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Food prices are going up, but so are farmers' costs

May 27, 2008|By JEFF SEMLER

Hardly was the ink dry on last week's column than a story ran in the Los Angeles Times titled "Farmers unable to cash in on soaring food prices." Times staff writer Jerry Hirsch put it this way: "All over the world, prices for basic foods - barley for beer, milk for cheese, corn for tortillas, and the rice that serves as a staple for more than half the world's population - are soaring. But farmers aren't rushing to cash in on the boom by planting more of the crops."

"They say the reason is simple. The cost of planting some crops is rising as fast as their prices, and sometimes faster, leaving little incentive to increase production of some foods that remain in high demand around the world."

Local farmers are not exempt from these rising costs. The other rub is they pay the higher input costs up front and only hope that the prices for their crops will hold at harvest.

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The Farm Bill is not likely to help with the rising input costs in agriculture and higher commodity prices will do little to ease the crunch. Farmers will once again be asked to be more efficient, which given their current efficiency, will become more and more difficult.

In the past 70 years, we have cut the number of farmers from about 40 percent of the population to less than 2 percent. Maryland has reached the point where our acres in agriculture are now equal to our acres in lawns. All the while we have nearly tripled the average bushels of corn produced from an acre of ground.

We have accomplished most of that on the back of cheap oil. Now, I am not going to enter the peak oil argument but things are going to have to change.

What those changes will be is hard to say. Will we produce ethanol from cellulose and not corn? Will tractors run on hydrogen? Will the cow herds of the west resemble the great Bison herds of the last century and we will enjoy beef fed on total forage instead of grain? I don't know the answer to any of those questions.

What I do know is it will cost more to produce and buy food in the future.

On to a brighter spot on the agricultural horizon, spring has sprung and with the new season comes the availability of delicious Maryland fruits and vegetables. Some of the first Maryland-grown produce to be available are asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, salad greens and spinach and plump, juicy, bright red strawberries.

When selecting sweet Maryland strawberries, consumers should be sure to look for a full, red color, bright luster and firm, plump flesh. Strawberries do not ripen after being picked, so consumers should be sure to choose fully ripe berries. The caps should be bright green, fresh looking and fully attached.

In 2006, Maryland farms harvested more than 400 acres of strawberries valued at $2 million. The strawberry season begins about the third week of May and runs through mid-June.

Consumers can buy fresh, local, Maryland strawberries at farmers' markets, pick-your-own operations, farm stands, and grocery stores. In addition, through the end of June, various farms throughout Maryland are offering coupons on the Maryland's Best Web site for 10 percent off consumers' purchases. For a list of all participating farms and to download the coupon, visit www.marylandsbest.net.

If you do chose to buy locally grown strawberries, you can eat them fresh, with short cake, freeze them or make preserves. The Maryland Department of Agriculture's Marketing division provides the following recipe as a suggestion.

Summer Strawberry Pie



Recipe courtesy of Godfrey's Farm, Sudlersville, Md., www.godfreysfarm.com

Ingredients:
Pastry for 2-crust, 9-inch pie
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
2 pints fresh strawberries, hulled
1 tablespoon butter or margarine
Sugar for garnish

Divide pastry almost in half. Roll out larger half on floured surface to 13-inch circle. Line 9-inch pie plate with pastry. Trim edge to one-quarter inch beyond rim of pie plate. Combine 1 cup sugar and one-quarter cup cornstarch in bowl. Cut strawberries in half. Add to sugar-cornstarch mixture, tossing with a fork to coat. Arrange strawberry mixture in pastry-lined pie plate. Dot with butter. Roll out remaining pastry to 11-inch circle. Cut slits. Place top crust over filling and trim edge to 1 inch beyond rim of pie plate. Fold top crust under lower crust and form a ridge. Flute edge. Sprinkle crust with sugar. Bake at 425 degrees for 40 minutes, or until crust is golden brown. Cool on rack.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Regardless of your choices, enjoy the bounty of the county.

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