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The Leading Voices in Food

E62: Bert Pitt on Today’s Farming Challenges

Hosted by: Deborah Hill (Duke)
November 11, 2019

At the age of 68, Bert Pitt is lean and tan, with Robert Redford blue eyes and a working man’s hands. He’s a seventh generation farmer, raising cotton and sweet potatoes now, and lives in his family’s ancestral home in Edgecombe County, North Carolina. Farming is both his job and his heritage, and he passionately believes in the value of small family farms.

Bert Pitt is a seventh generation farmer, raising cotton and sweet potatoes now, and lives in his family’s ancestral home in Edgecombe County, North Carolina.

Welcome to the Leading Voices in Food podcast, an educational series produced by the World Food Policy Center at Duke University. I’m Deborah Hill. You’re listening to a segment in our Voice of Farming series.

At the age of 68, Bert Pitt is lean and tan, with Robert Redford blue eyes and a working man’s hands. He’s a seventh generation farmer, raising cotton and sweet potatoes now, and lives in his family’s ancestral home in Edgecombe County, North Carolina. Farming is both his job and his heritage, and he passionately believes in the value of small family farms.

Over his lifetime he’s seen tremendous change in farming technology, weather patterns, the status of farming within US culture, farm related politics, and international trade agreements. In this podcast Bert speaks on topics that are often misunderstood about farming, and one such topic is federal crop insurance.

Originally enacted in 1938, federal crop insurance is the primary risk management program available to US farmers and is a critical part of a farmer’s safety net. It helps them weather volatility in crop prices and to recover from unexpected disasters such as hurricanes, flooding, tornadoes, and more. Crop insurance currently covers 128 different crops, and four crops—corn, cotton, soybeans, and wheat—account for the majority of US acreage enrolled in the program.

The insurance program works on the principle of indemnity, meaning it only restores a portion of a farmer’s actual losses when a claim is made and keeps farms from getting too far in the hole financially. The program doesn’t insure farmers make a profit, and many pay crop insurance premiums for years without receiving indemnity payments because they’ve been lucky enough to not have experienced crop loss.

I’ll say right up front in 2018 I did not or our farm did not collect any form of crop insurance, cotton, sweet potatoes, anything, but a lot of people don’t realize about the crop insurance, and I insure my crop just as much as I can. That’s the only way I can sleep at night.

And another thing is nowadays the scale of farming that we do, the bankers and everybody requires you to have a minimum of insurance and everybody does that, but you can get a little bit better, and I get the best I can, but it does not pay me completely out to bankers, equipment, land payments, anything that might come along if I have to collect insurance.

The best I can insure my crop is about 75%. It’s not like homeowners or car insurance and a lot of people that don’t farm, outsiders looking in, think well, he’s got insurance on everything. Yes, we do, but we can’t have a replacement type insurance. The best we can get is 75%, and nowadays you’ve got to collect 100% to get around to pay everybody, so you’re left holding the bag with 25%.

It’ll be like, you know, people just don’t understand. They think we can go out and insure our cotton and other crops with what we’ve got in it and even make a little profit on it, and it is not even close to being that way. That’s why this North Carolina disaster payment was so important. It probably even came before the people that needed to get an insurance payment, probably before they even got that.

It kept things going, people paid that needed to be paid, and the insurance came in and stepped up, I mean and helped every bit as expected. But you can’t survive off of 75% of your crop, and that’s about what the insurance is. That’s one of the things a lot of people that don’t farm don’t understand. They think that when a storm comes and they see a crop tore up… Yeah, I think most people do sympathize with us, but I think they got a misunderstanding about the insurance, that we’ve got it insured where we’ll be fine and probably even make a profit, and that’s not the case.

Does farming make you think of the New York Stock Exchange? Many crops are sold as commodities. This means that it doesn’t matter who grew the crop or how much it cost a specific farmer to produce their crop, the price is the same for everyone on that day on the commodity market. This creates challenging conditions for farmers and has necessitated the need to connect with brokers and sophisticated price monitoring and forecasting.

We get a lot of good information from the extension office, a lot of good publications out there. We get the information that we need. I think we need more of maybe marketing information. I would encourage… I can go to NC State’s website and find out the best way to grow anything I grow, but it’s hard to find out how to market your crop, and that’s something I don’t completely know the answer to.

