wfp-todd-fitchette-arizona-roundtable-147.jpg Todd Fitchette
USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue, left, chats with Arizona Department of Agriculture Director Mark Killian about trade, and the important role it could play in bolstering U.S. farm prices. Killian produces cotton and hay, and raises cattle in Arizona.

Flat farm prices subsidize U.S. consumer spending

U.S. consumers benefit in many ways from relatively low food prices as farmers remain stymied by commodity prices that have remained unchanged for decades

Though much smaller in size and population, Arizona shares some similarities with its neighbor to the west. Farmers and ranchers in the Grand Canyon State suffer many of the same financial and water challenges from what I heard at the recent Arizona Agribusiness Roundtable in Tempe in early December.

After the meeting I spoke with Mark Killian, the director of the Arizona Department of Agriculture. Killian is also a farmer and rancher, growing cotton and alfalfa while managing a cow, calf operation with considerable help from family as his day-job keeps him quite busy.

Like the farmers he serves from his position in the State Capitol, Killian is rightly concerned over producer prices that unlike consumer goods, hasn't kept pace with inflation. Killian used the example of the first farm truck he purchased for himself in 1976. A new pickup that then cost him just over $6,000 now retails for well over $50,000.

"And yet the price I get for my cotton hasn't changed," he said.

A quick look at historic U.S. cotton prices shows that it averaged a few cents higher the year Killian bought his first pickup than it did in 2019, yet that same pickup today costs about 10 times more than it did then.

During a question-and-answer portion in the Tempe meeting where Killian asked U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue questions, one attendee asked Perdue to defend U.S. farm subsidies. After politely disagreeing with the questioner's thesis, Perdue went on to point out that the benefactor of low farm prices continues to be the U.S. consumer, who spends on average about 10 percent of his or her income on food.

"Imagine if we suddenly had to pay 20-25 percent of our discretionary income on food, like they do in Europe," Killian said during our phone conversation. "What items in our family budgets would need to be discontinued?"

It's not just consumer misinformation Killian, Perdue and farmers in general must combat. For Killian, he's challenged by the 2008 defunding of a division within his department that once promoted Arizona agricultural products. Unlike the USDA with its international trade mission efforts, and California, with a similar division that helps market California-grown food and fiber abroad, Arizona is more reliant upon its relationship with the Western United States Trade Association to assist with overseas marketing efforts.

Still, Killian says that hasn't stopped him or others from promoting "Arizona Grown" products. Local businesses and the state are still encouraged by the USDA to do what they can to expand their exports. Moreover, the USDA has been responsive to requests from Killian's office.

Killian praised the "cultural attitude shift" in Washington, D.C. under the Trump Administration. Still, more must be done to address market opportunities and farm prices to the American producer.

Killian points to the high-tech jobs states and municipalities chase while ignoring the importance of a profitable agricultural sector. Without a vibrant, sustainable U.S. agricultural economy that out-produces domestic needs, we will become dependent upon imports, which will assuredly become much more expensive to U.S. consumers as we cede the ability to feed ourselves to nations that may not support U.S. interests.

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