlelight and our days readying ourselves for the cold dark that lay ahead. The e-mails, voice mails and deadlines may just have to wait when there is no power.

Even more unsettling, is that much of the energy we depend so heavily upon as a nation is derived from unfriendly foreign sources. People who do not like us control the fuel powering the thin layer separating modern society and the life of the frontiersman. I find this to be a concern most of the time, though it is really a concern when a power outage creates a little more time to think.

Fortunately in early February, the Federal Government took some important steps to address this concern. Most notably, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized a rule implementing the long-term renewable fuels mandate of 36 billion gallons by 2022 established by Congress.

This Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS2) requires biofuel production to grow from last year’s 11.1 billion gallons to 36 billion gallons in 2022, with 21 billion gallons to come from advanced biofuels. Increasing renewable fuels will reduce dependence on oil by more than 328 million barrels a year and reduce greenhouse gas emissions more than 138 million metric tons a year when fully phased in by 2022. For the first time, some renewable fuels must achieve greenhouse gas emission reductions — compared to the gasoline and diesel fuels they displace — in order to be counted towards compliance with volume standards.

“EPA was right to recognize that ethanol from all sources provides significant carbon benefits compared to gasoline,” said Bob Dinneen, Renewable Fuels Association president. “As structured, the RFS is a workable program that will achieve the stated policy goals of reduced oil dependence, economic opportunity, and environmental stewardship.

“The RFS is the public policy building block upon which America’s renewable fuels industry will be built. Today’s industry and tomorrow’s ethanol producers require stable federal policy that provides them the market assurances they need to commercialize new technologies. To that end, EPA has achieved that goal.”

According to EPA’s modeling, corn-based ethanol achieves a 21 percent greenhouse gas reduction compared to gasoline, even when scientifically shaky ideas of international indirect land use change (ILUC) are included. Without ILUC, corn-based ethanol achieves a 52 percent GHG reduction. Cellulosic ethanol achieves GHG reduction of 72 percent to 130 percent depending upon feedstock and conversion process. All GHG reductions for ethanol exceed those mandated by the RFS2.

“The EPA is using the worst science out there but still coming to good conclusions about traditional ethanol. We continue to be disappointed that EPA chooses to use the flawed theory of international indirect land use change in their calculations,” said Dwayne Siekman Ohio Corn Growers Association executive director. “The theory assumes that growing more corn means planting corn on a proportionately greater amount of acreage and will impact other crops or natural resources on a global basis. Today’s yield trends and factual land use data show this to be false.”

EPA’s Final Rule also demonstrates that soy biodiesel can achieve significant GHG emissions relative to petroleum diesel. Even with the ILUC, all soy biodiesel is deemed by EPA to exceed the 50% reduction threshold needed to qualify for the RFS2 biodiesel mandate.

In addition to RFS2, the U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed a rule on the Biomass Crop Assistance Program that would provide financing to increase the conversion of biomass to bioenergy. Also, President Barak Obama’s Biofuels Interagency Working Group released its first report — “Growing America’s Fuel” – that lays out a strategy to advance the development of a sustainable biofuels industry. In addition, Obama announced a Presidential Memorandum creating an Interagency Task Force on Carbon Capture and Storage to speed the development and deployment of clean coal technologies. 

I was pondering all of this while contemplating building a fire in the living room fireplace to warm up some coffee, akin to “Little House on the Prairie.” Just then, the power came back. My laptop and cell phone charged, my furnace kicked on and (sweet merciful heavens) the little red light on the coffee pot shown like a beacon of hope for an energy independent future, at least until the next power outage.


Matt Reese writes for Ohio’s Country Journal and lives in Baltimore, Ohio. For questions or comments, please contact him at mkcreese@yahoo.com






Monday, February 1, 2010

One only needs to watch a few of those TV informercials before it becomes clear that a lot of effort and money is spent convincing consumers that they’re getting more for less. “This is Craaaazzyyyy Jim here and I have an offer for YOU! In the store, this would cost $300, but I am going to make you an unbelievable Craaaazzyyyy offer today – not, $200, not $100, not $50, but $19.95! And just to show you that I mean business, I’m going to throw in a second product for free, plus you get this nose-hair groomer FREE of charge! All you pay is shipping and handling! Craaaazzyyyy!”

How could you not respond to the offer? The nose-hair groomer alone is worth more than $19.95. The abundance of these types of marketing and promotion efforts indicates that they must work. People get pretty excited when they are able to get more for less and our society strives to give it to them.

While there has not been an infomercial on the subject, farmers from Ohio and around the nation provided more corn for consumers than ever before and they did it on less land than in recent years. The latest USDA figures for the 2009 corn crop show that even with wet, soggy conditions and a delayed harvest, Ohio and U.S. farmers broke corn yield records. The USDA 2009 Crop Summary Report estimates that the average corn yield in Ohio was 174 bushels per acre last year and the total state corn production was 30 percent above the 2008 total. Total acreage for corn in Ohio was 3.35 million acres, which is down from 3.85 million acres in 2008.

“When you look at the total number of acres in Ohio used for corn, it’s clear that farmers are able to do more with less,” said Dwayne Siekman, Ohio Corn Growers Association executive director. “American farmers can grow five times more corn on 20 percent less land than they did in the 1930s, emphasizing that modern farming techniques are essential for a growing demand in the world today.”

U.S. corn production set a new record in 2009 on 7 million fewer acres than were required to produce the previous record in 2007. National corn production is 13.2 billion bushels, 1 percent above the previous record of 13 billion bushels set in 2007, and 9 percent higher than 2008. Average corn yields reached an all-time high in 2009 at 165.2 bushels per acre, eclipsing the previous record of 160.3 bushels per acre set in 2004.

The U.S. soybean crop was also a new record in 2009. Soybean production totaled 3.36 billion bushels, up 13 percent from 2008 and up 5 percent from the previous record set in 2006. The average yield per acre was 44 bushels, up .9 bushels from the previous record set in 2005. Farmers nationwide planted a total of 77.5 million soybean acres and harvested 76.4 million acres in 2009, both up 2 percent from the previous record set last year.

Ohio’s average soybean yield for 2009 was estimated at 49 bushels per acre, up 1 bushel from the November forecast. Total Ohio soybean production is 222 million bushels, up 38 percent from 2008.

With farmers across the nation producing a bumper crop, there are ample supplies of corn and soybeans to supply demand for food, feed and fuel for the future. And, with tools like biotechnology, improving equipment and continued genetic advances in the world’s staple crops, farmers once again proved that they could meet the demands of a growing world.

“The unparalleled productivity of America’s farmers continues to amaze even the most skeptical of critics,” said Bob Dinneen, Renewable Fuels Association president. “Despite unfavorable weather conditions from start to finish, farmers produced considerably more corn than the food, feed and fuel markets are demanding. Such gains in productivity undermine any claims that U.S. biofuel production will require new lands in other nations to come into production. There can be no question that American farmers have both the capability and the can-do attitude to feed the world while simultaneously helping reduce our nation’s reliance on imported oil.”

The news of the large crops from 2009 sent market prices plummeting for corn and soybeans, much like those drastic price-cuts in the infomercials. There is no doubt that U.S. agriculture consistently provides more with less, making the productivity of U.S. farmers more than a just great deal for the consumers of the world -- it’s Craaaazzyyyy!