There is services out there that you can buy, and we do a little bit of that too to help us market, but it needs to be made on a government type level, some financial experts or whatever that would help us, you know, kind of give us the advice that the extension office gives us for growing the crop. That would be one thing I would like to see.

I don’t want to discourage… Of course young folks in farming, they’re going to be too busy to listen to this anyway, but I don’t want to discourage any young farmer from getting into it. You don’t really get in farming for the money, so if there’s a young guy farming, he’s in it for the right reasons. He didn’t get in it to buy yachts and live at Miami Beach.

One of the worse things going on in farming now that’s got everybody… It don’t matter what size farmer you are, it’s got us behind the eight ball, and I will say it like it is. All right, I’m going to tell some personal stories. I don’t mind doing that.

But we are farming with prices the lowest they’ve been in years, I mean in years. When I started back growing cotton in 1991, our family farm went from maybe 10 to 12 years without growing cotton because of prices. Prices gradually got a little better. In 1991, I started growing cotton again and marketing it at 91 cent a pound. And if I had to sell my cotton today, in 2019, it is 58 cent a pound.

So the challenge I give to everybody that don’t know about farming, that lives in the city, take a third of your income for the whole year and see how you would survive. Now you can survive, but the question was how, and that’s what we’re doing. We’re cutting back on a lot of things that we probably need to do on the farm. Right now we’re sitting in a shelter that needs to be replaced. Like I said, one of my shelters was blown down in Hurricane Florence, but you can’t legitimately find a way to pay for it, so you just have to do without. The equipment sits out in the sun and rain and everything, and you’re talking about some high dollar equipment sitting out that needs to be under shelter. But if you can’t pay for it you don’t do it.

And the markets… The one good news that I do, sweet potato markets are up. A lot of that is because of the hurricane last year. It takes a lot of money to grow sweet potatoes. A lot of farmers have backed up on the acreage they’re planting just because of the amount of money you got to put up to grow that crop.

Cotton to me is a high dollar crop. We got a lot invested out there. It costs me about $700 an acre to grow cotton, a roundabout figure. By the time we get through and ready to sell cotton, I’ve got about $700 an acre in it. Another figure just to throw out, I grow about 1,000 pounds to the acre. You multiply that times 58, that’s $580. Yes, we’re going to get, as farmers call it, a Trump payment, but it is a payment because of the tariff problems that’s going on on the farm that’s hit the farmers big time.

I’m going to get $70 an acre in Edgecombe County for that. That’s an already known fact. So you add the 70 to the 580, you got about $650. Now my question is where am I going to pick up the other $50, because it’s going to take that to break even. I told everybody to start with I’m a 1,000 acre farm, so 50 times 1,000, that let’s everybody know how much we’re in the hole. The next part of the equation is I told everybody we were in a dry area, we’re not going to make 1,000 pounds, so you got to deduct that too.

So we’ve already sat down and figured up we’re going to lose about… Unless the cotton fools me a little bit, unless the yield is a little better, and it could be, and we’re always optimistic, hoping the prices are going to get together, but you got to be realistic more so than hopefully, so there’s a good possibility we could lose $150 a acre, and multiply that times 1,000.

So that lets everybody kind of know what were going on in the farm, and if it’s that case for me it’s everybody. The market’s not just the cotton. Our soybeans in 2013 and ’14… We sold soybeans for $15 a bushel. Today they’re $8 and a half. That’s even worse than the cotton. We don’t really rely on soybeans as much as some of the neighbors in other parts of the country, but that’s what’s going on. Big hit, big hit…

Our job is to raise food, cotton for not only the United States, but the world. We have to believe in the people, not just the President, but all our legislators, representatives, everybody that goes to Raleigh and everybody that goes to Washington, DC, we got to believe in them and trust that they’re working for us while we’re doing our job back home.

You know there’s so many things going on in these legislative ideas that we can’t speak to everything, but we just have to have the faith, and the farmers do at this time, still got the faith, that the people that we have sent to represent us haven’t forgotten us. And we would like to think that what President Trump is doing with the tariffs in China and maybe some other countries does have a long range help to the farmers. But we’ve got to be able to get there, and we can’t lose this $150,000 in my case for another year. We might can one year. You take these folks that had a big hit last year. It’s putting a big burden on the sustainability.

