Fuel prices impact food costs

Published 10:40 pm Friday, August 3, 2012

By Whitley Kilcrease

Fuel prices are soaring once again, and they’re not just dentinggthe wallets of local motorists. High fuel costs could also have an impact elsewhere, such as the rising cost of food items like corn, wheat, beef and poultry.

According to Thomas Hall, economist for the Alabama Extension Service, past observations indicate consumers can expect higher fuel costs to have a larger impact on all food products by next year.

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“We can’t tell how quickly or dramatically,” Hall said. “But higher fuel costs will definitely have an effect.”

Hall said that farmers could be more impacted by higher costs than the average consumer.

“It [fuel prices] affects everything,” said Johnny Garrett, owner of Piggly Wiggly on North Three Notch Street.

Garrett said fuel prices can affect all aspects of food production “up and down the food chain,” from farmers to the supermarket. “And you use so much fuel on a farm. Some can use up to 300 or 400 gallons of fuel a day,” he said.

“Farmers don’t set the market prices,” Hall said, “So, higher fuel costs can have a dramatic effect on their bottom line and total profit.”

According to Garrett, if production costs outweigh profit margins, farms will cut production to save money. This can lead to a lower food supply and higher market prices, whether it’s livestock or produce such as grains, fruit and vegetables.

“The higher the cost of input, the less profit a farmer makes,” Garrett said. “Farmers can’t absorb all of the cost when prices rise, so you can expect it to spill over elsewhere.”

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s economic research service, prices for beef, veal, poultry, fats and oils have increased since last year. Also, the ongoing drought, particularly in the Midwest, is expected to affect prices for corn and soybeans as well as other field crops, which could impact retail food prices.

However, the transmission of product price changes into retail prices typically takes several months to occur.

This means most consumers will see most of the impact next year in 2013.

“Fuel prices affect a lot more than people realize,” said Clay Ingram, public relations and marketing manager for AAA. “It’s interwoven in everything we buy. There’s no doubt about that.”

According to Ingram, the biggest factor impacted by high fuel cost for the average consumer is transportation.

“It’s not just food items that are affected, but clothing, appliances and anything else we buy,” Ingram said. “With higher fuel prices the added transportation cost is passed along to consumers.”

According to Ingram, most consumer items, such as food and clothing, get transported several times, usually from the initial manufacturer to a national warehouse.

From there, products are shipped to a regional or local warehouse until they reach a retail store and are available for consumer purchase.

“Fuel prices, in general, are always a concern for farmers, especially when the prices spike.” said Grant Lyons, Pike County Extension Coordinator. “In addition to fuel, inputs such as fertilizer and feed are high, and that can affect food costs as well.”

According to Lyons, farmers can focus on their fuel usage to preserve their economic return.

“Farmers can consider several management strategies for conserving fuel on the farm,” Lyons said.

“These strategies could lead to a reduction in fuel use and, more importantly, an increase in on-farm savings.”

Lyons suggests, for all farm vehicles and equipment, that farmers minimize idling times, reduce excess weight on equipment, inflate tires to appropriate pressure, and perform routine maintenance.

Lyons also suggests using all-terrain vehicles or motorcycles for light tasks around the farm and using more fuel-efficient vehicles for trips to and from fields when not hauling heavy loads or for trips away from the farm.

For tractors and large equipment, Lyons encourages farmers to perform multiple field operations within the same pass, avoid compacting soil by avoiding wet fields and practice conservation tillage to improve soil structure, reduce soil erosion and increase organic matter content while also conserving fuel.

Lyons said farmers should use site-specific tillage and attempt to match the tractor horsepower to the equipment or loads. Also, farmers can improve field layouts to minimize turning time at headlands and point rows and reduce the amount of time spent driving tractors and field equipment on highways.