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Shipping issues hit agricultural economy too

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Shipping containers are stacked at the Port of Los Angeles on Nov. 10 in Los Angeles. 

DES MOINES — Iowa’s agriculture economy has not been immune to issues created by shipping backups at U.S. ports, state and national ag experts say.

Shipping delays could drive down crop and livestock prices and drive up the cost of parts for farm machinery, experts say.

“Ag is just like the rest of the general economy,” said Prof. Chad Hart, a professor of economics and agriculture expert at Iowa State University.

“We’ve been seeing the stories about supply chain problems, about how we’re having problems getting consumer goods here, or the gifts that we want to buy for the holidays coming. Well, ag is facing those same supply chain issues,” Hart said. “Because every sector of the economy is basically facing those supply chain issues. The same basic problems are occurring, whether I’m talking ag or manufacturing or consumer electronics — you name it. We’re all facing that same crunch.”

Dozens of cargo ships are waiting outside docks in California, carrying at least $24 billion in goods, according to national news reports. The result has been delayed delivery of goods and higher prices.

The shipping backlog has impacted agriculture as well.

Hart said the shipping backlog creates separate issues for both imports and exports. On the import side, he said the issue is contributing to the skyrocketing price of fertilizer and other ag chemicals.

On the export side, Hart said the issue is more pronounced with livestock and dairy products, because of the containers needed to ship those.

“Our basics are corn or beans, wheat. Those things store pretty well. We can ship them in bulk, and bulk shipments have been moving relatively well,” Hart said. “It’s finding containers and getting those containers moved where we need them to go. And that’s where, when you’re shipping meats or you’re shipping dairy products, those go in containers. And let’s face it, they have a shorter shelf life. So they have to move and move quickly.”

Hart said if shipping issues continue it could create a backup of product, which could drive down prices.

“When I look at our export sales on like beef and pork, they’re very strong. But could they be even stronger if we could actually get the product moving as quickly as we’d like to here,” Hart said. “It is, I think, right now putting a cap on where prices can go. And the worse the shipping problems get, the more it puts downward pressure on prices.”

Hart and another Iowa State expert, economist Bobby Martens, an expert in supply chain management, said the shipping backlog could contribute to higher prices for farm equipment because of an increased cost on shipping the parts of things like tractors and combines.

“That one is tougher because that one has longer lead times you’re competing against others for the chips that go into it, and many of those parts and components — maybe not the end tractor itself — but many of the parts and components could be sitting on those ships off of (Los Angeles) and Long Beach, those backups that we’re seeing,” Martens said recently on the Iowa Farm Bureau’s The Spokesman Speaks podcast. “And there could be input challenges to being able to even produce some of those products.”

All of these issues threaten to weaken farmers’ bottom lines, experts said, including Danny Munch, an associate economist for the American Farm Bureau Federation.

“If you have any sort of supply chain disruption, you’re going to see increased prices for inputs. So farmers have already started to see massive increases in prices for their inputs,” Munch said recently on the American Farm Bureau’s Newsline podcast. “All of these ports are vital to farmers who use foreign outlets as a place to market their goods. So any change in the ability to access containers impacts farmers’ bottom lines.”


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