How farmers fared in producing this year’s holiday feast

Producers of the food that makes up our holiday dinners would like to see better markets, but generally have reason to be thankful.
Eric Mortenson

Capital Press

Published on November 22, 2017 8:02AM

Last changed on November 22, 2017 8:24AM

Aberdeen, Idaho, farmer Ritchey Toevs inspects a potato during his harvest. Toevs said processing potato growers have seen their contracts erode in recent years and will earn a slim margin this season, despite increases in fresh potato prices.

John O’Connell/Capital Press File

Aberdeen, Idaho, farmer Ritchey Toevs inspects a potato during his harvest. Toevs said processing potato growers have seen their contracts erode in recent years and will earn a slim margin this season, despite increases in fresh potato prices.

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A worker moves a bin of fresh produce at New Family Farm in Sebastopol, Calif. Prices for produce popular at Thanksgiving have held steady.

New Family Farm

A worker moves a bin of fresh produce at New Family Farm in Sebastopol, Calif. Prices for produce popular at Thanksgiving have held steady.

Mary Ocasion of Churn Creek Meadow Organic Farm in Redding, Calif., packs fresh produce in boxes for customers on Nov. 16. She said produce prices paid to growers are up a little this year, but input costs are up, too.

Tim Hearden/Capital Press

Mary Ocasion of Churn Creek Meadow Organic Farm in Redding, Calif., packs fresh produce in boxes for customers on Nov. 16. She said produce prices paid to growers are up a little this year, but input costs are up, too.

Ocasion puts spinach in boxes for customers. Produce prices are up a little this year but input cost increases are outpacing them.

Tim Hearden/Capital Press

Ocasion puts spinach in boxes for customers. Produce prices are up a little this year but input cost increases are outpacing them.

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Mark Anderson of Champoeg Farm near St. Paul, Ore., delivered 800 whole, processed turkeys to a Portland-area grocery chain.

Eric Mortenson/Capital Press File

Mark Anderson of Champoeg Farm near St. Paul, Ore., delivered 800 whole, processed turkeys to a Portland-area grocery chain.

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The National Turkey Federation — yes, there is such a thing — did a survey a couple years ago and concluded 88 percent of Americans eat turkey for Thanksgiving. This year, the federation predicted we would eat 45 million turkeys on Thanksgiving Day.

No wonder we feel stuffed, which along with a post-meal nap on the couch is one of Thanksgiving’s charming rituals.

Producers who grow the food that makes up the Thanksgiving feast acknowledge they have reason to give thanks, but can’t help but wish the market was a little more giving.


Turkey time


Mark Anderson, who sells pasture-raised poultry from his Champoeg Farm in Oregon’s northern Willamette Valley, said he delivered 800 whole, processed turkeys to New Seasons Market, the Portland-area niche grocery chain that specializes in products that are local or meet other standards favored by foodies.

He also had 70 to 100 people visit his farm the weekend before Thanksgiving to pick up processed turkeys they previously ordered. On-farm sales picked up this year, he said.

“I don’t have any live ones walking around, so that’s a good thing,” Anderson said, meaning the turkeys.

But Anderson said it remains difficult to compete on a price basis with turkey processors who raise large flocks indoors under controlled conditions. The 32nd annual American Farm Bureau Federation price survey estimated that a Thanksgiving meal for 10 cost $49.12 this year, 75 cents cheaper than 2016. Of that, the 16-pound turkey was estimated at $22.38 or about $1.40 a pound. That represents an average retail markup of 13 percent for the turkey, according to USDA.

Anderson said that’s the problem. His birds — pasture-raised and farm-processed — cost $4 to $5 a pound. He says they taste better, but he depends on his niche, upscale market to move them at that price.

“We’ve got the real deal here, you’ve just got to pay more to get it,” he said.


Cranberry crunch


Then there are cranberries.

