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The food chain dilemma
Dr. Victor Martin

The Drought Monitor report continues to indicate intensification in extreme Southwest Kansas. Much of western Kansas in now considered abnormally dry and the spotty rain this last week likely did little to change that. The six to 10 day outlook (May 13 to 17) indicates temperatures well below normal, and above normal precipitation for the state. Looking out eight to 14 days (May 15 to 21) indicates slightly above normal precipitation and normal temperatures. The 30 day outlook (June) is predicting normal temperatures and slightly above normal precipitation.

Anecdotal wheat damage reports indicates insurance adjusters have zeroed out some fields in the northwest part of the county and there are other reports of significant frost damage to developing heads. Some fields appear normal. Part of this wide variation is due to location and topography and some due to some wide variations in planting dates. A significant concern now is the need for rainfall as many fields are exhibiting drought stress and need rain as the flower and set seed.

Last week’s column briefly discussed how our food system is set up and why. Especially the concentration and specialization involved in food production combined with the adoption of technology and the development of essentially a production line model of food stuffs. This week, why we experience the actual and/or perceived disruptions of foodstuffs. Remember, we have two major differences here – perishable versus nonperishable products and their processing and the amount of time it takes to produce these commodities.  

First, let’s consider the more perishable commodities such as many fruits and vegetables along with some dairy products. These are separate from types of these commodities like cheese, butter, apples, potatoes, etc. we can keep for much longer periods of time.

• Fortunately, the turnaround time on these is fairly quick so they can be constantly produced. Items such as milk, lettuce, etc. However, items such as many fruits and vegetables are produced outside the U.S. – Mexico, along with Central and South America. The disruption here is possible from two sources. Before Covid-19, many of the perishable commodities were rotting in the field due to a lack of workers. This was exacerbated by the pandemic and immigration regulations. The second factor is the effect of the pandemic on countries where we obtain these foodstuffs along with some disruptions in the transportation chain. Planting has also been disrupted in some cases. The upside here is that many stocks can be planted and brought back online fairly quickly. 

Now, what about items such as meat and poultry?

• Beef is quite separate from the other proteins due to its time to produce and the ability of beef producers to “hold on” to their product. Poultry and pork producers have a rapid turnaround time and an exacting time schedule from birth to essentially the exact day for harvest. While beef producers can work around delays somewhat better, to wait before slaughter, pork and poultry aren’t.

• All of this is exacerbated by concentration of the meat and poultry processing industry. Four packers/processors control the vast majority of the market. And relative to the amount processed, there are relatively few plants to process all this livestock. So when a plant or plants go down it has a disproportionate effect on supply temporarily. Three or processing plants going down all at once or having to slow down, at least regionally, disrupts meat supplies.

• Some have argued, they should just send livestock to smaller, local, facilities. The issue here is that there are relatively few of those left and they aren’t able to handle anywhere near this kind of volume.

• Finally, we aren’t set up with the capacity to store meat and poultry long-term after processing. People like fresh product for one thing. And much of our food supply chain is set up on a “just in time model” for supply and delivery for a variety of reasons.

To summarize, there are problems and challenges with our food supply system. These can cause disruptions/interruptions in food supplies.  However, there will be food on the shelves even if the selection isn’t what you may wish. And the problem will diminish over time as the industry adapts to these conditions.  Not panic buying would also help as there is no reason to.

Dr. Victor L. Martin is the agriculture instructor/coordinator for Barton Community College. He can be reached at 620-792-9207, ext. 207.