What’s in the Box? Opportunity or Evil?

By Blaine Davis, Contributing Editor

With 2021 already one-fourth over, I am still stunned by the events of 2020’s last quarter and its fallout. By the new administration’s reversal of many of Trump’s policies, my ventures, both personal and business, are uncertain. I liken it to Farm Journal news director John Herath’s recent statement on the Biden presidency and climate change. “It’s kind of like when that Amazon box shows up and you’ve brought it in the house and you’ve got it sitting on the table. You know it’s here, but you don’t know what’s in it yet.”

As I pull my “iron steed” beside the gasoline pump, I do know one thing that’s in the box – higher petroleum prices, with an increase approaching 30 percent just since his inauguration. Much of the fossil fuel industry is in jeopardy, as the first attack on our energy independence came with the stroke of Biden’s pen stopping work on the Keystone XL pipeline. With this came lay-offs of high-paying career jobs in the energy sector from Canada to the Gulf Coast.

Having just experienced one of coldest periods in my 60-plus years that ranged from the Rocky Mountains east, my thoughts centered on our farm and how the wheat crop fared. Much like a cat, farmers lament to wheat having nine lives to endure drought, insects, diseases and, hopefully, this recent cold blast. But to many others, especially those in Oklahoma and Texas, their thoughts centered on keeping warm and keeping their domestic water flowing as rolling electrical blackouts and natural gas shortages affected millions of citizens.

Watching the evening television news, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz stated that 23 percent of Texas’ energy had shifted to wind and solar, but during this cold front accompanied with freezing rain and snow, this dropped to just 2 percent. Due to the icing of the windmill blades much like that on aircraft during the winter, a call was out for helicopters burning petroleum-based fuel to spray petroleum-based de-icing solutions on the blades to resume production. This mental picture combined with my disdain for the highways being congested with the transportation of these behemoths, “what sense can be made of this?”

Consequently during this cold spell, natural gas spot prices soared to more than $1,000 per dekatherm, causing my fellow Farmers Gas Pipeline Board members and me much consternation. While we have been very pro-active and purchase forward contracts for the fuel at below $3 for the irrigation months of April through September into crop year 2025, we were not covered during February, which typically isn’t yet irrigation season. To add some margin of comfort (no pun intended), we added March 2021 gas to our portfolio at $3.80 per dekatherm, palatable but still a 33 percent increase.

In the same corner of this “box” akin to a Pandora’s Box, I find the uncertainty of future fertilizer costs and availability. With the increases of in the price of natural gas, a major component in production of nitrogen fertilizer vital to the corn crop, combined with a push at the federal level to regulate nitrogen and particularly nitrogen flow into ground water, another of my crop inputs is bound to rise. With the recent upward trend of corn prices, I did contract approximately one-third of my expected 2021 crop at a level I hadn’t seen for several seasons, much to the chagrin of my cattle-feeding friends. What appears to be a profitable and savvy situation may just actually offset my higher input costs.

After surveying the condition of our wheat crop, it was back to the office where the building industry isn’t fairing any better with the leftward shift in politics and culture. As reported by one of my contractor partners, 2021 has experienced three consecutive months of steel price increases, amounting to 24 percent, the total of all of 2020. Coupled with the added energy costs to harvest timber, produce cement and deliver such to the job-sites, several of my projects are budget-hampered and may become unfeasible.

Peering into this “box” further, I can see that accompanying the uncertainty of supplies and costs related to fossil fuels will be more climate policy and carbon restrictions and “their markets.” Agriculture and especially beef production get a bad rap on this subject and its sustainability. Often quoted by this author, Frank Mitloehner, Ph.D., professor at University of California, Davis, Department of Animal Sciences, has dispelled many myths about greenhouse gases and animal agriculture.

“Most other sectors in society only produce greenhouse gases, but there are two sectors that are both sources and sinks: forestry and agriculture. These land-use sectors, forestry and agriculture take on more carbon than they emit,” he said. The methane that livestock produce has a half-life of 10 years, so it’s not just produced, but consumed.

Comparably, it takes 1,000 years to remove carbon dioxide that makes up to 80 percent of greenhouse gases in the United States. At the recent 2021 Cattle Industry Convention Reboot, Jason Sawyer, Ph.D., associate professor and research scientist with the King Ranch® Institute for Ranch Management said, “Carbon uptake through grazing lands can help offset non-methane emissions currently attributed to beef production. If the warming potential of methane is properly accounted for, and current levels of carbon uptake are included in the greenhouse gas profile of beef systems, U.S. beef producers might already be approaching climate neutral production.”

“Beef sustainability is a complex subject, but there is a lot to be excited about,” Sawyer added. “Production of beef is not degrading the planet, but rather improving the planet while feeding the world.”

Closer to the “ranch” and next door west, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis has declared March 20 (the first day of spring) as MeatOut Day. From his “box of tricks” he is asking residents to forego meat for one day. According to his office, the proclamation was intended to educate consumers about the “benefits of a healthful, plant-based diet.”

To the state’s 34,000 farmers and ranchers who contribute more than $47 billion annually to the state’s economy, it is nothing more than a slap in the face. Livestock account for $6 billion of these agricultural receipts. Compared to its tourism industry that grosses $24 billion annually, it would be unheard of to see a “No Tourism Day,” and may be more of a political ploy to appease the governors’ spouse, First Gentleman Marlon Reis, a vegan and animal rights activist.

Applying the research and science by Professor Mitloehner, if Americans eliminated all animal protein from their diets, they would reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by only 2.6 percent. Activists’ promotions, such as Meatless Mondays and MeatOut Day, would have little effect except to further the big lie about cows and climate change.

Celebrating the first day of spring and toasting a statement from the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) that “Cattlemen and women are the original climate heroes, preserving natural resources for generations, while producing safe, affordable and abundant protein for the world to enjoy,” I know there will be beef on my grill.