Hard times bring difficult decisions

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pigs in barn
(Farm and Dairy file photo)

Living through historic moments is rarely fun. It’s the bad things we remember that we tell our grandchildren about. For my parents, it was Pearl Harbor. For my generation, it was the Cuban missile crisis and the fall of Saigon. Later, it was 9⁄11. For all of us now alive, it is the COVID-19 crisis of 2020.

The current pandemic has affected people in different ways. A recent survey found nearly half of New Yorkers knew someone who had died. Out here in the Midwest, where we don’t live on top of each other in one big petri dish, we are generating memories of disrupted routines, restaurants with limited carryout menus and lost jobs.

If you are a farmer, the memories will be about $3 corn futures, $35 hog futures and stories of dumped milk and aborted sows. You will remember the day that crude oil futures got to negative $37 a barrel. You remember $4.39 gasoline a few years ago to go along with the 85 cents some of us paid last week.

Difficult moments

There can be some hard personal moments in life, many which may involve animals you care for. I remember a farmer friend who raises beef for a living, who cried telling me about a cow he had to put down.

I remember a black lab we carried to a hole in the back yard when his rear legs became paralyzed. For months, I had shared my chondroitin with him. He licked my fingers and wagged his tail. It was his time to go.

I am currently waging war on the raccoons that are living in my attic. A man comes to trap them, and then he takes them away. I am realistic about what away is. If they are released, they return to the attic because it is better than living outside. They are cute, and I hate to see the end for them, but they could have stayed in the woods.

On my worst day, however, I could not imagine what it must be like to abort litters of pigs. I am told this is happening in America these days because the cost of raising pigs is greater than the value of the pigs.

I remember an old farmer telling me that during the Depression, he had to stop shipping milk because the cost of trucking was more than the value of the delivered milk. I cannot imagine how hard it would be to dump milk, but it is happening again today because the processors have no demand for all the milk. We are not killing cows yet, but we are aborting calves, according to anecdotes.

Turning the corner

We are told we are starting to turn the corner with the virus. The models have changed. When this started, we were told 1.5 million Americans would die. Now we are told it will be 75,000.

Based on the 1.5 million, then the 500,000 of a later model, we took drastic measures to alter the spread of the disease. We stopped working, we stopped going to church, we stopped mingling, and we kept 6 feet away from each other.

Now some states are getting ready to reopen businesses. One group says we overreacted, and all the extremes are now proven to be unnecessary. Another group says we kept the deaths low because of our extreme reactions.

Meanwhile, May corn futures got down to 3.01 April 21. In two days, it rebounded over 3.20, but it closed at 3.051⁄2 April 27. May soybeans got to 8.081⁄4 the same day. It bounced to near 8.50 two days later, but as of April 28, it was trading at 8.311⁄2.

Maybe these are prices to tell our grandchildren about. Maybe the lows are not in. In any case, corn prices cannot go to zero. We can store grain, so there is always a limit.

Propane got to zero in Canada late last summer, and crude oil just went below zero. They cannot be stored, so the market may actually have to pay someone to take them.

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Marlin Clark is an associate of Russell Consulting Group, with a local office in Williamsfield, Ohio. Comments are welcome at 440-363-1803.

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