Editor’s note: Part three of a four-part series.
Global supply chain issues have been like a force of nature for local farmers this year — unpredictable and costly.
For farmer Aaron Martinka, who works many farms in Central Texas, having to deal with the whims of the market and make do where possible has been the challenge this year.
From chemicals and fertilizer used to grow crops, to the machines used to harvest them, shortages of supplies are affecting many aspects of local farming. And, with the supply chain being a global issue, there is not much a small farmer in Texas can do.
“It is definitely more risk,” Martinka said of harvesting this coming year. “We are just on a whole different plateau now with the cost input. Commodity prices are up now, but what maybe was a $4 a bushel breakeven price now is $5 or $5.50.”
Lyle Zoeller, an agent with the Bell County Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service office, said shortages may lead to a hard growing season this spring.
Zoeller said one of the most significant shortages currently being seen by farmers in the area is a lack of fertilizers and chemicals. Needed by most farms in the area, scarcity and cost of these products are high.
The cause of many of these shortages for chemicals such as herbicides and pesticides, Zoeller said, is delays on the west coast for cargo containers.
“From a production standpoint, our problem is going to be fertilizers and it is going to be chemicals,” Zoeller said. “And by chemicals, I mean that the corn we plant around here is going to be Round Up ready. That means the corn we grow around here is GMO (genetically modified organisms) corn, and most of the corn acres are sprayed with Round Up.”
As a reaction to the lack of supplies, cost for these needed products have risen quickly over the past year.
This year, Martinka said he had spent about $1,253 a ton for fertilizer, with the same amount purchased about 16 months ago for about $300. Despite the increased prices, he said that there is not much he can do about it.
“With the fertilizer price, what are you going to do?” Martinka said. “You can cut back, but you can only cut back so much because then it is going to impact your potential yield. And farmers have been finding the most efficient cost of production the whole time, so you are not going to cut back because it is not like you have been over applying in the past anyways.”
Zoeller said liquid fertilizers, such as Liquid 32, have risen to prices of more than $750 per ton, with one ton covering between four and five acres of land.
Competition might be going on locally, but Zoeller said this region and its needs are just a speck when compared to global corn production and the products needed to fuel it. He said this does give some farmers a sense of hopelessness and lack of control.
“When you start look at the corn production in our area, we grow 75,000 acres of corn roughly in Bell County,” “That is a lot of product we need. And that is just our county, because when you think about it McLennan County grows more corn than us.”
Recent years have seen an increase in the use of technology for farming, with some tractors now having computers on board to allow for the precise planting of crops based upon GPS technology.
This technology, normally a blessing for farmers, has become somewhat of a curse due to shortages. Martinka said a single failed computer chip, normally easy enough to repair, now can sideline a piece of equipment for weeks waiting for a replacement.
“It used to be that if your tractor broke down you could just go to John Deere and getting a part was not a problem at all,” Martinka said. “It used to be that John Deere has a warehouse in Dallas and it would always have what you would need.”
Like many other industries, parts for equipment have seen long delays for common products such as tubing.
Martinka said he needed a replacement for a tire on one of his pieces of equipment earlier this year. While he did find the tire he needed, he said it was one of only about three currently available nationwide.
While finding repair parts is hard, the purchase of new equipment or tractors has become more expensive and full of risk in such an uncertain time.
Shannon Zamora, store manager at WC Tractor in Temple, said that despite his store being one of many in Central Texas, it has not made it any easier to get products to put on the shelves.
Like with most vehicles, Zamora said construction equipment has been particularly hard to get in stock.
“Out construction equipment, like skid steers, are two to three months out or longer,” Zamora said. “Utility vehicles, the little side-by-sides, are about the same amount out, about two months out. They are just waiting on seat cushions.”
Zamora said the store’s prices have not gone up yet, but he anticipates that to change in the new year on all products.
While the coming months look difficult for local farmers, Zoeller said there is still some hope for better conditions.
Zoeller said farmers in Bell County and the surrounding region are not expected to start planting corn, one of the staple crops in the area, until sometime in February. This gives the market at least a couple months to take a turn back toward normal prices, and farmers time to try and stock up on needed products.
Even if some farms are unable to get needed chemicals or fertilizer, Zoeller said that just means crops will need to be planted the old fashion way.
“Agriculture producers are eternal optimists, we are going to put seeds in the ground no matter what the forecast is because that is just what we do,” Zoeller said.