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Central Florida farmers' fertilizer, fuel and feed costs soar, just like grocery prices

Austin Fuller, Orlando Sentinel on

Published in Business News

The price of corn to feed the thousands of chickens at Dale Volkert’s Lake Meadow Naturals in Ocoee, Florida, has doubled from $4 or $4.50 a bushel a year ago to $8 or $9 in May.

That’s just one of the expenses, along with higher fuel prices and other production needs, that are squeezing Central Florida farmers at the same time customers suffer sticker shock at the grocery store.

Farmers say they aren’t pocketing higher profits despite the rising prices in the store aisles.

“The problem is everything goes on a truck somewhere, whether it’s grain or plastic coming to Florida or egg cartons,” said Volkert, who farms poultry for both their eggs and meat. “It’s not the farmer. It’s everything in between.”

The cost of labor, feed, fuel and fertilizer have all gone up for farmers, said James Yarborough, a livestock and natural resources agent for UF/IFAS Extension in the Florida counties of Orange and Seminole.

Those higher bills come as groceries went up 10.8% for the year ending in April, according to the Consumer Price Index. That was the biggest 12-month jump since November 1979-80.

Meat, poultry, fish, and eggs jumped 14.3%, the largest annual spike since the year ending in May 1979.

Lake Meadow Naturals, which sells through its farm store as well as to restaurants, has only raised its prices about 6%, Volkert estimated. He said he’s only trying to cover his higher costs.

“We’re trying to help people,” Volkert said.

In Osceola County, Florida, costs are also up at Doc Partin Ranch. Like most Florida beef cattle producers, the ranch south of St. Cloud sells calves to ranches in other states.

Ricky Booth, who owns the ranch with his family and also serves on the Osceola County Commission, said the amount he gets for his cattle has plateaued in recent years.

“When it leaves Florida, it’s got a long way to go before it gets to that finished product,” Booth said. “Having this rapid acceleration of inflation without any acceleration in price for our product is really kind of putting us in a pinch.”

One increase cattle ranchers are dealing with is fertilizer, with Yarborough saying its cost has gone up 75% to 100% over the last year.

 

“To feed our cattle, we have to feed our pastures,” Yarborough said.

Or as Booth put it: “Even though we’re cattle ranchers, we’re essentially grass farmers as well.”

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the resulting trade disruptions are among the causes for higher fertilizer costs, with CNBC reporting in March that Russia produces about 14% of the world’s fertilizer exports.

Yarborough said the increased costs for farmers is worrisome, especially for smaller producers.

“Our Florida cattlemen, they are determined to help produce a food product for the nation,” he said. “They just hope that things will maybe turn around, but they’re really stalwart on their destination and their goal.”

And there’s yet another worry at Volkert’s chicken farm.

Lake Meadow Naturals is taking precautions to protect its poultry from bird flu, including restricting people who don’t work on the farm from visiting the animals, changing clothes between flocks, and letting chickens out less so they don’t contract the virus from migratory birds.

“Bird flu, of course, scares us a lot,” said Volkert, who has not had a case at his farm.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has confirmed 353 commercial and backyard flocks, totaling about 38 million birds, have had positive tests for highly pathogenic avian influenza in 35 states as of Tuesday. Florida was not listed as one of those states, but it has had cases among wild birds.

Back at the Doc Partin Ranch, although Booth’s business has been buoyed by demand for beef, he worries it will drop off if grocery store prices continue to rise.

“My biggest fear is we (will) start out pricing middle class and working class families from purchasing beef,” Booth said. “That trickles all the way down to us.”

©2022 Orlando Sentinel. Visit at orlandosentinel.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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