Pandemic economics, concerns on the radar, and valuable business insights shared as Dr. Kohl kicks off PA Dairy Summit

Dr. Kohl covered the gamut of what’s on his dairy and agriculture radar at home and abroad. Then he encouraged producers to separate the controllables from the uncontrollables to focus on the business. One tool he highlighted evaluates business management IQ using 15 critical questions for crucial conversations because it gets people thinking.

China, fake meat and dairy, propaganda seeking to eliminate the dairy cow, and much more concern him. But Dr. Kohl encourages farmers to seek opportunities, be flexible, innovative and adaptive, and to follow a process for their business and sharpen their business focus. Be sure to check out the navigation points on Dr. Kohl’s compass at the end of this article.

By Sherry Bunting

HARRISBURG, Pa. – The disruptions and challenges of the past year also create opportunities, said Dr. David Kohl, Virginia Tech professor emeritus and co-owner of Homestead Creamery for the past 20 years.

He was the keynote speaker kicking off the 2021 Pennsylvania Dairy Summit held virtually this week through an online convention format that had much of the signature Summit feel.

In his characteristic style, Dr. Kohl stepped the virtual audience through a broad global and domestic view of events and evolution down to the impacts at the dairy farm level with motivational thoughts on how to navigate.

He urged farmers to navigate rocky roads of change by adopting two key management elements. First, be flexible, innovative and adaptable. Second, follow a process for the business with a business focus.

Kohl also encouraged producers to manage around the things they can’t control like election results, pandemics and the strategies of China’s Xi Jinping.

 “A good marketing and risk management plan is critical. In this environment, we have to separate the controllables and uncontrollables… and look for the opportunities,” he said.

As he has in past seminars since the pandemic, Kohl highlighted the ‘buy local’ movement is picking up steam post-Covid. “Many of you are in that footprint. One-third of the U.S. population is in your area, so this movement might be sustainable,” he said.

That’s good news. The bad news is the acceleration of economic divide, said Kohl. He sees this affecting agriculture, other businesses and households, which will add to the economic volatility and extremes in the big three: milk prices, feed costs and interest rates.

Market supercycle

“We are in another supercycle that is really impacting the grain sector,” said Kohl. He cited the stimulus checks as “dangerous one-off income” leading to printing more money, which devalues the dollar. This fuels more exports, especially when coupled with the ‘China-effect’ as they rebuild their protein sector and livestock industry.

This, along with weather concerns in South America and investor speculation have “shot those grain prices higher, especially on corn, beans, and we see it in cotton, all up.”

He sees this grain market supercycle abating through 2021 and 2022. The grain price rally is not sustainable, in his view, unless weather problems in South America persist and unless weather affects North American crops this coming season.

Globalization

Kohl noted that globalization started six decades ago, and he marked 1995 through 2015 as the period of “hyper-globalization, but in recent years, we’ve moved away from this. Dairy is right in the crosshairs of this shift because exports have become a much bigger share of milk production,” he said. “If de-globalization continues, this will impact agriculture in the U.S.”

He warned that the dairy industry would be well advised to not shape itself with China’s market in mind.

“Don’t bet your dairy expansion on trade with China,” said Kohl. He gave the example that 300 million people in China were without power a month ago because China would not allow Australian coal in to fuel plants.

Kohl observes that while the U.S. and Europe are bickering about everything, China has been pursuing world power. China has invested a trillion dollars in 68 countries – the agriculture ‘hot-spots’ around the world.

“Their initiatives will impact our competitiveness,” said Kohl, noting that China is also moving ahead on building a world supply chain for vaccines made at sites they have cultivated in developing countries.

“China could be the leading power by 2040, even 2027. They are going to move forward very fast if we don’t get our act together,” he said, explaining the recent “regional” trade pact China made that makes China the central focus in Asia.

Market Concentration

The flipside of globalization is the domestic U.S. food supply and marketing chain.

“That’s our Achilles heel,” said Kohl. “We have too much concentration with too few firms, and I’m being very blunt about this. We saw what happened when plants shut down. Now we see more nations saying they want to become more self-reliant. This is something to watch closely over the next five years.”

Kohl said the industries that are linked to dairy are in 50 to 75% recovery while at the same time Amazon, Walmart, Target are operating at 125%.

“They are getting too much power here in the U.S. and around the world,” he said, noting that on one hand the buy-local movement is accelerating, but on the other hand, the pandemic environment has moved even more market power to these large global entities.

Expressing agricultural ‘serfdom’ concerns, Kohl responded to a question about China purchasing agricultural land and assets in the U.S. This also hit upon the recent news in business journals that Microsoft founder Bill Gates has been buying up farmland and is now the single largest owner of U.S. farmland (not total land but good arable farmland).

“I am worried about this one,” said Kohl. “Some of this big investment money creates serfdom. We need to do some due diligence, and we don’t have enough political forces looking at this. Canada put the kabash on China buying their land.” He noted that his research shows the land purchased by Gates through Cascade Investments is fertile land next to rivers and near international ports, as well as land with mineral rights.

’They want to eliminate the dairy cow’

Kohl’s Summit keynote discussion came the morning after the Super Bowl. And yes, he noticed the Oatly (oat beverage) ad that ran before halftime.

“Did you see the guy last night singing in the field talking about eliminating the dairy cow?” he asked, quoting other CEOs of brands like Beyond Meat also stating their goals to replace cows entirely.

On fake dairy and meat alternatives, Kohl was emphatic about how closely this needs to be watched.

