Farm-to-table is not just a catchphrase for some contemporary “foodie” trend.
It entails a lot of tough work.
Farming and food production — all the way from the fields, ranches and pastures of America’s breadbaskets to restaurants, supermarkets and home kitchens — can be challenging and problematic vocations.
The worlds of agriculture and food production are getting even tougher with the impacts of more extreme weather (including climate change-induced droughts and more severe storms), worsening labor shortages and stinging post-pandemic ramifications of inflation and supply chain disruptions (including those stemming from the ongoing war in Ukraine).
Climate, drought and storms
According to the University of Nebraska Lincoln’s National Drought Monitor, there are drought conditions (including severe and extreme situations) in southern Oregon, parts of Montana, Wyoming, California and Florida, as well as high plains areas such as Kansas and Nebraska.
Prolonged droughts are hurting farmers and soil health, according to Mary Burrows, a plant sciences and plant pathology professor and associate director of the Montana Agricultural Experiment Station at Montana State University.
“Here, we’ve had three years of drought,” said Burrows.
She said there are efforts to better gauge soil health, which can also be adversely impacted by herbicide-resistant weeds, pesticides and nitrate runoffs. Cattle in Montana have faced not only drought but also sometimes the growth of deadly weeds and toxic water.
“The main problem in the West is that we don’t have a standard for what healthy soil is,” Burrows said of the need to enhance soil health research.
Droughts are not the only climate change related impact on farming. More extreme weather and warmer temperatures are also changing the agricultural landscape.
In Florida, Hurricane Ian in late September 2022 and a significant freeze in January 2022 have put a big dent in citrus production.
A January report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture forecasts a 56% drop in orange production in Florida. That follows a December report from the Florida Citrus Commission projecting a 32% decline in total citrus production because of last year’s freeze and the Category 4 hurricane that brought significant damage to southwest and central Florida’s groves.
That translates into a drop of 13.1 million citrus boxes, according to the state agency.
Hurricane Ian slammed into Florida’s southwest coast and swept across the state, and eventually into South Carolina.
The storm, which was larger than previous hurricanes and propelled by warmer Gulf of Mexico waters, will have a price tag of as much as $675 million for citrus growers and other farmers in storm damage and subsequent rebuilding and replanting costs, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture.
There are scores of other climate and extreme weather impacts hitting farmers and impacting consumers across the country.
The USDA reported national hay production is at its lowest levels since 1973. That came after a drought last year dropped hay supplies in Texas by 37% and by more than 30% in Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska, according to Texas A&M University.
The shortage has propelled significant increases in hay prices — just one of the impacts of inflation on farmers.
There are also concerns about the crop insurance system and how it can weather more extreme weather.
Changing climates and weather can also present opportunities for farmers and growers.
In Montana, Burrows said warmer temperatures are allowing for wider growing of corn and canola in areas where it was previously much tougher to produce.
“We can grow corn now. There is interest in soybeans,” Burrows said of the challenges, and potential opportunities, for farmers. “We’ve got canola growing everywhere now.”
Labor shortages continue to be a major challenge for the agriculture sector, said Ken Hamilton, executive vice president of Wyoming Farm Bureau.
“It’s certainly quite a problem,” said Hamilton, noting increasing reliance in Wyoming on sheep herders, shepherds, and other ranch hands and farm workers from Peru and South Africa.
“Thirty years ago, there weren’t Peruvians in the livestock industry,” Hamilton said of the labor shifts. “I never heard of any South African workers up until four or five years ago.”
Burrows also noted more South African ranch and farm workers in Montana.
Those are just two examples of migrant workers, sometimes from less traditional origins, prevalent in farming and aquaculture. That includes Haitians working on chicken farms and in processing centers in Maryland and Delaware, or in citrus groves and onion farms in Florida.
Like other economic sectors, farmers, large and small, can’t find workers.
The agriculture sector needs to hire as many as 2 million workers annually, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation. Many farmers, including more than half in California, report they can’t find workers for current operations.
That’s part of a longer trend.
Since 1950, there has been a 73% decline in workers on family farms and a 54% drop in hired farm workers, according to an analysis by Lakeland, Florida-based AGAmerican Lending LLC.
Immigrants make up 73% of the agriculture workforce (compared to 17% of the total U.S. economy), according to AGAmerican’s report. U.S. and global shutdowns during the coronavirus pandemic curtailed flows of workers, including in agriculture.
