Chris and I spent most of our day cleaning out a chicken coop in South Fork, about a twenty minute drive from home. We had time to talk, and one of the topics was an offhanded comment that our pastor Roger Murrell had made to us. Roger keeps horses and cows, helped us find hay for our own animals last fall, and was just as dismayed as we were about the high prices we had to pay due to the drought. While visiting on Sunday he mentioned that some of his usual sources had been saying that they might not grow hay for sale at all this year, due to the high price of diesel fuel; it just wouldn’t be worth their while.
Now, a naive free marketer might object to the idea that growing hay for sale could possibly not be worth someone’s while; if that is what you do, and your expenses go up (along with everyone else’s), then your price simply goes up (along with everyone else’s) and you continue to sell to whoever can afford it. But after reflecting on it, I could certainly understand why someone would think that way. Growing hay for sale is risky, and even in the best of times it is not very profitable; most growers probably think it is just barely worthwhile, and faced with the prospect of having to tell their faithful customers that it will now cost them much more to keep their animals alive during the winter, and knowing that for some of them it will be a price that they will be unable to pay … well, it may be better just to sell the equipment now and find something else to do. On Saturday a neighbor will be doing just that, at an auction we will probably attend.
We also talked about sawdust. A few times Chris has gone with a friend to a nearby sawmill, to get a truckload of sawdust to use as bedding in the barn. We drove by that mill and he mentioned that he needed more, but that our neighbor Mr. Scott had mentioned to him that the mills had suddenly gotten tight with their sawdust. I told Chris that I had read the same thing, that sawdust prices had doubled recently and it was now actually hard to come by. I drive by that mill three or four times a week, and it did seem that semis were being loaded more often from the sawdust piles, and that the piles were smaller.
Now, a naive free marketer might think that what has happened is simply that the price of sawdust has doubled, and that we should just plan on paying the higher price. But what in fact happened was that the sawdust went from free to unavailable—for us, anyway. Before, the mill wasn’t doing much business in sawdust, and so they were kind enough to let us take a pickup load whenever we wanted, since it wasn’t much by their standards, and they couldn’t sell nearly as much as they had. Now they can sell everything they have, and so not only will they not want to give it away for free, they won’t want to mess with charging us for a fraction of a ton when there are customers in line behind us who want one hundred times as much.
And we talked about manure. Folks who run a large charitable children’s home on South Fork Ridge had contacted Jerome to let him know that they needed to clean their chicken coop, and if he wanted about a ton of manure he was welcome to it. Jerome mentioned to me that because his back has been bothering him he probably wouldn’t do it, so I asked if it would be OK if we took it for ourselves; he agreed, as did the children’s home.
As we shoveled the manure into the wheelbarrow and loaded it into the truck, I thought about the arrangement. It is a common one in the area, struck between folks who have more manure than they need and those who don’t have enough. Now, that manure is more valuable than the ten dollars of gas and the six man-hours we put into shoveling it into and then out of the truck; more valuable to a farmer who simply wants to spread it on his land, and much more valuable to us as we begin a project to produce large (for us) amounts of high-quality compost. And if we could magically have access to all the mountains of manure produced in South Fork annually, at the cost of hauling it away ourselves, we could probably have a thriving and profitable composting business.
But that isn’t the nature of manure. It tends to be available all at once in the spring, as farmers clean out barns where animals were wintered. (Incidentally, Jerome thinks that although people manure their fields in the spring because of this, spring is the worst time to do it because it doesn’t have enough time to break down before you plant; instead, he thinks you should either apply it in the fall or compost it for later use, hence our project to produce compost.) And in a community of small scale farms, it is available only in small and scattered quantities, difficult to aggregate into a reliably large amount. There is an operation we know of in Lexington, Creech’s Compost, which does exactly this on a large scale, but it works for them only because they are in the racehorse capital of the world, and can take every last scrap of horse manure from a highly concentrated group of large farms that have no use for it. But it is very unlikely that a big operation would ever come in and obtain South Fork’s manure for their own use; it wouldn’t be worth their while. For the very different requirements of small-scale farmer, though, it is a worthwhile endeavor.
On the ride home, I thought about the future availability of gasoline, as I often do. Most people talk as if they think the only variable is price; if things get tough the price will go up, but it will still be available. I wonder, though. I know that today’s default outlet for gasoline, the convenience store, only offers it as a loss leader; they make a few cents per gallon, which is not quite enough to cover the costs of a credit card sale. Some of the braver convenience stores have just removed their pumps. But in any case, selling gasoline is not a profitable business these days.
Thank goodness that running a convenience store is profitable, though, and that such stores have a reason to sell gasoline as well. But what happens if convenience stores themselves become unprofitable as the economy contracts and disposable income disappears? If that happens, it will hardly be worthwhile for folks to sell you gas, particularly here out in the country where traffic is much less than in the towns. It could be a very long drive from here to a town with enough potential customers to make running a gas station worthwhile.