A Veteran Farmer's Perspective on Ukraine
As the world watches the unprovoked Russian aggression in Ukraine, many are worried about rising energy costs, destabilized European politics and the first incursion on a sovereign nation since WWII.
However, a side issue that will emerge is the impact to the global food market.
Ukraine is one of the leading exporters of wheat, corn and barley. Often referred to as the bread basket of Europe, they provide substantial amounts of grain to Western Europe, Africa and China. Experts predict that the war in Ukraine will have a large impact on global grain prices. This will hit the US farmers especially hard as fertilizer and fuel costs are already skyrocketing.
The global impact of the conflict in Europe highlights the fragility of our increasingly centralized food system. Consider these facts:
- Eighty-five percent of the beef processed in the United States is controlled by 4 companies (2 are foreign owned)
- America imports twice as much beef as it exports. This floods the market with cheap, low quality foreign beef and hurts American farmers. This foreign meat is often marketed “product of the USA” provided it was minimally processed in the US.
- Eighty-five percent of the grass-fed beef sold in the US comes from overseas.
It’s inspiring to watch the Ukrainian people stand up for their nation and fight for freedom. But as we look down the road at the potential ripple effects caused by global instability, a dark picture emerges for American agriculture. The combination of rising costs in grain, fuel, fertilizer and equipment will force many farmers out of business who were already close to retirement. Combine this with a market flooded with cheap, foreign meat of dubious origin and you create a perfect storm leading to increased dependence on foreign food sources and a competitive environment that forces the American farmer out of business.
I’ve seen the impact of this increased centralization very close to home in the recent months. Dairy farms remain the dominant agricultural business in this part of PA. In late December, one of the milk processors in this community went out of business unexpectedly and left 150 local farms without a market for their milk. These farms had about 30 days to find a new processor or go out of business. These farms were faced with a dilemma, between two unappealing options:
1. Ship to a major corporate processor that controls 90% of the fluid milk in the northeast and has a history of fixing prices and setting volume caps for producers.
2. Ship the milk to a smaller processor hundreds of miles away in Virginia with a limited capacity to take on that many farmers.
Fortunately, many of these farms made it through the gauntlet and landed new contracts, but some did not and had to sell their herds. The smallest farms had the most difficulty because the Virginia company was not interested in long hauls for small pickups. These market forces have the effect of increasingly centralizing the supply among a few large companies, forcing out small family farms in favor of large producers, and extending the supply lines far beyond the local community.
COVID-19 gave us a peek behind the curtain last summer and highlighted the problems with an outsourced supply chain. Global disruptions place food and resources out of reach of the American consumer. This reality should focus us on the need to cultivate local supply chains for the basic necessities. It’s no secret that we sell pastured meat, and we’d love to have you purchase some from our farm, but this isn’t about us. This is about preparing your family and community for times of crisis and supporting American agriculture. If we’re not a good fit for you and your family, go find some other farmer that can meet your needs and start a relationship with them. Learn how they grow their meat and crops so you can ensure you’re supporting healthy practices for both the consumer and the animals. Knowledge is power; take the time to learn where your food actually comes from, it may not be what you think.
It takes time and effort to ensure that your dollar follows your values in this time of deceiving labels and quick, convenient sales but in the end it’s worth it. Without being overly dramatic, remember that the life you save may be your own.