Just the Facts Ma’am

As this space has often noted, facts, figures, and data are as essential to journalism as verbs, nouns, and dangling participles. In fact, journalism without facts is a cup of tea without tea.

We also understand that erudite farm and food conversationalists—like you, for instance—are often on the prowl for convincing evidence and fresh facts to inform the unknowing and inspire the faithful. We can help by offering some facts and figures that recently caught our jaundiced eye.

For example, while New Zealand is but the world’s 75th largest country by size, it is the world’s fifth largest beef exporter.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service, New Zealand exported 529,000 metric tons of the 620,000 metric tons of beef it produced in 2013. Forty-six percent of all those exports, or about 244,000 metric tons, went to the U.S.

That’s 536.8 million pounds of New Zealand beef imported by the U.S., the world’s largest beef producer, when we grew 11.7 million metric tons of beef ourselves, or nearly 19 times the total production of New Zealand. (Links to supporting documents posted at http://live-farm-and-food-file.pantheonsite.io/in-the-news/.)

What’s more, according to USDA, America’s cattle numbers were so low last year that we also imported 989,406 head of cattle from Mexico and 1,038,584 head from Canada. (Neither was a record: In 1995, the U.S. imported 1.7 million head from Mexico; in 2002 it imported a similar 1.7 million head from Canada.)

In fact, predicts USDA, as U.S. ranchers hold back young stock to rebuild breeding herds this year, total American beef production will decline another 684,000 metric tons, or more than all of New Zealand’s 2014 production.

Declines are also forecast for American ethanol production as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency works on new rules to balance today’s smaller American gasoline market with previously enacted mandates for increased use of biofuels. As might be expected, farmers who grow corn, the main feedstock of ethanol, aren’t happy.

At a recent Senate Ag Committee hearing on “advanced biofuels,” however, Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-MI, cited Iowa State University research to support expanding, not cutting, ethanol use.

According to Iowa State, related Stabenow, in 2010, “[E]thanol reduced the cost of gas by 89 cents [per gallon] across the country—and by as much as $1.37 in the Midwest.” Since the average American family used 892 gallons of gasoline that year, the average American “family would have saved $794 in 2010 because of biofuels.”

A May 2012 update by Iowa State, however, put those dramatic numbers into a broader context. The report’s “results indicate that over the period of January 2000 to December 2011, the growth in ethanol production reduced wholesale gasoline prices by $0.29 per gallon on average across all regions.”

Stabenow’s numbers aren’t wrong; they just focus on the “marginal impacts on gasoline prices” that “are found to be substantially higher given the dramatic increase in ethanol production and higher crude oil prices” in recent years.

The chairwomen did, however, use very favorable corn-based ethanol numbers to kick off a Senate hearing to examine a “move to non-food”—in other words, non-corn—“based advanced biofuels.”

The most hog-wild mixed message coming from the winter, though, has been the impact of PEDv, or Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea, a pig-only virus that has infected hog herds in 28 states. The virus, when it strikes, is deadly. Mid-winter estimates pegged baby pig losses nationwide since May 2013 at 2.7 million to 6 million head, or between 5 and 10 percent of the U.S. herd.

USDA’s March 28 Quarterly Hogs and Pigs Report saw the number closer to the low end of the low end, or about 5 percent. That means, says Purdue University’s Chris Hurt, an extension economist, for producers “not heavily affects by PEDv,” record high hog prices will rule and 2014 will be “a record profit year.”

That’s a fact. Here’s another: buy the bacon for those summertime BLTs now.

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