Stuart Varney Is Proud to Be a Farmer
Stuart Varney has a top-rated market program on television, but he is happiest when he is working on his 1,100-acre tree farm in upstate New York. The host of Varney & Co., weekdays 9 a.m. to noon EDT on FOX Business, is in the midst of his first timber harvest this spring. Born and raised in the U.K., Varney, 70, helped Ted Turner launch CNN in 1980. He became an American citizen in 2015. I caught up with Varney to talk about agriculture, trade deals, and the media.
SF: Tell me about your farm.
SV: It’s lovely rolling hills and forests, a delightful piece of land. It reminds me of my native England. I bought it 18 years ago because I wanted a big piece of land within a reasonable drive of my home in New Jersey. In England, the idea of owning 1,000 acres, or even 100 acres, is out of the question unless you are a billionaire. But in America, you can do it. We found this property for a reasonable price. It was my piece of America. I fell in love with it. The idea of creating a tree farm came later. I didn’t know anything about logging and didn’t buy it for that purpose, but we hired a forester and he created a plan. Our first harvest is this year. We will harvest 1,088 trees.
SF: What trees are you harvesting now?
SV: Black cherry, red oak, hard maple, and some ash. The ash borer, a nasty pest, is on its way north and will gobble up our ash trees fairly soon, so we are cutting most of them now to get ahead of it.
SF: Which tree is the most valuable?
SV: Black cherry. It is the American mahogany. It’s a wonderful hard, dense wood with a fine, deep color. It’s used to make furniture. A mature black cherry is 60 to 70 years old. We also have an uptick in demand for hard maple, which is used for hardwood flooring. Those are the two most profitable trees we are harvesting at this moment, but that can change with the marketplace. We had 14 bids from lumber mills on the contract we are harvesting. The price is based on how many board feet you can get out of any given tree.
SF: Are you planting more trees?
SV: Hardwood timber regrows itself. That’s one of the attractions of this kind of tree farming. You don’t have enormous capital input. You don’t need labor to plant your trees. You don’t have to buy the saplings or clear the land around the saplings. You just wait for the forest to regrow itself and for the timber to become mature. My farm is divided into 10 different tree stands, and we harvest from one or two each year.
SF: Do you have any other plans for the property?
SV: No. I’ve done a conservation easement, so development of the property is heavily restricted, and I am perfectly happy with that. I want to leave this land for my children, grandchildren, and on down the line. To have a piece of America as an immigrant is a very big deal to me. I’m extremely proud to be an American farmer. I truly love this land.
SF: This is a challenging time for farmers.
SV: Yes, it is. Let me speak as someone who is in the lumber business. The recent trade talks affect lumber prices in two ways. First, we are renegotiating NAFTA, and that involves a dispute over Canadian lumber imports into America. Second, China buys a great deal of our lumber to turn into furniture. The trade dispute with China affects the value of my timber. That’s why there has been an increase in logging in the Northeast recently. There is a feeling that China will be open to imports of American timber fairly soon. Companies are logging now to be prepared for what they think is going to be a rush of orders from China. That may or may not pay out.
SF: Are we close to a trade deal with China?
SV: Final negotiations are now in progress. I think we will get a trade deal within the next couple of weeks. The biggest issues have been worked out. There will be a trade deal with China, and it will open up China to more imports of American farm products. Farmers in America have a very bright future when we get this trade deal.
SF: What about the USMCA (United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement)?
SV: It has to go before Congress and there might be some difficulty because Democrats want to stop virtually everything that President Trump does. But I don’t think they are going to do that. That would be bad politically for the Democrats.
This is a political economy, like it or not. The outcome of 2020 will make a big difference to the performance of this economy. The front-runners on the Democratic side right now are Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. I’m not sure that Bernie Sanders, a socialist, would be favorable to farmers, but I think they could live with a Joe Biden presidency without too much trouble.
SF: How is the U.S. economy?
SV: It is the best-performing economy of all industrial democracies. We just recorded an annual growth rate of 3.2%. That is very strong. We have historically low unemployment, no inflation to speak of, and low interest rates. The economy is really humming. Now, if there is no China trade deal, that would be bad news. If there is an outside event we can’t control and can’t see coming, that would be bad news. Other than that, it is onward and upward.
SF: Will Brexit affect us?
SV: If the British withdraw from the European Union, they will need a trading partner. America is that replacement. A bilateral trade deal will help the Brits out of their problem and enhance America’s trade with them. That will be a real winner.
SF: Let’s talk about the media business. How’s that going?
SV: Nobody under the age of 35 watches television. Whatever they watch is on their phones. Media operations are desperately trying be a part of this digital revolution. It’s a very difficult transition. The internet breaks things. It’s certainly broken the print media. It’s had a profound effect on the television industry. How we react will decide whether or not we have a good future at all.
SF: How do you reach young people?
SV: That is a very good question, and I don’t have a great answer. We try. My show, Varney & Company, has a strong Facebook presence. Fox has developed Fox Nation, which is a digital platform, in an attempt to go after, accommodate, and entertain young viewers.
SF: Any final thoughts?
SV: My son is an organic dairy farmer in New Zealand. It is an extremely difficult discipline, and he loves it. If you want to be certified organic, you have to jump through hoops and strictly obey the rules. He does it because he is passionate about it.
It is unusual that a man like me – who wears makeup for his primary living – has a son who raises cattle in New Zealand. Go figure.