By Michael Cox
Look out, Yellowstone and Longmire, here comes Tyson vs. Easterday.
I have written a half dozen screen plays, two of which were optioned for enough money to keep me in single malt scotch for a while. But if I wrote one based on the plot twists going on in the eastern Washington cow business right now, the studios would pass. “Can’t happen. No basis in reality,” they would tell me.
If you have not been following the Tyson/Easterday saga, here is the synopsis. Cody Easterday was supposedly feeding 200,000 head of cattle to be sent to a Tyson processing plant. There was paperwork. Tyson went on with the deal. Tyson advanced money. Then it was discovered that all those cows were missing. It was all a paper shuffle by the big rancher/feeder, Cody Easterday. Easterday Ranches is a massive operation that any reasonable person would have thought actually had that many cows.
When it all came to light, with the Easterday jefe confessing to his shenanigans, Tyson wanted back the $225 million it said the episode had cost. War loomed. Then, in December, Gale Easterday, 79, the man who built the family empire from a 300-acre farm, was killed in a wrong-way car crash. He drove his pickup head-on into an 18-wheeler.
But business is business, and after the funeral, Tyson went back to work trying to get its money from Cody. They decided to go to court. They planned to file the action in late January. But in a plot twist that would give movie producers the shivers, the Easterday Ranches sold one of its feedlots (full of cows) to Tyson’s biggest and fiercest competitor, AB Livestock. Based on the stock history of what they bought, AB plans a processing plant close by.
AB bought the Easterday’s North Lot for $16 million. They closed the deal, unbeknownst to Tyson, on Jan. 22. Tyson, still unaware of the sale, filed suit on Jan. 25. Greg Hanes of Drovers sums it up this way: “The sale of the Easterday feedlot raises some issues that the court will need to sort out, since Tyson has said it still has 54,000 cattle on feed with Easterday Ranches. It is unknown how many of Tyson’s cattle are in the North Lot, and how many could still be under Easterday’s watch in its other facility, a 35,000-head feedlot located near Kennewick.”
Then again, maybe some of those missing Tyson cows actually exist. It’s a fair question. If that ain’t a soap opera nothing is.
Zillow for land renters
As of Monday last week, there is a new tool for farmers, landowners, and lessees. It is called CashRent (CashRent.com). The site is an information-rich aid to both landowners who rent or lease land and farmers looking for available cropland.
The site is the brainchild of Chris Bauman, an Illinois tillerman who leased some land from an owner on a 50-50 crop share. He did three years of sharing and then wanted to do a cash rent. The owner told Bauman his price was $150 an acre, but there was no one place for a potential lessee to determine if the asking price was fair.
The young farmer took it on himself to begin measuring the land for a net tillable acreage. He took soil samples and enlisted the University of Illinois Extension Service’s help. He got what realtors call “comps,” to see what others were charging for like land. It took him a month to gather his data. It was to no avail; his counteroffer was refused.
What Bauman found was that there was no central common marketplace where farmland is rented. When you consider that about 40% of the farmland in the U.S. is rented, such a fact opens a massive opportunity for streamlining and formalizing transactions that, for a couple of hundred years, have been done by spoken word and mutual trust.
Bauman said: “I found a whole lot of farmers that wanted to grow their operations and get more ground but didn’t have access to know where the owners are, and conversely I saw owners looking for farmers. The system had no competition, no transparency, and no price discovery for the two parties.”
CashRent, as it goes to the national market, is a proprietary online auction system. A piece of land is listed, much like you may see on Realtor.com or Zillow.com for homes. The listing has all the data about the land, tillable acreage, soil analysis, water availability, crop data, and so on. The database also gives the searcher the price range the land should support, based on the above data. The software that Bauman and his partners use is a proprietary algorithm.
You can go to the website, although there are no listings in Colorado yet, the whole country is open for business. There are listings in Bauman’s home state and some in Texas. If you are a lessee or a lessor of farmland, CashRent may just be a useful tool.
New Ag Secretary goes retro-hyperbolic
Tom Vilsack, who had his Secretary of Agriculture confirmation hearing on Tuesday last week said:
“We have the world’s most productive and innovative farmers. But the farm economy is suffering due to the pandemic, years of consolidation, and natural disasters brought on by climate change.”
My question is, exactly what natural disasters were brought on by climate change? Wildfire? No, that was the mismanagement of the forest lands by state and federal agencies. Drought, maybe? Some of us are old enough to have seen drought, serious drought, 1977 comes to mind, before so-called climate change was ever talked about. That year the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users opened the irrigation season with only 60% of their normal water available. The pandemic? Please, we have been through pandemics, world wars, and other calamities. Those innovative and productive farmers you talk about have been through worse and they produced, not so much with the government’s help, but in spite of it.
He said: “If (I am) confirmed, USDA will lead the federal government in building and maintaining new markets in America that diversify rural economies; producing healthy, local, and regional foods; investing in renewable energy; creating a thriving biobased manufacturing sector; embracing sustainable and regenerative practices that enhance soil health; and delivering science-based solutions to help mitigate and reduce climate change.”
I say: That stuff is all happening now. We have farmers all over the Western Slope developing better soil, producing local and regional foods, developing better systems and busting butt, growing food with less water, because they have to survive. Internationally, the trade picture continues to improve with China making record buys this week and the U.S., Mexico, Canada (USMC) trade agreement is off to a good start.
He said: “We must stop the farm debt cycle and create transparency in pricing throughout the supply chain; expand overseas markets and give U.S. agriculture a level playing field; and harness USDA’s expertise in science and conservation to work with farmers, ranchers, and forest owners to create new sources of income, tied to their good climate practices. This includes recognizing the important role our National Forests and all forested lands play as the best natural carbon capture that exists. To respond to the challenge climate change presents to conserving, preserving, and growing healthier forests, we need a strong commitment to forest management and restoration.”
I said: Agree, strong commitment to forest management and restoration. I hope he means leaving the tree huggers out of the equation and getting back to managing the undergrowth and bringing back grazing and logging. The USDA has a lot of good people in the field, like our soil conservationists and irrigation experts. The good ones and the ag community are already working together. New sources of income from good climate practices? Maybe not so much. The USDA or any of the other carbon brokers do not offer enough to cover the costs of sequestration. Maybe we could just leave the farmers alone and let them produce.