“They’ve got the money. They’ve got the power. And they think they are saving the environment,” he said, explaining that these products are going to become more competitive with real dairy and meat as large investors and large companies in the traditional dairy and meat supply chain ecosystem get involved to drive the alternative product prices down and change the packaging. He gave the example that Beyond Meat is already closing that gap at $6.79 to $6.99 per pound compared with ground beef at $5.49 per pound.

“They are coming after traditional agriculture. That much is loud and clear,” said Kohl. “Big Ag has to look themselves in the face — that they allowed this to happen — with too much market power. This is me speaking, and I’m being blunt.”

During the chat session that followed, Kohl noted that even their Homestead Creamery based in Blacksburg, Virginia is seeing competition from non-dairy alternatives where they sell their fresh local dairy products.

“It is interesting that we are getting more questions on the non-meat and non-dairy products out there. Our customers are asking our sales team,” said Kohl. “We try to go into it with more education, and we are going A2A2 as a differentiator for our milk and ice cream.”

Minimum wage impact

Current legislation being considered in Congress includes a four-year phase-in to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour. That’s more than double the current federal minimum wage.

“This will be bad for small business. The big guys can handle it,” Kohl observes. “This creates more business consolidation. We’re seeing a little push back on this now, but there needs to be a lot of push back. America was built on small business and entrepreneurs. We don’t want to create a serfdom where we just work for big business.”

Stimulus, taxes, regulation

With $2 billion a day in stimulus checks being written by governments worldwide, Kohl said this ‘black swan (pandemic event) can turn into an angry bird.

When government writes check, what comes next is encroachment, said Kohl. He sees federal, state and local taxes increasing and “regulators are going to have more swagger. This makes it imperative, to surround the farm business with your best advisors and have a good tax accountant who understands agriculture.”

Regulations in the environmental, labor, banking and financial service sectors are likely to increase, said Kohl. “Regulators have a lot of pent up energy from the past four to five years, and they’ll likely be coming out with a full-court press.”

Energy independence

Noting that the U.S. had its longest economic expansion until February of last year (pandemic), Kohl said a key reason is that the U.S. became the number-one energy-supplier in the world.

The effort to become energy independent began after the tragic attack of 9-11 in 2001. Today, the U.S. is number one energy producer, Canada is number four and Mexico is number eight. This means three of the top 10 energy producers are in North America.

“Now we are seeing a rollback of this playing right into the hands of Opec,” said Kohl, noting that the advertising and policy points about moving to electric vehicles can all sound good. “But we’re not thinking of the unintended consequences, where 74% of the components (for EV vehicles) are produced in China.”

How energy plays out policy-wise is important for agriculture, according to Kohl, because “$8 out of every $10 we spend is linked to energy.”

Kohl sees a “fine balance” to be had on sustainability and climate action.

“Some things we are doing for water, air and soil health are important, but there are contributors other than fossil fuels. I see a need to think about unintended consequences. If components for new sources come all out of China, and we get locked down, that creates a problem. Also, a lot of people seem to forget: when gas goes to $5 to $7 per gallon, it shuts a consumer and a farm down very quickly.”

Navigation points on Dr. Kohl’s compass:

— Surround yourself with good advisors and a good tax accountant.

— Be careful with one-off income from government support. Are you using that money to build efficiencies or pay down debt? Don’t make long-term expansion decisions based on this one-off income.

— Watch the value of the U.S. dollar relative to other currencies, but land value should hold.

— Expect to see acceleration of ‘carbon payments’ replacing direct farm program payments.

— Keep the non-dairy and meat alternatives on the radar screen, especially if you are involved in dairy leadership.

— Healthy soil, water and air quality are important focuses as agriculture deals with weather extremes.

— See the positives that have come out of the pandemic: farms labeled essential, local food movement acceleration, time with family, time to re-evaluate priorities.

— Be flexible, innovative and adaptive.

— Have a risk management plan and realize you are going to leave money on the table when you follow a plan that works for you 8 out of 10 years.

— Keep working capital available as your shock absorber and so you will be ready for emergent circumstances and unexpected opportunities. The recommended ‘war chest’ is to have greater than 25% of the farm’s expenses (not including interest and depreciation) as working capital reserve.

— Have a written farm budget and compare periodically (monthly) to actual expenses.

— Have a separate family living budget and compare periodically to actual expenses.

— Use advisory teams. They are the fastest growing trend, and they work.

— Be proactive on a plan to transition the business and to merge older and younger views of the future.

— Evaluate your business management IQ with 15 questions to ask yourself about your business and have each member of the family in management fill it out separately. This is a great way to measure business management progress, “and it gets you to think,” said Kohl. (See chart.)

— Do your baseline cash flow projections for the farm business, but also do financial sensitivity analysis. Work through the numbers in a best-case scenario to the aspiring goals of the business, but also run worst case scenarios. Look at the analysis if interest rates go up 1 to 2% — or with changes in the input and output values — to see how those changes affect the bottom line. “This gives you the parameters to keep you out of the ditches as you move forward,” said Kohl. “If those values experience extreme change, you can fall back on that working capital reserve.”

— Monitor those cash flows monthly against projections.

— Work with ag lenders to lock in interest rates where you can.

— Re-examine your vision and your goals and make sure expansion or investments line up with these goals; keep your working capital cushion. 

— Look for your “three’s” – 3 things you want to continue, 3 things you want to improve. When isolating goals and actions, limit to three to intensify your focus.

Published in Farmshine, February 12, 2021