During the first quarter of the year the nation was abuzz with news coverage of the beef shortage as record high prices were hitting consumers in the pocket book at the store.
The shortage was blamed on drought the year before, a fiercely cold winter, and of course the end result was less animals going to the sale barns. This in turn meant less animals going to the slaughterhouses or in some cases smaller animals going to slaughter so producers could take advantage of the high prices. All of these factors drove up prices per animal and the price per pound in the store.
As we are nearing the end of the fourth quarter, the shortage has continued and may take several years to overcome, but the news coverage has died down. Consumers have been paying the price without much fuss since then. Producers on the other hand still have to figure out how to meet consumer demand.
It’s a hot issue for local and national producer associations and will be the lead topic at many mid-winter cattlemen meetings. Producers will figure out the best economic strategies for increasing the herds without increasing their debt margins. New producers will enter the market with the price per pound luring them into the market. As we’ve seen with other agricultural issues of supply and demand, like the corn market, this will drive prices down which is a good thing for consumers. Just how long it will take the beef market to reach equilibrium will be part of the market forecasts in the coming months and probably years.
While I didn’t grow up on a farm, Virginia was a lot less developed when I was born and I had a lot more exposure to agriculture and farm animals than kids growing up in the suburbs today. A few blocks away from our house there was an old barn and a creek down at the end of the street that we played in.
As a child we took school and family trips to George Washington’s house at Mount Vernon along the Potomac River. It was a chance to see what early Virginia looked like and explore a farm from the 18th century. While my mom loved the house and furniture, one of my brothers who grew up to be an engineer loved the gristmill. My dad loved all the old maps and the history and my favorite thing was all the animals. People had to raise the food and crops they ate. They also made soap and candles from tallow and harvested wheat and corn that they ground into flours in the grist mill. In late 18th century America there were no grocery stores with carton of eggs, bags of flower, or steaks in cellophane packages.
The early land owners in Virginia were wealthy educated men like George Washington who used their land to experiment with farming techniques and equipment brought from the old world, but modified to the climate and soil of the new world.
According to the website for Mount Vernon, by 1785 George Washington was using a crop rotation system by the late 1700s and his records about his farm practices serve as journals for agricultural science. While many farming practices have changed, they come from the foundation of early farming in the original 13 colonies.
The wild horses I grew up with weren’t Spanish mustangs in the high desert; they were the little ponies from Assateague Island off the Virginia and Maryland coastline.
Many people, and horse crazy little girls in particular, know the story of Misty of Chincoteague who was part of the pony round-up swim from Assateague Island to Chincoteague. The 1947 story by Marguerite Henry has been a staple of reading for pre-teen girls along with The Black Stallion, Black Beauty, and more recently the Pony Club series.
One of the other things that made the story so special for me as a kid, besides being set in Virginia, was that there was the collectable Breyer horse model of Misty and later her foal, Stormy. I used to recreate Misty’s swim between the islands in my backyard sandbox with water from the garden hose. I didn’t see the movie until I was an adult, but I did spend hours playing with my model horse. She was so much smaller than my Black Stallion and Morgan horse models, but I loved her just the same.
Now that I’m back in Maryland for Thanksgiving with my family, I thought I’d look up horses in Maryland and it turns out that both Maryland and Virginia own Assateague Island and care for the feral horses in different ways.
The Virginia side is owned and managed by Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department and they sponsor the pony swim every year because their herd cannot exceed 150 horses. The National Park Service manages the Maryland side and a fence divides the island along the state line.
One story I heard growing up was that the horses were descended from a heard of horses that had been ship wrecked on the barrier islands. According to the National Park Service there has never been any proof to support this legend. Instead, they believe that the horses were brought to the island to avoid taxation for fencing during the 17th century.
If you remember from your history class, Virginia’s first permanent British colony was Jamestown founded in 1606. I once lived in a pre-civil war row house in Richmond, Virginia that had no closets because they would have been counted and taxed as individual rooms. So the idea of horse owners moving their herds out to the islands to avoid taxation is not that far-fetched.
While I miss the wide open spaces and big skies of the west, it’s fun to be back on the east coast and remember my first horse love was for the wild horses of Virginia.
Watch a video of the annual Chincoteague pony swim.