Monday, May 07, 2007

Searle outlines ag trends at CP staff meeting

Whenever statistics come out about a state, a newspaper always has a responsibility to report more than just the numbers.

A newspaper should look beyond the numbers: provide analysis of them, show how numbers are relevant to the newspaper’s audience and try to give some forecasts of what experts think will happen next.

Last week, Capital Press invited one of the experts from the Oregon Department of Agriculture to do a presentation to some of the newspaper’s staff. The purpose was to help us get a better understanding of what is happening but also what is coming next in agriculture.

Brent Searle, originally from a farm in Idaho, serves as a special assistant to ODA agriculture director Katy Coba in Salem.

Searle emphasized this his department does not collect the statistics, but evaluates those that are collected by others, whether at the state or federal level. One of the roles his department does is later put into context some of those other numbers: for example, he and his colleagues will point out mistakes in the data and hopefully influence changes to be made.

Some of the trends he outlined to CP staff included:

Productivity in Oregon agriculture has increased about two percent per year in the past decade.

But farm income has stayed flat because while its productivity has gone up, the cost of production has also risen.

USDA research probably underestimates Oregon’s input costs, such as in electricity and labor.

Government payments to farmers in the past had been mainly for program crops, but now conservation program are triggering more money benefiting Oregon farmers.

Custom farming and grass cleaning has increased.

Employment increased 30 percent in the last decade, and 80 percent of that is nursery-related. The payroll has gone up, almost doubled.

In the food processing sector, the state has lost 10 major food processors, and lost more than 20 percent during that time in jobs relating to that industry.

The food industry continues to consolidate: six major food retailers produce half the food in the U.S. Wal-Mart was especially aggressive in how it has grown: it has 12 percent of all U.S. food sales, and expects that to rise to more than 20 percent in the next 8 years.

Between 1995 and 2005, Oregon lost 73,000 acres of primary processing crops such as berries and vegetable crops. Taking their place to a large extent is grass seed, with more than a 100,000-acre increase during that same time period.

More U.S. children have visited a zoo than a farm, but there is growing interest in where food comes from and how it is grown.

More land is being involved in certification programs: a total of 2,613,000 acres are enrolled in 5 certification programs in Oregon as of last year, about 15 percent of the total acres under production. The certification includes 49,000 as organic and 2.5 million were with Food Alliance. Half of the wine production is certified under one of the programs.

The number of small farms declined last year in numbers, for the first time in the last decade, as urban pressure convinces people to sell — especially when their farms might not be very economically viable. Measure 37 is expected to also have an impact.

Searle spent a considerable amount of time discussing energy: the cost to the state, as well as the growth of alternative sources of energy. He noted that Oregon spends $12 million per day on energy, and 85 percent of that leaves the state.

“All that money is sucking out of our economy,” he said.

Searle’s job involves talking to groups and communities that are interested in creating renewable fuels plants, and he admits there has been a lot of “kicking the tires.” There have been 40 –50 groups he has talked to, and probably about 20 projects out there, he said. In ethanol, there’s “10 talking, 2 under construction, and a third that’s close” and he predicted maybe half that will be built.

However, he believes there continues to be a lot of potential for those in agriculture looking to build or be involved in producing another energy option, especially since he expects gas prices to reach $4 by summer. Searle doesn’t believe they’ll go below $3 per gallon again.

Searle gave the Capital Press staff a lot of fodder to think about, as well as ideas on what to write about. Now it’s up to CP staff to take those numbers and trends and make sense of them for an audience that is impacted by these statistics.

Capital Press
Oregon Department of Agriculture
Food Alliance

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