By Emmett C. Snead III
The past year has been a time of economic volatility and turmoil unlike any period I have seen in my more than six decades of farming. I know many of my customers are also feeling this turmoil in the form of higher gas prices and larger grocery bills.
That is why I’m sharing some of my own economic observations as a farmer and offering an explanation of how produce prices at my roadside stand are no higher this year than two years ago.
Last fall, I remember thinking that it felt like the beginning of the 1970s. Many signs led me to believe that high inflation would soon become a way of life. For one thing, the economy was awash in the large amounts of money provided to households, governments and businesses through the various COVID-19 pandemic-related stimulus programs.
But where I really saw red flags was in the labor market. Hiring workers in October 2021—a time when my farm is active with fall festival visitors and pumpkin harvesting—was harder than ever. Even after raising wages 25%, there didn’t seem to be enough workers to hire. And while I was lucky to find a group of dependable individuals who carried me through the season, many of my newer hires would call out of their shifts with no fear of repercussions. This was something I’d never experienced before.
At the same time, the price of fertilizer—an important farm input—was starting to creep up. In my experience, small increases in fertilizer prices are usually followed by large jumps. I thought at the time that the cost of fertilizer would double by this spring’s planting season. That’s why I purchased all of my farm inputs for the entire year last fall.
But my prediction was wrong. The cost of farm inputs has not doubled since last fall—it has nearly tripled in some cases. For instance, my per-ton cost of potassium chloride—an important element of fertilizer—was $202.50 this time last year. Today it goes for $562.50 per ton—a 178% increase.
By locking in input prices last fall, I’ve been able to avoid passing the increase in farming costs on to my customers. I’ve also changed the way I manage the farm.
I’ve limited the amount of crop acreage to match the labor that’s available. I cut acreage back by planting fewer Christmas trees and less of certain items that have proven less popular in recent years, but I’ll still have the same amount of cantaloupes, watermelons, tomatoes and other popular produce this year.
This new approach has freed up eight acres of land, and I’ve planted those acres with wildflowers and native grasses, which provide habitat for honeybees and wildlife such as quail and turkeys. The bees seem to approve, as I’ve got a bumper crop of honey to sell at the stand and share with my community supported agriculture members.
Another way we’ve managed the rising costs of labor and farm maintenance is by opening the farm to visitors for four months each year instead of eight. We’ll still be open through the end of summer, and again in late September and October for our fall festival, but we’ve limited hours to these popular times to ensure we can staff appropriately.
Fortunately I was able to manage around the input cost increases and lack of labor availability this year, but with the ongoing turmoil in the market next year may be a different story. And many farmers will feel the impacts of these cost increases this year.
No one can predict the future and farming always has something new to teach you. This post-pandemic period, as the world has also dealt with a war in Ukraine and a tightly constrained supply of fuel, has been one for the books. It’s never been more difficult to keep a family farm running, and I’ve watched a few long-time area farming families get out of the business. But while times may seem hard now, these conditions may look easy many years from now, when the world’s farmers must feed a population of 9 billion people.
In the 1960s, my father predicted that one day land for growing food would become as valuable as industrial land. He told me to be ready. Today, his prediction is coming true. Farmland in the middle of nowhere all across America is being bought up at a record pace and at record prices by investors. As a result, it will be harder and harder for the next generations of farmers to own their own farms.
I offer these observations to emphasize the importance of supporting small local farms. Even though my three children may never farm, our family has placed Snead’s Farm under permanent conservation easement with the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, ensuring that it will remain in agricultural use in perpetuity.
Emmett C. Snead III, a Virginia Farm Bureau member, is the owner of Snead’s Farm in Fredericksburg.