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Ag Economy Barometer

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Albany, GA (Growing America, May 6, 2016):  Researchers from Purdue University have been taking the temperature of American farmers each month, all to gauge their confidence (hot, cold or lukewarm?) in the U.S. agricultural economy—with some fascinating results.

Purdue University's Center for Commercial Agriculture is partnering with derivatives marketplace CME Group to produce what they've labeled the Ag Economy Barometer.

"The barometer is the only ongoing monthly measure of the health of the agricultural economy," said Jim Mintert, director of the Center for Commercial Agriculture at Purdue. "Also unique is that the index is calculated based on producer sentiments about both current conditions and future expectations."

The monthly index is calculated based on a 5-question survey of 400 farmers. Once a quarter, the index is accompanied by a webinar, plus in-depth survey of 100 agricultural thought leaders made up of ag lenders, business professionals, academics, consultants and commodity association representatives.

In addition, Purdue will bring its research and agricultural economics expertise to measure producers' expectations of key farm economy drivers such as farm profitability; farmland prices; capital expenditures; row crop, livestock and dairy prices; and seasonal drivers such as seed, fertilizer and feed ingredient prices.

Broiler Production Efficiency Survey

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Washington, DC (National Chicken Council, May 2, 2016):  The National Chicken Council today released a study that presents the results of a 2015 broiler industry survey designed to capture key live chicken production statistics. In addition, the study summarizes several key trends in broiler production efficiency, returns and loan quality data.

"Viewed in totality, live chicken production is a viable, mutually beneficial and attractive farming enterprise for the vast majority of farm families who raise chickens in partnership with the companies they work with," noted agriculture economist and the study's author, Dr. Thomas Elam, president of FarmEcon LLC.

The study represents data from companies responsible for 92 percent of chicken production in the United States. A summary of the findings include:

  • More than 95 percent of farmers who did not retire stayed with the same company in 2014. Of the ones that left their current contract, more than 250 farmers moved to a different company to continue raising chickens.
  • Chicken farmers generally have higher incomes compared to all farms and all U.S. households, and have an age structure that is similar to all farm operators. A 2011 USDA farm financial survey shows that broiler producers generally have significantly higher incomes than all other farming enterprises and the average U.S. household.
  • More than half the farmers have been with their current company for 10 years or more. Almost three-quarters have been with the same company for 5 years or more.
  • Responding companies reported significant waiting lists for those who would like to enter live chicken production or expand existing operations. Companies reported that they have 1,858 applications from potential live chicken producers who would like to get into chicken production.
  • SBA farm loan data show much lower loan deficiency and charge-off rates for live chicken production than all agricultural loans.
  • Inflation-corrected farmer payment rates per square foot of farmer owned housing have increased over time. Farmers who furnish live chicken housing have captured this benefit of better chicken performance.
  • The health and well-being of the chickens has greatly benefited from the contract farming structure. In 2014, the average on-farm livability of a flock of U.S. broiler chickens was 95.7 percent. In 1925, it was only 82 percent.

"As a famer and a businesswoman who's been raising chickens for 28 years, the current contract structure has allowed me to not only raise chickens, but raise my sons on my family farm, teach my children and grandchildren how to care for animals, and given me the ability to keep up with technology," noted Jenny Rhodes, a chicken farmer and poultry extension agent at the University of Maryland. "I've always had good relationships with the company I've contracted with, as we both have the same goal - to raise the healthiest chickens possible. Raising chickens in my family is now multi-generational - my son got into the business on his own just this year - a voluntary business arrangement with the company of his choice."

Delays in Seasonal Worker Processing

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Albany, GA (Growing America, May 5, 2016):  Blueberries left rotting on vines in Georgia. Melons now way past their picking time in California. All over the U.S., producers are beginning to tally up their losses due to a shortage of migrant farmworkers.

The Department of Labor is citing a 'computer glitch" at the Office of Foreign Labor Certification as the reason for the hold up in processing thousands of applications that are part of the government's H-2A migrant verification program.

