October 2023, Volume 29, Number 4
US Ag, CEA
Net farm income is forecast to be $141 billion in 2023, down from a record $183 billion in 2022. Cash receipts from farm commodities are expected to total $514 billion, including 267 billion from crops and $247 billion from livestock. Farm assets are $4.1 trillion, including 83 percent in real estate, and farm debt is $520 billion, including two-thirds loans for real estate.
Beef prices remained high in summer 2023. Some ranchers reported that their costs were $700 to raise a cow before it is sold to a feedlot, leaving them a profit of $10 a cow. Beef cows need about 20 months to reach market weight, compared with six weeks for chickens and six months for hogs.
CEA. The shakeout in controlled environment agriculture (CEA) continued in 2023, leading to fewer and larger operators. CEA farms grow commodities in greenhouses, vertical farms, and other structures. Most are closer to consumers than the commodities that are grown in open fields, reducing transportation costs but increasing energy costs.
The leading CEA firms include Mastronardi with an estimated 18.5 million square feet of US greenhouse operations, Windset with 7.3 million, AppHarvest with 7.2 million, Village Farms with 6.1 million, and Intergrow with 4.6 million. The major crop for all of these firms is tomatoes. Mastronardi took over 120 acres of bankrupt AppHarvest greenhouses in October 2023.
How much more will consumers will pay for local and fresh produce from CEA? Most snacking tomatoes are grown in CEA, and CEA boosters believe that many leafy greens, strawberries, table grapes and melons will be produced in CEA.
CEA operators such as Plenty and Gotham Greens are expanding, sometimes buying CEA operators such as Aero Farms and AppHarvest that went bankrupt in 2023. AppHarvest operated a 60-acre flagship farm in Morehead, Kentucky to produce tomatoes, a 15-acre indoor farm for salad greens in Berea, a 30-acre farm for strawberries and cucumbers in Somerset and a 60-acre farm in Richmond for tomatoes. AppHarvest was ordered out of its Berea greenhouse by partner Mastronardi Berea, which bought the greenhouse from AppHarvest for $127 million and leased it back to AppHarvest.
Paarlberg. Resetting the Table is an eight-chapter book that praises the ability of commercial US farmers to produce ever more corn, soybeans and other field crops with fewer inputs, but decries the inefficiency of feeding most of these field crops to animals to produce meat, eggs and dairy products from animals that are confined in tight quarters.
Along the way, agricultural economist Rob Paarlberg examines opposition to the green revolution that helped to prove Malthus and later-day Cassandras such as Paul Ehrlich wrong about population growth outstripping the ability to produce enough food.
Paarlberg’s book is especially useful in dissecting the opposition to GMOs in Europe that prevents farmers in Africa and Asia from using seeds that would produce more nutritious crops with fewer chemicals. In one extreme case, Zambia rejected GMO corn from the US in 2002 to feed three million hungry citizens, even though some other African countries accepted the GMO corn after it was milled into flour so that farmers could not plant the seed.
The puzzle is why many of the same people who believe strongly in the science behind climate change remain unconvinced by the science that finds GMO crops to be safe. African countries avoid GMOs so that they can export farm commodities to European countries.
Resetting the Table covers the entire food landscape, from hunger, poverty and malnutrition in farm families in many African countries to obesity in many rich countries as well as developing countries from Egypt to Mexico to the Pacific Islands. The book shatters the myth that local and organic food is “better,” emphasizing that local and organic are niche items that appeal to affluent consumers.
The book is at its strongest when it punctures myths, including that old-style farming with horses was better than today’s high-tech machines from drones to GPS devices on tractors that allow farmers to achieve ever-higher crop yields with less land and a smaller environmental footprint. The world has eight billion people today, up from two billion in the 1920s.
Agricultural romantics who decry industrial farming methods often fail to realize how much more land would be required to farm as their grandparents did. Using horses requires land to be set aside to grow feed and is associated with lower yields of the major crops consumed by people.
There are problems in the food system, including with food and drink companies that add the salt, sugar and fat craved by humans but lead to obesity and chronic health problems. Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations or CAFOs have made the production of meat more efficient. Confined animals that maximize weight gains in short periods consume most of the world’s corn and soybeans and raise animal welfare concerns.
Farm labor is mentioned in the context of farmers and their families struggling to feed themselves in developing countries and in prospects for workers who could be displaced by machines in the production of fruits and vegetables in rich countries. Paarlberg emphasizes that few mothers dream that their children will grow up to be seasonal farm workers. Instead, farm worker parents hope that their children will get the education needed to find nonfarm jobs rather than follow in their footsteps.
Europe. European farmers are protesting demands that they reduce their emissions by reducing the number of cows and changing farming practices to reach the EU goal of zero net emissions by 2050. Dairy cows are responsible for half of the Netherlands nitrogen emissions, and the Dutch government allocated $26 billion to farmers to reduce or close dairies.
Fewer than 10 million of the 400 million Europeans are associated with agriculture, but the farmer-oriented BBB political party is expected to do well in November 2023 Dutch elections in a protest against policies to curb agricultural emissions.
Switzerland is known for its small dairies, some of which move cows to Alpine meadows during the summer. The average Swiss dairy has 27 cows, and Swiss cheesemakers specialize in high-value hard cheeses such as Gruyere.
Paarlberg, Rob. 2021. Resetting the Table. Straight Talk About the Food We Grow and Eat. Knopf. https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/606873/resetting-the-table-by-robert-paarlberg/