HARRISBURG — A Lehigh County farmer recently called Kyle Kotzmoyer and said something like “I’ve got a tractor hooked up to my corn planter out here, no diesel fuel, and I can’t afford to get any.”
Kotzmoyer, who recalled the conversation Tuesday, said he responded to the request for advice with a joke.
That’s about all he could do, he said, because the crushing reality of record diesel fuel prices is pushing farmers to the brink and may affect food availability.
“We have reached that point to where it is very close to being a sinking ship,” Kotzmoyer, a legislative affairs specialist for the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, testified to state lawmakers Tuesday. “We are teetering on the edge right now.”
His appearance came in the third hearing on soaring inflation held by the House Republican Policy Committee.
The overall testimony suggested the dire farm situation will exacerbate the rate of already steep food price increases. The federal government reported last week that food prices in May were 10.1% higher than a year earlier, with the rate of increase gaining speed.
After the hearing — in a phone interview — Kotzmoyer made clear that food may not be as available because of the fuel price surge.
“One, if they can’t afford to put it in the ground,” he said of farming using diesel-thirsty machinery. “Or, two, if they can’t afford to take it out.”
Average diesel fuel prices Tuesday in Pennsylvania were $6.19 a gallon, about 75% higher than a year ago, according to AAA.
Kotzmoyer told lawmakers diesel is a “huge, huge expense” for farmers. One Cumberland County farmer, he said, works about 3,500 acres with several diesel-consuming tractors and burns though about 2,000 gallons of diesel per month.
Farm operations do not have to pay sales taxes on diesel fuel purchases, giving them a minor break, he said.
But they can also decide to stop farming certain crops that are not worth the expense — raising the threat of shortages.
Asked if food shortages were a possibility, Kotzmoyer said, “If the farmers cannot get crops out of the ground, then there is not food on the shelves.”
Kotzmoyer said he has already heard of farmers selling seed corn or beans back to dealers so they can plant hay, which has “more return on investment.”
‘People are suffering’
The hearing on inflation chaired by Republican Rep. Martin Causer of McKean County was the third in a series that started last week and will wrap up June 21. It was punctuated by the U.S. Labor Department’s Friday report that price inflation in May was running at 8.6%, the highest rate in more than 40 years.
One testifier in the early hearings told the committee consumers are spending an average of $3,000 more a year on food and gas, because of inflation.
A separate, Democrat-led hearing also touched on the topic this week.
The House Democratic Policy Committee on Monday held a session called “How radical conservative policies are crushing the middle class” in which the only testifier was Marc Stier of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center.
His presentation focused mostly on what he said were the effects of 10 years of Republican control of the Legislature, but he was questioned about inflation.
Stier said it would be “a temporary period of inflation but a very serious one.”
“It is maybe a short-term problem, but it is a problem,” he said. “Lots of people are suffering.”
Stier agreed with the assertion of Rep. Ryan Bizzaro of Erie County, the chair, that excessive corporate profits were helping drive up inflation.
Diesel shortages reported
Rebecca Oyler, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association, told the Republican panel Tuesday diesel fuel shortages have been reported.
“I do not think I need to elaborate on how devastating a diesel shortage would be to the industry and the overall economy,” she said. “In the end, it’s the consumer who ultimately pays the costs for increases on goods and services delivered by truck, which is almost everything.”
The average price of unleaded gasoline in Pennsylvania was about $5.07 on Tuesday, down a fraction of a cent from the record high set Saturday, according to AAA.
Stephanie Wissman, executive director of American Petroleum Institute Pennsylvania, testified that about 60% of the pump price of gas can be attributed to the price of oil.
On Tuesday, that price continued to run near its highest levels in a year, with a widely followed category of oil trading at more than $118 a barrel.
Wissman ticked a series of reasons for oil’s high price: a global supply crunch, work force constraints, changes in logistics, the Russia-Ukraine crisis, the post-pandemic economic rebound and “policy uncertainty from Washington.”
This story has been updated to show the hearings on inflation wrap up on June 21. Earlier versions of the story contained an incorrect reference to the end of the hearings.