Kay's Korner

May 2, 2014

Water and plants are vital

Water and plants are vital to the well-being of American ag. Water in its various forms is needed to grow everything from pasture to feed crops to fruit and vegetables. It succors all kinds of plants that turn directly or indirectly into food for consumers at home and abroad. So rainfall, an adequate snow-pack for run-off and aquifer levels are all critical components in food production.

Plants in another sense are also essential for the health of the livestock industry. These are the physical plants that transform cattle, hogs, sheep and other animals into meat for commercial or home use. They provide vital outlets for anyone who raises animals for slaughter. Meat plants are also the economic lifeblood of most rural communities, providing much-needed jobs and wages, supporting a myriad of supplier firms and generating taxes and other revenues that help support the community.

Both water and plants were on my mind when I recently attended a picnic to celebrate the reopening of a small packing plant in my home town of Petaluma, CA. The town sits at the southern end of Sonoma County, which is best known for its world-class wines. But the country has a lot of small to medium-sized dairy and other livestock operators, many of whom for years depended on the Petaluma plant to process their animals, either for their own consumption or to sell the meat into the commercial market.

They were thus deeply concerned when inspection issues forced the plant to close in early February. The plant is the only one of its kind in the San Francisco Bay area or for many miles beyond. USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service is continuing to investigate the plant. But the good news for local producers is that a new owner quickly emerged and began operating the plant again April 7. That owner is boutique meat company Marin Sun Farms, which offers locally-raised, grass-fed and other meats for sale to specialty retail outlets and restaurants, mainly in the Bay Area.

Marin Sun founder David Evans greeted me and other guests as we sat under oak trees in a field behind the plant. Marin Sun had had its animals processed at the plant so many of the guests were suppliers and customers. All were mightily relieved that Evans had been able to raise the equity and had the courage to plunge into the challenging business of running a meat plant. Rosemary Mucklow, a legendary figure in the meat industry, called for us to applaud Evans and a big cheer went up.

Marin Sun will process everything from calves and cull cows to hogs, sheep and goats. It is exactly the kind of operation many counties around the country still need. Such plants fill a vital niche that larger, federally-inspected plants can never fill. They provide an outlet for producers such as Jeff Kent, who pasture-raises and finishes a handful of heirloom-breed hogs each year just north of Petaluma.

Now back to water. Parts of California had rain over the past month and the hills have greened up nicely. But the rainy season is over and green will turn to golden and then to brown way too quickly. So the state’s $45 billion agricultural sector still faces a huge hit due to historic drought. Worst hit might be the livestock sector, whose products brought in $12.2 billion in 2012. The drought’s impact on retail food prices might cause food inflation nationally in 2014 to be above the historical average, says USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) in a special report.

As of March 4, more than 94 percent of California’s agricultural sector was experiencing severe, extreme or exceptional drought, with the livestock sector more directly exposed to exceptional drought than the crop sector. Livestock and livestock products play an important role in California agriculture, contributing to just over a quarter of the value of agricultural production in the state, it says. This value consisted mostly of dairy, cattle and calf, chicken, and egg production.

California ranks first in dairy cow inventory and fourth in total U.S. cattle inventory, says ERS. California’s 5.25 million cattle (on Jan. 1 this year) equaled 6 percent of all U.S. cattle supplies and 8 percent of U.S. calves. California leads the nation in dairy production, producing 21 percent of the nation’s milk. The state is also the leading producer of butter and nonfat dry milk and is second to Wisconsin in cheese production, says ERS. From my discussions with ranchers at the Marin Sun picnic, I know that beef producers continue to struggle to keep their cow herds together. Despite rain, the state might still lose 50,000 of its 600,000 beef cows this year.— Steve Kay