The agricultural scholars at the University of California-Davis report we eat 400 million pounds of cranberries per year, with about 20 percent, 80 million pounds, served up during Thanksgiving. “National Eat a Cranberry Day,” which we hadn’t heard of before, is observed Nov. 23 each year, according to UC-Davis.

George Bussmann, a cranberry grower in Sixes, Ore., on the southern Oregon Coast, said quality and yield were fine this year but prices remain depressed, hovering around $20 for a hundredweight barrel. Much lower and it won’t be worth the cost of delivering them, he said.

He said the cranberry inventory is high and the USDA probably will soon regulate volume, with growers limited to delivering a certain allotment. Some growers say one bad year in the Midwest — Wisconsin produces about 60 percent of the nation’s crop — would “fix everything,” but Bussmann doubts it.

“In my opinion we’re going to be here for awhile,” he said. “It’s not a great, gleaming time in our industry right now,”

Bussmann figures he will ride it out, however.

“My brother has a saying for it: It’s too early to tell and it’s too late to turn back,” he said with a laugh.

He said everyone should serve cranberry sauce with the holiday meals.

“You’re just not American if you don’t have cranberry sauce on the table,” he said, only half-joking. “You don’t necessarily have to eat it, but it has to be in the picture.”


Pumpkin pied


Pumpkin pie is such a fixture at Thanksgiving that we inhale an estimated 50 million of them. The American Pie Council — yet another organization we had no reason to think existed — has a website of such information at https://www.piecouncil.org/pdf/Pie_Fun_Facts.pdf.

Among other things, the Pie Council says 6 million American men between the ages of 35 and 54 have eaten the last slice of pie and denied it, which seems low.

Out on Sauvie Island’s Delta Farms in the Portland area, however, it’s winter squash that moves well this time of year. Delta Farms is the wholesale pumpkin and squash sales arm of owner Bob Egger’s Pumpkin Patch retail business.

Egger sells whole pumpkins and squash to grocery chains such as Albertsons. Winter squash in particular seems to be gaining favor on the holiday table and for use in soups and purees, he said.

Egger said his squash also sells well in Utah, and he was pleased recently to find them in a grocery store in Denton, Texas. Squash keeps well and ships easily without damage, he said.

“Demand has been really good,” he said. “I think people are eating more and more winter squash.”


Mixed vegetables


Meanwhile, prices nationwide have fallen for much of the other produce that’s popular at Thanksgiving, such as sweet potatoes, carrots, celery, peas and green beans. Sweet potatoes advertised for an average of $1.04 per pound this year were selling for $1.40 in 2016, according to a USDA retail price report.

Things are somewhat better in the West, where growers have seen their returns hold steady or increase slightly since last year, according to government and industry sources.

Celery selling for 66 cents per pound in recent weeks was bringing 47 cents a pound last year, and carrots, at 31 cents a pound, are 2 cents higher than November 2016, according to the Western Growers Producer Price Index.

In the Pacific Northwest, the $14 per hundredweight growers received for green peas as of Nov. 14 was up from between $9 and $10 a year ago, the USDA reported.

But while their receipts have held steady, growers say their costs for labor and fuel keep going up, making their margins tighter. And this is particularly true in California, where farms are grappling with a recently enacted gasoline and diesel tax increase and a law that will raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2022. The current minimum wage is $10 to $10.50 an hour, depending on the number of employees.

“The cost of labor here is ridiculous,” said Ryan Power, co-owner of New Family Farm in Sebastopol, Calif., which raises produce sold in local stores and directly to consumers.

He said a local housing shortage has added to the farm’s costs.

“We’ve had to provide housing for our employees,” Power said. “That’s been a challenge.”

Prices to growers in the West may be aided by shortages for several crops. Extreme weather has caused a shortage of cauliflower nationwide in recent years, but New Family sent 60 cases of it to local stores on Nov. 16, Power said.

Fresh domestic green beans are another commodity in high demand, said Mary Ocasion, owner of Churn Creek Meadow Organic Farm in Redding, Calif.

