A look at 2009: It could be worse

Rik Dalvit/For the Capital Press


Minnesota farmers are known for their understated stoicism. When a tornado hits or hail wipes out a crop, a typical Minnesota farmer will likely pick himself up, dust himself off and utter a single phrase: "Well, it could be worse."

For many involved in agriculture, 2009 could have been worse, but not much.

Prices were a particular problem. From milk to pork to nursery crops to any number of other commodities, low prices transformed what might have otherwise been good or at least adequate years into something else.

The dairy industry was especially hard-hit. Prices lingered below the cost of production despite Herculean efforts such as the Cooperatives Working Together herd buyouts.

The plight of pork producers went from bad to worse, as the domestic and export markets faltered under the burden of misplaced concerns about the H1N1 flu the media insisted on calling "swine flu."

Other livestock producers faced similar problems. Export markets, which provide the added demand needed to bolster prices, suffered as the worldwide economy sputtered.

Domestically, the economic meltdown crippled the housing industry, the main driver of the timber, grass seed and nursery industries. Housing starts dropped to record lows as the demand for new homes evaporated, courtesy of the double-digit unemployment rate and stingy new lending rules.

Even Christmas tree growers faced the challenge of oversupply and low prices in the weakened economy.

Much the same can be said about other ag sectors.

Weather, too, made its negative imprint on bottom lines. In California, a years-long drought continues to draw down reservoirs and aquifers, and a lack of political resolve leaves agriculture and other industries desperate for more water storage.

But perhaps the biggest challenges growers faced came in the form of political, legal and regulatory storms that threatened the well-being of agriculture in 2009.

Worse, the forecast is for continued politicking aimed at making agriculture the whipping boy of the U.S. economy. Take cap and trade legislation, please. And while you're at it, take the federal Environmental Protection Agency's efforts to tax and regulate everything from dust to cow burps. At the same time, the federal fetish over climate change threatens to sink the U.S. economy in a sea of taxes and red tape.

Add waves of environmental lawyers to the storm that is battering the ag economy. Funded by do-gooders' contributions -- and hundreds of millions of dollars in federal largesse -- the lawyers file lawsuit after lawsuit in an effort to cripple agriculture and economic development in the name of protecting fish, wolves and other critters.

With these and other foibles proliferating, it is telling that those involved in agriculture continue to be optimistic. They know, through decades of cyclical ups and downs, that today's troubles are transitory and that next year could well bring a more temperate political climate.

One can only hope.

In the meantime, though, those Minnesota farmers are right in maintaining their stoicism. For most of us, 2009 brought many challenges. It's a matter of toughing out the lows and looking forward to the highs.

Overall, though, an optimist would agree: It could be worse.

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