Farmers grapple with rising energy costs

Saturday, May 31, 2008 | 7:52 p.m. CDT; updated 12:04 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — Rising petroleum prices are forcing local farmers and producers to raise prices to stay afloat. Growers at the Columbia and Boone County farmers markets told their stories while open for business on Saturday.

“Vendors have been packing their vehicles full to make their trips to our market worthwhile,” said Caroline Todd, manager of the Columbia Farmers’ Market.

Marilyn Bennett, owner of Bennett’s Berries and Baskets, said the plant supply companies now charge up to 70 percent more for shipping than they did last year. Bennett, 67, has been selling her produce and flowers at farmers markets in Columbia since 1998. Her bedding containers are all plastic, which has jumped in price with oil costs.

Monet Wiley, 65, has seen his Semolina flour prices increase as much as 300 percent since last year. At present, his pasta business must place an order to receive prices because the prices rise constantly.

Propane heats Steve Sapp’s 23 greenhouses at Strawberry Hill Farms. In a typical year the houses use between 30,000 and 40,000 gallons of propane, which now costs more than $2 per gallon. Sapp, 30, compensated by raising prices by about 5 percent and running the greenhouses at lower temperatures.

Recent fuel price hikes have caused Kenny Anderson, 41, who operates a vegetable farm in Centertown, to raise his vegetable prices 5 to 10 percent. Anderson has not raised his prices in eight years. The petroleum-based fertilizer used on his farm was selling at $350 per ton last year and spiked to between $600 and $700 per ton this year.

“You can’t price yourself out of business, and produce doesn’t keep so it’s got to sell,” Anderson said.

Organic farmers tend to be more insulated from gas costs because they avoid petroleum-based fertilizers, but even they cannot avoid rising shipping and equipment costs. Guy Clark, proprietor of Fertile Crescent Farms, cites shipping costs and high-grade fuel as his largest fiscal challenges this year.

The situation is not grim yet, said Todd.

“I’ve had several customers say the prices are better at the market and the produce lasts longer because it travels less,” she said.

Chris Matthews, board member of Sustainable Farms and Communities, Inc., a not-for-profit corporation that supports the Columbia Farmers’ Market, sees the recent food price increases as a watershed moment for food consumers.

“There seems to be a growing awareness of the cost of shipping food,” he said. “People are realizing the benefit of buying local produce versus something from Wal-Mart that was grown two or 3000 miles away.”

About 4500 customers shopped at the Columbia Farmers’ Market on Saturday, said Todd, an increase of about 1500 from the same time last year.

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