OPINION: The troublesome, increasing cost to fuel food production across our region
| December 4, 2022 1:00 AM
Harvest and fall groundwork are concluding for western farmers, and tractors and equipment are finally resting for the season — a much needed relief to farm fuel budgets. Escalating fuel prices are an unavoidable reality in the fuel-intensive process of farming and ranching. No work-around exists for producing the nation’s food supply without fuel — specifically diesel.
A farmer who cancels trips, car-pools with a neighbor, or switches to prototype electric tractors is a farmer who can’t grow a crop and leaves productive ground idle. Diesel engines plant the seeds, harvest the crops, and ship the affordable products to the world. The continued escalation of the price of diesel endangers food’s affordability and availability.
Diesel prices skyrocketed $1.50 per gallon from 2021 to 2022, averaging $5.32 per gallon. All year, farmers have dealt with the escalated cost. It peaked to $5.81 in June 2022, and relief is unseen. Forecasts predict diesel will be in short supply next year and average $4.29 per gallon.
Our small, beginning family farm in Eastern Oregon dealt with high diesel prices all season. A typical farmer has several fuel tanks to refill throughout the year. In 2021, our 700-gallon fuel-tank cost $1,200 to refill. Our last refill, in October, cost $3,600 for off-road diesel. Most family farmers, including us, use much more than 700-gallons per year.
Our farm is one of thousands of western state farms seeking relief from high diesel prices — high prices which cut into margins and escalate already inflated food prices. The concern over fuel prices is intensified when the western region’s fuel-intensive specialty crops and large farmable areas are considered.
At Mountain States Policy Center, we decided to look into the costs and the regional dynamics of farm fuel usage in Idaho, Montana, Utah, Washington and Wyoming. This study emphasizes the importance of diesel to the nation’s supply of apples, potatoes, wheat, hay, and many other top crops.
Using each state’s five most valuable crops and the associated fuel requirements for each commodity, we found that total acreage is not the only factor driving fuel demand, with crop choice being a major influencer of fuel usage.
For example, Washington — despite being one of the smaller farming regions by acreage — has many specialty crops which are the highest consumers of fuel. Apples, hops and potatoes drive the state’s fuel demand. Montana follows in second because it is the largest farmable area, with the state’s main focus on grain production. Idaho’s mix of specialty and traditional commodities ranks third. Utah and Wyoming are comparably low in total fuel usage.
Policies impacting fuel availability and price must consider the vulnerability of the western states’ agriculture industry. Elevated fuel prices and constrained supplies encourage farmers to switch to less fuel intensive crops and to stop farming less productive ground, thus threatening food security and hurting farming communities.
Relying on currently-impossible green solutions to remedy the fuel crisis is careless and continuing to ignore the pain of escalating diesel prices is not an option. Farmers and ranchers need the domestic supply of oil to be protected and domestic production to be encouraged. This is the only option that puts our food supply and western state farmers and families first.
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Madilynne Clark is a policy analyst with the free market Mountain States Policy Center, focusing on agriculture and natural resource issues. Online at mountainstatespolicy.org.