Shelley--Bryan Searle is a busy man, especially this time of year. He's running Searle Farms and is in the middle of planting grain. And on this day, he's also getting his equipment and manpower ready for planting potatoes. We interviewed the Idaho Farm Bureau president on an early morning in his office after a late night at the Custer County Farm Bureau meeting.
Q: There's been a lot of pushback from farmers on the omnibus spending bill recently passed by Congress. What's your take on it?
Searle: I think a lot of people were looking at how much that bill was, $1.3 trillion dollars! But farmers have some great things in that bill. I think one of the best was the exemption requiring farmers and ranchers to measure livestock emissions. That was supposed to go into effect May 1 and it would have been very difficult for small operations and posed a lot of legal challenges. We would have filed lawsuits and it would have been very expensive and a legal mess, so this was a victory for us.
There was also the Electronic Logging Device requirement for trucking. That ELD rule was to go into place in just a few months. It was very burdensome because when you ship cattle, you can’t stop and hold those cattle in your truck for 11 hours and then move on. The spending bill includes an extension until the end of September for this requirement. That provides an opportunity for us to study it, talk to the right people and hopefully get an exemption; a permanent exemption would be beneficial. We just want to be able to move cattle. That was going into effect on March 18 and would have required us finding other ways to move cattle in a humane way.
We also got the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station funded. The station, as you know, is located in Dubois and that funding was continued, so that was a good part of the omnibus bill.
Overall, I think our members need to remember that we have to spend money to get good quality programs. It's a lot of money but these programs make money. We must remember all of the things that come from the omnibus bill that benefit farmers and ranchers and many are not evident at first glance.
Q: Tell us about planting?
Searle: We’ve had really wet weather this spring. We didn't have winter in Southeast Idaho until February, so we’ve been extremely muddy and it has backed up grain planting. Our tractors are rolling now, we’re finally planting grain and I know potato planters are getting ready to get hooked up. I think in the next 10 days a lot of those potato planters will start putting potato seed in the ground and we'll do that the rest of this month.
Q: How are prices this spring?
Searle: Potato prices have always been like a yo-yo; it's always up and down and it is a gamble. We started out the season with decent prices, above break-even, and then we hit January, February, and March. That's when we started to see a heavy shift and depressed prices. Today's markets are some 20 percent below production costs, but I'm hopeful that will turn around. We’ve had an interesting year and definitely a yo-yo year.
Q: What is the market showing today?
Searle: At harvest, there were some $8 to $8.50 market prices. Today we’re at the $6-6.50 range for good Russett Burbanks that are packing out in a good way. In the summer I think we will see some strength but that all depends on how many potatoes we have. It's a guessing game.
Q: And the tariff situation? Are things getting hot on the farm?
Searle: Any time you enter into a trade war, it's going to affect us and it's going to affect certain areas. We don’t know the full extent of the latest round of tariffs. China is our biggest concern with the tariffs being assessed there now. Then the backing off of tariffs with Canada and Mexico was a great move by President Trump, so there are things we need to do, but maybe in a more tactful way because it is going to hurt people and agricultural areas.