“Green beans are sky-high right now because it’s really hard to get them,” she said. “They have to be grown in special conditions. It’s too cold this time of year for green beans. The weather is too extreme. You have to have a protective environment with a heater running. It raises costs. And payroll costs are so much higher for growers.”

Churn Creek Meadow delivers hand-picked produce directly to consumers. The wet winter and hot summer in 2017 took their toll on some yields, particularly vegetables normally planted in the summer to be available during the holidays, Ocasion said.

“Carrots are one of those things we had a hard time with over the summer because of the heat,” she said. “But they’re doing well now.”


Potato ups, downs


Did someone say “mash potatoes?”

Fresh potato growers can give thanks this holiday season that their market has finally recovered and prices continue to strengthen.

James Hoff, an Idaho Falls fresh grower who serves on the Idaho Potato Commission, estimates his production costs at about $6 per hundredweight. Hoff said current estimates place returns to fresh russet growers at roughly $8.50 per hundredweight.

“I should be able to pay down some debt this year, which is pretty exciting,” Hoff said. “It’s been a long stretch since we’ve had decent potato prices, and we should see a little rate of return that might put a Band-Aid on the wounds we’ve seen in the past few years.”

Growers who raise spuds for processing have received more stable payments in recent years due to their contracts, but contract rates have gradually declined, explained Ritchey Toevs, an Aberdeen, Idaho, potato farmer who also serves on the Idaho Potato Commission.

“We have seen continual (contract price) erosion over the last five years,” Toevs said.

Costs of labor and electricity, however, have risen, Toevs said.

“It’s getting to where you have to have exceptional yields, above the state average, to make money,” Toevs said.

As the industry enters its peak season, IPC President and CEO Frank Muir said strong fresh potato demand should also help processed potato growers negotiate for higher contracts, and sell any production over their contracted volumes.

“It’s pretty clear the processors are also looking for incremental potatoes, and that should bode well for those who have some extra potatoes to sell,” Muir said.


Wheat worries


Grain growers agree they won’t see much return from consumption of fresh loaves of bread, Thanksgiving dinner rolls and pie crusts. Hoff said hard red spring wheat, his primary rotation crop, is now selling for $6 per bushel.

“You’re not going to make anything at $6 per bushel,” Hoff said.

Fortunately, Hoff forward contracted much of his wheat in June, when the price was about $1 per bushel higher, and said growers produced a “phenomenal wheat crop.” He also believes there’s a tighter supply of high-quality wheat for milling.

Toevs said the current price of his soft white winter wheat is roughly $4 per bushel, which is about $3 below the highs of 2015.

“At $4, that’s going to get you back less than $500 per acre,” said Toevs, who estimates his wheat production costs at $700 per acre.


Dairy doldrums


Milk used for making whipped cream, butter, cheese and other dairy products served on Thanksgiving dinner plates will also be produced at a slight loss in the Northwest, said Rick Naerebout, CEO of the Idaho Dairyman’s Association.

“The financial performance of our average dairymen this year will probably be a little bit below break-even,” Naerebout said. “We need demand to pick up for us to have a good 2018 based on the amount of milk we’re seeing produced in the U.S. and major exporting regions throughout the world.”

Naerebout said the typical dairy market cycle involves a strong year, an OK year and a poor year, followed by the return of a strong year. Based on the normal pattern, he said 2017 should have been a strong year, but wasn’t.

Kim Korn, an Idaho Dairy Products Commission member who has a 90-cow dairy in Terreton, said prices of Idaho’s two major dairy classes, Class III and Class IV, are especially low. Korn, who sells to the Dairy Farmers of America cooperative, said she’s paid a premium under her contract for higher butter fat and protein, which has helped her financially.

“It used to be the periods of ups and downs were spread out more,” Korn said. “Now, it seems like from week to week, the price is upward and then way down.”

Capital Press reporters Tim Hearden and John O’Connell contributed to this story.



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