In Wyoming, Hamilton said immigration and prevailing wage rules and inflation, especially for fertilizer and fuel, have pushed up labor and operating costs pressuring some farmers and ranchers.
He said it’s been especially hard on the sheep industry, where shepherding is a time-intensive operation, and is accompanied by shortages up and down agricultural, food and textile supply chains.
“Sometimes, those sheep producers can’t afford to stay in the business anymore,” Hamilton said.
In 1940, there were 3 million sheep in Wyoming, Hamilton said. Now there are fewer than 300,000 sheep statewide.
“It’s declined significantly,” he said.
Hamilton said some sheep farmers have become cattle ranchers, seeking a more lucrative and operationally sustainable market. “They just shift species,” he said.
The inflation wave has propelled double-digit increases in food prices in the U.S., causing financial pains for consumers.
Roger Cryan, chief economist for the American Farm Bureau Federation, said the impacts of inflation and Russia’s war in Ukraine could be even more dramatic and more dire for global food production and supplies.
“The global food crisis seriously needs to be brought to the forefront,” Cryan said. “The Russian invasion of Ukraine has triggered a lot of market disruptions that demonstrate that feeding the world isn’t a given.”
Impacts of the war (including on fertilizer and grain production), extreme weather events and other disruptions — such as high energy prices, inflation and other post-coronavirus pandemic economic aftershocks — have propelled a record 349 million people worldwide into “acute food insecurity,” according to the World Food Programme. That is up from 287 million in 2021 and 200 million more people than pre-pandemic.
‘Inflation is not over’
Higher prices for fuel, fertilizers, hay and equipment are also hitting U.S. farmers even as consumers at the end of the food chain are still punched by higher prices for groceries, in particular eggs, citrus and some dairy products.
“Inflation is not over,” said Cryan, adding that the 40% infusion of extra cash into the U.S. economy by the Federal Reserve Bank and federal government is still making its way through the system.
“We are probably going to see inflation in the 5% to 7% range through the end of the year,” Cryan said.
The new Consumer Price Index released Feb. 14 showed a 6.4% rise in prices since last January — including an 8.6% year-over-year jump in rents for housing and an 11.3% rise in grocery prices.
Cryan said farmers could face the brunt of higher interest rates spurred by the Fed’s efforts to quell 40-year highs in inflation.
“Many farmers borrow every year for operational loans,” Cryan said, worrying about a tripling of short-term loan financing costs and putting family farms in peril.
That could push more farmers out of business.
There were 6.85 million farms in the U.S. in 1935 (before World War II), according to the USDA. That number now stands at approximately 2 million.
Solar farms and windmills
In some states (including Wisconsin and California), renewable energy pushes are resulting in some farmers leasing land to utilities and developers for fields of solar arrays.
The leases can run 25 to 50 years, offering farmers revenue that advocates say allows them to keep farming some of their land. But local opponents worry about the loss of farmland to solar arrays and windmills and renewable energy infrastructure’s potential impacts on local ecosystems and the loss of American farmland.
Tara Vasby is one of those skeptics.
Vasby’s family has owned farmland in Cambridge, Wisconsin (near Madison) since the 1920s, when her grandparents emigrated from Norway.
Vasby is concerned about a large-scale solar development coming in around her farmhouse. “This is the house I grew up in,” she said.
The adjacent solar project is slated to include more than 1 million solar panels spanning across a 4,600-acre project area. It is one of 30 new utility scale solar projects being built or proposed for Wisconsin farmland as the state and its utilities move to increase renewable energy production.
Farmers leasing some of the land to solar farms sometimes continue to farm other parcels and see the renewable revenue as a way to maintain their family farms. They also argue solar farms will let the land and soil rest, recoup and heal while it is being used for energy production.
But some solar and windmill projects (including the one in Cambridge) generate local opposition over setbacks to adjacent properties. Opponents also question the potential impacts of millions of solar panels and towering windmills on local ecosystems, wildlife, water, flooding and soil health.
“There is going to be disruption of wildlife and a displacement of wildlife,” said Vasby, who said some solar infrastructure requires bringing significant cement to farmland.
Other projects entail underground infrastructure, large-scale batteries and new transmission lines on farmland to connect to energy grids.
“Their promise is ‘the soil is resting,’” Vasby said. “No, it’s not.”