Countryside: February 2024

There are more than two million free-roaming cats (this includes feral cats as well as free-roaming pets) in Virginia.

Virginia Law Addresses Community Control of Free-Roaming Cats

There are more than two million free-roaming cats (this includes feral cats as well as free-roaming pets) in Virginia, and veterinarians as well as conservationists would like communities to formulate a plan for dealing with them. The American Bird Conservancy estimates that free-roaming cats cause the death of millions of birds and small mammals in the U.S. every year, some of them endangered species. Others worry about diseases and about the welfare of the cats themselves.

Despite their uncanny ability as predators––some experts maintain they can smell prey from four miles away––most veterinarians agree that cats are not native wildlife and don’t fit well into the predator-prey ecosystem.

To give communities some guidelines for coming up with a plan, HB 221 has been introduced at Virginia’s General Assembly. The bill is a result of a three-year-long study group made up of conservationists, animal control and care experts, public health officials and animal welfare advocates.

Some animal welfare groups point to programs such as the “trap, neuter, release” efforts that have reduced cat populations in some communities, but the study group found these programs were not sufficiently effective. Other groups maintain that a neutered cat, with plenty to eat, such as a barn cat whose owners provide medical care and supplemental food if needed, pose little damage to wild life. And some nearby jurisdictions, including Waynesboro, have placed limits on the number of cats an individual household can have, whether indoor or free-roaming, as a way to prevent well-meaning people from encouraging strays, including multiple litters of kittens.

Proponents of the bill say that, if passed, regulations would not be imposed on communities, but would direct the state Board of Agriculture to consult with all those affected by the legislation, create a management plan for the cats, and allow counties and cities to adopt the plan if they see fit. So far, the bill neither prescribes nor prohibits any specific cat management strategy and makes sure there’s a transparent process enabling anyone interested to have a say.

Veterinarians in the study group expressed their concern about the dangers to the cats themselves. According to the American Association of Feline Practitioners, free-roaming cats are likely to have a reduced quality and length of life. Extreme weather events, unpredictable food, water, or shelter, animal attacks, parasites, diseases, injuries from cars, and cruelty by humans combine to lower the quality of life experienced by a free-roaming cat. According to the AAFP, the mortality rate of kittens born in an outdoor environment can reach 75% by six months of age. The life expectancy of a free-roaming cat is less than half of that of a cat that lives indoors.

The bill is presently in committee.

Decline in Home Cooking Penalizes Farmers

The next time you’re shocked by the cost of a bag of groceries or a salad at your favorite restaurant, don’t blame the farmer. According to the Farmer’s Union, every dollar you spend on food contributes just 14.8 cents to the farmer who grew it, the lowest farmer’s cut since the USDA began reporting the figures in 1993. At the same time, consumers spent an average of 11.3 percent of disposable personal income on food in 2022. This is a smaller percentage than in years before, but not because food costs less. As incomes rise, U.S. households spend more money on food, but it represents a smaller share of their income. In 2022, households with the lowest incomes spent an average of $5,090 on food, representing 31% of income, while households with the highest incomes spent an average of $15,713 on food, representing 8% of income).

This graphic shows the portion of the food dollar that goes to farmers. Courtesy USDA.

There are vast differences between prices of different foods, but in no case does the individual farmer get rich from your dinner. The union’s latest “Farmer’s Share” survey shows that beef producers receive $2.01 for a pound of beef that costs $8.99 at the supermarket. Wheat farmers average 12 cents on a loaf of bread that retails for $3.49, and dairy producers receive only $1.34 from that $4.49 gallon of fat-free milk. To allow for fluctuations, the union said that overall, farmers get from between 14% and 17% of every dollar spent on food.

There are a number of complex reasons for this. In contrast to previous decades, when restaurant meals were an occasional treat, people now spend more money eating out than preparing food at home. That’s an important distinction, since farmers get a great deal less of the eating-out food dollar than from a share from your home-cooked meal. For the first time, the USDA said, restaurant purchases equaled $1.34 trillion, accounting for 56 percent of total food expenditures in 2022. Those cooking at home spent $1.05 trillion in the same time period. 

The USDA statistics report a steep decrease in the foodservice share during 2020, but a rebound of that share since the pandemic years. It increased from 32.5 cents in 2021 to 34.1 cents in 2022. The foodservice share has historically claimed the largest share of the industry group food dollar.

The National Institute of Food and Agriculture has awarded a $550,000 research grant to the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics in Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences to study the effects of these changing food-spending patterns on all those affected:  farmers, food processors, and consumers throughout the food supply chain. 

Professor George Davis, the project’s lead, said the research will look at changes in farmers’ profits, and how they’re affected by the market structure and social, demographic, and environmental factors. 



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