BY CAROL VAUGHN, Eastern Shore Post
Accomack County farmer David Hickman spoke to members of the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee in Washington, D.C., Tuesday during an in-person roundtable discussion to talk about the impacts of rising energy costs.
Hickman is a fifth-generation operator of Dublin Farms in Horntown. The farm produces potatoes, green beans, corn, and soybeans.
Hickman serves on several boards of the Virginia Farm Bureau.
Hickman was one of four panelists invited to address the committee, chaired by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA).
“We are addressing one of the priority issues facing our nation right now, and that’s the rising energy costs,” Rodgers said, adding, “We have an opportunity this Congress to address what American families and businesses are facing and what they are suffering from — some of the highest energy prices that we’ve seen in decades.”
Hickman joined Dan Alasaker, chairman of Broadway Group and owner of seven truck stops in Washington, Idaho, and Montana; Jeff Eshelman, president and chief executive officer of the Independent Petroleum Association of America; and Donna Jackson, director of membership development for Project 21, a conservative group focusing on minority rights, on the panel.
Rodgers said elected officials on the committee “want to hear from the voices on the ground” about the issue of rising energy costs.
“Today we have people who represent critical sectors of our economy,” she said of the panelists.
Hickman told the committee 2022 saw the most devastating cost increases that he has seen in his 48 years of farming, citing as one example an 186% increase in the cost of diesel fuel over the previous year.
His tractors burn 10 to 14 gallons of diesel per hour and typically operate 12 hours a day.
“We often have four or five tractors running each day during production season,” he said.
Irrigation pumps burn five to seven gallons of diesel per hour and often run 24 hours a day three or four days at a time during summer.
Additionally, the farm uses propane to dry harvested grains.
The price of propane went from $1.06 to $1.61 per gallon in the last year, Hickman said.
Gasoline prices went from $2.00 per gallon in early 2021 to $3.71 in August 2022.
“While the fuel increases were staggering, fertilizer prices and availability were far worse,” he said.
Most of the East Coast supply of natural gas, which provides nitrogen for fertilizer, came from Russia and Belarus prior to the start of Russia’s war against Ukraine.
“The sudden loss of that supply in March drove the price from $227 a ton to $640 a ton by May of 2022,” Hickman said.
The price of potash, another fertilizer component, increased from $355 per ton in January 2021 to $855 per ton in October 2022.
The farm’s overall fertilizer costs were 225% higher in 2022 than the previous year.
“This is not sustainable,” he said.
Hickman also noted trucking rates increased and trucks at times were not available; he said regulations have driven many independent truck drivers out of the business.
Additionally, polypropylene bags used to pack potatoes are made from natural gas and went from 12 cents to 16 cents per bag.
“Agriculture is directly affected by energy and petroleum,” Hickman said.
Energy price increases directly affect food prices, he said.
“This is the most perilous time for American agriculture,” Hickman said.
He called for more domestic natural gas production to allow for more fertilizer production in the United States.
“We’ve got to have a reasonably priced energy policy. … We’ve got to have a strong domestic supply,” he said.
Hickman said increased costs increase risks for farmers.
“We don’t want to be dependent on foreign countries for our food supply,” he said.
Hickman in May 2020 also spoke during a televised event at the White House with then-President Donald Trump, at which a relief program for farmers affected by the COVID-19 pandemic was announced.