For producers across the US, it's déjà vu. An exploration into the last five years of the program revealed delay after delay of promised workers who were weeks late to the harvest or never came at all.

In June 2015, the Wall Street Journal reported on another computer failure that was preventing thousands of temporary and immigrant visas from being processed, and experts then were calling it a crisis that would cost producers millions of dollars.

Humane Livestock Treatment

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Albany, GA (Growing America, April 28, 2016):  From images on the web to exposés on TV, there's no shortage of media coverage showing abuse of livestock. But the reality is, farmers in general want to do right by their animals for two reasons: one, they sincerely believe animals deserve respect; and, two, they recognize that not giving animals what they need to thrive is a quick way to put an operation out of business.

Farmers and ranchers are often frustrated with public misunderstanding, but are often at a loss for what to do about it.

"It makes me angry to see the negativity. I believe abuse incidents are isolated," says David Forshee, who raises beef cattle in Delphos, Kansas. "The incidents get sensationalized and blown out of proportion. It's not an industry wide problem."

Darlene Sichley, who operates Oregon's Abiqua Acres/Mann's Guernsey Dairy with her parents, agrees with Forshee.

"The media's job is to produce headlines that shock and awe and draw a reader in. Unfortunately in this day and age that requires quite a bit of horror, as our news seems to be overfilled with the bad on all fronts," observes Darleen Sichley who operates Oregon's Abiqua Acres, Mann's Guernsey Dairy with her parents. "The truth is our job as farmers is kind of boring. Our dairy farm requires daily, consistent and quality care of our animals, 365 days a year. But 'Farmer Feeds and Milks Cows Again' isn't a very catchy headline."

PRACTICING CARE & RESPECT

Across the U.S., care and respect for livestock is the guiding principle upheld by the majority of the over 2.1 million farm and ranch operations raising beef cattle, dairy cows, swine and poultry.

Changing Work Habits of Farmworkers

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Salem, OR (Capital Press, April 25, 2016):  The agricultural labor shortage has less to do with the shrinking population of farmworkers than with its changing work habits, a new economic study found.

Since the late 1990s, the proportion of farmworkers who regularly migrate from place to place has decreased from about 50 percent to less than 20 percent, said Maoyong Fan, an economist at Ball State University and the study's lead author.

"The key problem is not that we have an absolute smaller number of farmworkers, the key problem is they're not willing to move to take multiple jobs," Fan said.

While the farmworker population dropped about 9 percent during the time period Fan studied, more than 1 million remain in the industry.

"It's not a dramatic decrease that would cause this labor shortage," he said.

The percentage of migrating farmworkers remained stable through the 1990s but has declined significantly since the turn of the century, partly due to more vigorous border enforcement since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Fan said.

Hiring Our Heroes

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Albany, GA (Growing America, April 25, 2016):  Earlier this year, Growing America shared a success story with our readers about a program in Georgia called STAGVETS, whose mission is "to transform wounded warriors into self-sufficient, self-sustaining farmers and culinary experts."

Now the USDA and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation are partnering in another effort to increase employment opportunities in the Ag sector for military veterans and their spouses.

The initiative is part of a larger program called Hiring Our Heroes, which "assists military veterans and transitioning active duty personnel with training and opportunities to find meaningful employment when entering the civilian workforce."

AGING OUT SOLUTION

With so many farmers 'aging out,' the idea of creating an influx of new farmers and ranchers into the profession is very powerful, with a real opportunity to make a tremendous impact on the future of US farming—and not a moment too soon.

Back in 2012, a survey of U.S. farmers revealed that a third were older than 65, with the average age being 58.3 years old. Agriculture Secretary, Tom Vilsak, reacted to the survey with this question: "The reality is, over time those folks won't be able to continue farming, and the question for all of us is, if they don't, who will?"

Vilsak's primary goal then was to encourage 18-year olds to get into farming and take over from our aging farmers. However, it remains a challenge to ignite a passion for farming in young people.