But you know realistically, and that’s what we’re talking about with this China tariff, we might never win this thing. It might never come about like it’s presented to us or what we would like for it to happen. It gets back to this carrot dangling in front of my face type thing that we think we can get and we never quite get it. We got to face, instead of being optimistic, we got to face reality, so something has got to be done in the United States. We cannot, honestly, we cannot raise cotton for 58 cents. It’s got to be the minimum 70 cents, and that’s not sustainable.

But I don’t know the answer other than the American public, unless they want their food and their cotton and everywhere, that comes from everywhere they don’t know the place, if that’s what they want, that’s what it’s headed to.

Farmers today are often called upon to testify about the conditions of farming and the need for different support mechanisms. Bert’s wife, Gwen, has been deeply engaged with such activities and this is the subject of another podcast.

Farmers are busy. They’re farming more and more land. We are less and less people. We don’t have time to be a voice or an advocate like you’re saying, but Gwen here does take a good amount of her time to do it. I respect that and I try, obviously I try to do it. It’s a little bit easier for her to do it. I respect her for what she does, and I’ll say this, she can say the same things I do, the exact same words, and I’ve seen people respect her saying it more than me because I might get rocks throwed at me or whatever, but people look at a woman’s voice different, especially in farming, than mine. They’ll say he’s saying the same old thing, the same old thing. But when they… I’ve seen it. When she gets up there and says the same thing the audience perks up. They listen more. They respect what she says more than me.

[Gwen: That’s putting me on the spot.]

I had a cotton meeting in New York City with some growers from Tennessee, Texas, all the southeast, and the guide, she carried us to the Waldorf Astoria Hotel and she says, “Okay, I want one of you all… You all pick out one person to go there and order the drinks at the bar,” and everybody pointed to me, and I says, “Why me?” They said, “There’s something about your voice.” I said, “Well, you’re from Texas.” They says, “No, no, no. It’s you. It’s you.”

I went up there and… Because naturally there were about six of us and all five of them gave me a different drink so I had to talk awhile. And I started,  walked up there in the best non-southern, non-North Carolina voice I could do, trying to order these drinks, and out of the corner of my eyes I could see everybody’s head start turning and looking. The bartender finally stopped at about the third order. He said, “Buddy, if you want these drinks tonight you’re going to have to speak faster than that,” and I was doing the best I could do. Everybody just busted out laughing, and I looked back over there and my buddies were laughing, they had picked the right one.

Conventional farming uses agricultural chemicals to control pests and disease or control and promote growth. Farms like Bert recognize their responsibility to keep soils healthy and water sources clean and actively work to stay informed on the safe use of chemicals.

I will offer my farm to anybody that’s listening to this anywhere, to come out and see what we’re doing. I don’t know any farmers, me or anybody, that’s abusing the environment, abusing the chemicals, fertilizers. To start with, you can’t afford it. Why would I want to spend more on chemicals when I’m not even making a profit now? So we’re not doing it. Financially we’re not doing it.

But we’re not doing it for the right reason too. My family farm was voted the Soil Conservation Farm Family of the year in 1989 in North Carolina, and a lot of that was because of what we were doing on the farm. But all my farmer friends, nobody… And people just have to trust me on this, because I’m not a scientist. I don’t know the chemical makeup of what we’re spraying, but I have to believe in people to tell me about the chemicals, is it safe.

I told everybody my main job on the farm is running the sprayer. I want it to be safe. I’m the one who’s handling it. And Gwen… Because she’ll tell you about this in a minute, but she’s the one out there actually scouting the crops. Our farm well is within I’ll say 100 feet, but I’m being generous, of the cotton fields, so we don’t want anything in our water. She can tell you more about it. They’ll believe her on it. They might not believe me, but she’s the mom, she’s the grandmom, and she’s not going to have anything in our home that’ll hurt her family.

But getting back to that, we’re not… We’re doing the things that we should be doing to the best of our knowledge, to the best of our knowledge. And I’ll open up my farm to anybody that wants to come see what we’re doing, that would like to know, and for the right reasons. I don’t care if they’ve got my political views or not. Half our customers probably don’t, so there you go.


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