Farmers feeling market’s squeeze

Associated Press

KENNEWICK — While American consumers stuff themselves with Thanksgiving turkey, dressing, potatoes, cranberries and pumpkin pie, the people who grew the commodities have a bellyache.

The American Farm Bureau’s annual national price survey found that the average cost of preparing a Thanksgiving meal for 10 declined 4 percent from last year, to $32.37.

What’s good for consumers is galling to the state’s farmers, who are getting squeezed by high production costs.

"What we are seeing is a fairly large supply of pretty much every commodity," Farm Bureau economist Joe Miller said. "It doesn’t matter which commodity you talk about. Almost all have low prices, from cranberries to turkeys to grains."

Washington farmers are getting less for their crops, but paying more in property taxes, fuel, labor and maintenance.

Things are so bad in the Yakima Valley that the Roza Irrigation District recently decided not to increase assessments for next year despite increased costs to run the district.

"With commodity prices down, it’s been a tough year for farmers to make a go of it," irrigation district spokesman Joe Schmitt said. "Hopefully, this will help out."

Fresh potato growers are particularly hard hit.

While Americans are expected to consume 55 million pounds of Thanksgiving potatoes, what Washington growers got for their spuds was break-even or worse.

A large crop across North America has flooded the market with fresh spuds and driven down prices.

"Fresh growers are barely getting enough returns back to pay the shipping and packing," said Dale Lathim, executive director of the Potato Growers of Washington in Othello. "Today, some growers are getting less per hundredweight than they were in 1900."

While the vast majority of Washington’s potatoes are processed for french fries, about 20,000 acres are grown for the fresh market.

In some cases, farmers could lose more than $1,000 an acre, the difference between what it costs to grow the potatoes and what they sell for.

Instead of fresh potatoes, the Farm Bureau’s average Thanksgiving meal includes sweet potatoes, which cost $1.94 per 3-pound bag, down 23 cents from last year.

Dairy products such as milk and whipping cream also are cheaper.

The average price of a gallon of whole milk, for example, is $2.56, down 39 cents.

"I find it ironic that we are talking about how cheap Thanksgiving dinner is when we have a very robust economy in the I-5 corridor," said Debbie Becker, executive director of the Washington State Dairy Federation. "But out in the rural communities, we have people worrying about if they are going to be able to have those dinners, when you look at the price of milk they received."

Farmers are getting less than $12 per hundred pounds of milk, the lowest prices in decades, Becker said.

Nationally, lower prices also were found by Farm Bureau shoppers. A 16-pound turkey was down $1.71 from last year, fresh cranberries were down 16 cents, pumpkin pie mix was down 7 cents and frozen green peas were down 7 cents.

"There is typically a lag between consumer prices and what the farmers have been seeing," the Farm Bureau’s Miller said. "We’ve seen low prices at the farm level for two or three years now. Those dropping prices are just now starting to reach the retail level."

Copyright ©2000 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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