Jon Jackson, founder of STAGVETS, and himself a military veteran who served six deployments and fought with the Rangers in Afghanistan, says it's a different story for military veterans. He has seen, firsthand, how connecting vets with agriculture has had incredibly positive results.

"Homeless vets, displaced vets, and those having a difficult time making the transition to non-military life need our help with healing, training and employment," explained Jackson. "STAGVETS is doing that in Georgia and the end result will be to enable and empower them to take the lead in our nation's agriculture system. Agri-Therapy is a useful tool in managing symptoms associated with Post Traumatic Stress and Traumatic Brain Injury."

IDEAL SKILLSET

Jackson sees the new USDA initiative as another huge step in helping vets make this important transition back into civilian life.

"Veterans are an untapped resource of amazing work ethic who can be utilized to overhaul our food system and provide food security," said Jackson. "Our veterans are a capable work force that can be implemented immediately. There are 300,000 men and women out there that would love to step up to a job in Ag."

The USDA sees military veterans as the perfect fit for Ag careers. They believe their leadership training, skills, and perspective will help America meet the challenges of producing food and rebuilding rural and urban communities. The new initiative will allow the USDA to connect even more vets to the resources and help they need to be a part of the next generation that feeds our country and the world.

USDA Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services Deputy Under Secretary, Lanon Baccam, among those who signed the agreement between the USDA and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation believes the agreement will "open the door for thousands of service members who could benefit from USDA's vast array of tools and resources."

Baccam, a U.S. Army and Iowa National Guard veteran who served in Afghanistan, is USDA's Military Veterans Liaison, added, "This new partnership strengthens USDA's ongoing efforts to help veterans pursue rewarding careers in farming, ranching, or in the fast-growing agriculture and food sectors."

LOANS AND SKILLS

The USDA's commitment to assisting veterans extends back many years. Since 2009, USDA has provided $466.8 million in farm loans to help more than 6,868 veterans purchase farmland, buy equipment and make repairs and upgrades. The microloans, which offer smaller amounts of support to meet the needs of small- or niche-type farm operations, have also grown in popularity among veterans. Since it was launched in January 2013, USDA's microloan program has provided more than $25.8 million in support to help veterans grow their farming businesses.

"There is no doubt that many veterans can be filtered into the agriculture system, but my advice to the USDA is to pay close attention to the part of operations that can cause success or failures," suggested Jackson. "STAGVETS focuses on learning skills like Quickbooks, marketing, advertising and all the admin stuff that defines a farming operation. We also have an infrastructure in place to provide over-watch, and support veterans even after they leave our program. These are as important in guaranteeing success as learning the essentials."

More recently, USDA's Farm Service Agency (FSA) also expanded its collaboration with the Department of Defense to better reach the nearly 200,000 service members transitioning from military service to civilian life each year.

Through a career training and counseling program, called the Transition Assistance Program, or TAP, USDA provides information on a wide variety of loans, grants, training and technical assistance available for veterans who are passionate about a career in agriculture.

Jackson sees plenty of opportunity to reach out and partner with Hiring Our Heroes.

"Our program will definitely be one that Hiring Our Heroes can utilize," said Jackson. "While we are based here in Georgia, STAGVETS wants to show that Georgia can feed all of Georgia by the partnerships of veterans and small farmers around the state."

"I envision great opportunities for us to collaborate with as many organizations as possible to provide the needed assistance for veterans," Jackson added. "We've spent a year and a half planning our amazing STAGVETS program and this year we'll be taking the steps to contact the right departments to offer our assistance—the Hiring Our Heroes program is certainly on our list."

In the past year, USDA has assembled a dedicated task force charged with strengthening and coordinating a path for veterans and their families to enter into agriculture as a career and way of life.

Vilsack believes veterans and Ag careers is a natural fit and says the USDA is behind the efforts of Hiring Our Heroes and the new initiative "100 percent."

"Our veterans embody the values that stand at the heart of rural America: hard work, a love of their country, and a sense of duty to give back

to a nation that has done so much for us all."

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