Thursday, August 23, 2012

Twelve bucks a bale!

Hay Appreciation at the Womerlippi Farm

I was reading, as I often do, the inestimable Real Climate blog, when I came across a link to this NYT article about feral horses dying on the range because of the drought, which is of course exacerbated by climate change (and likely to get worse, especially if we get the El Nino that NOAA is predicting this fall).

But what caught my eye more than anything was the price of a bale of hay in some mid-western and western states mentioned in the article: Eight to twelve dollars!

My wife Aimee and I raise livestock, sheep, pigs, and chickens, as part of our family's smallholding lifestyle, and as part of our contribution to the mission of Unity College. We buy hay "off the field" each year, exercising a time-honored rural tradition to both save money and participate in community. And we have students over to our farm to engage them in agriculture and get them thinking about science.

The way the hay thing works is, a hay purchaser and a hay farmer agree on a lower price for hay, if the purchaser picks the hay bales off the field and transports the fodder themselves. This saves the farmer some labor and management costs, and it engages the purchaser in the heavy work of getting the hay in.

It's a tiny, very practical bit of applied human ecology.

We get the hay we need for sheep feed and pig bedding from an Amish family. We pay $3.50 a bale, but the deal is, we help get the hay off the field with our equipment (originally a flatbed truck, but now we have a Land Rover that can pull a hay wagon), and we get a couple of young Amish helpers to help load it into our barn.

(So we know something about hay, is what I'm saying.)

I already knew that there was an extended market for Maine hay in recent years. I know of one farmer who trucks round and square bales as far as New Jersey.

It looks to me like there might be enough money in hay right now to truck to the midwest, if not the west. Or the markets might bump along in series: we truck to Jersey, Jersey trucks their hay to Ohio and Ohio trucks west.

This is just one example of how climate change is already affecting agriculture. But it's also a good example of how markets respond.

For the stock farmer out west, twelve bucks a bale is a terrific calamity. But for the hay farmer elsewhere, it's an opportunity.

There's no understanding climate impacts without some knowledge of economics, is there?

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