Drought 2012: No ‘Heat Of The Moment’ Decisions

No matter what way you look at it, the now-officially christened Drought of 2012 has been a marketplace shaker. For many grower-customers, their corn crop will end up being a total loss. Already there are reports of growers in states such of Indiana and Southern Illinois simply giving up, plowing their dead stalks into the ground while applying for crop insurance. In all, analysts expect the nation’s corn harvest this fall to be off 10 million to 15 million bushels. Meanwhile, crop insurance pay-outs to growers could top $20 billion – almost double from the 2011 total and, coincidentally, virtually the same amount ag retailers in the CropLife 100 earned during calendar year 2011.

As a result of these kinds of numbers, particularly anything that relates to crops has skyrocketed in price. Commodity prices for corn are at all-time highs, with some market watchers predicting $9 and $10 bushel corn will be the norm come late fall. Naturally, feed and food prices are poised to jump as well, with various government agencies expecting 7% to 8% jumps for most items, with meat prices increasing in the 10% to 15% range.

On the flipside, ag retailers are concerned this lack of crops in the field will translate into fewer input and application sales once the fall season gets into full swing.

Of course, when things are this bad across the board, fear isn’t the most prevalent emotion making the rounds. Anger also runs high, which inevitably leads to the need to blame something tangible for such an intangible factor as Mother Nature. And has been the case for the past few years, it seems as if ethanol will be this crisis’ scapegoat of choice.

It seems like one million years ago now that America’s desire to find alternative fuel sources to power the energy needs of the future gave rise to corn-based ethanol’s growth. As recently as 2007, demand for corn to use in ethanol’s production was heralded as a good thing for U.S. agriculture – keeping crop demand (and the prices paid to growers) high and opening up plenty of new market opportunities for those who support this marketplace, i.e., the ag retailers. For a time, everyone was happy with this arrangement.

Then, however, came the fertilizer demand crash of mid-2008. Suddenly, ethanol was the bad guy, leading to out-of-control prices that ultimately kept grower-customers from applying ANY fertilizer during the fall of 2008. For many, the debate regarding food vs. fuel never went away after that.

Now, in 2012, there are very loud cries among those hurt by the Drought of 2012 to virtually destroy the corn-based ethanol market. Ranchers and poultry producers, looking for some relief on grain supplies, have called on the U.S. government to suspend or repeal its ethanol blame mandate. They have been joined in this effort by 30 U.S. Senators and Representatives and the United Nations, which fears corn diverted to ethanol production will lead to massive food shortages in certain parts of the globe.

But will killing ethanol’s use of corn really make that much of difference? Many remain unconvinced. “This year’s weather has been more than challenging for farmers and ranchers across the country,” says Renewable Fuels Association President and CEO Bob Dinneen. “However, waiving the RFS will not make it rain in Indiana, bring pastures to life in the Plains, or meaningfully lower corn prices.”

I tend to agree with this argument. In my mind, turning back the alternative energy quest clock 15 years for some maybe temporary relief seems very short-sighted. If the Drought of 2012 stretches into 2013 or 2014, then it might be time to re-visit this effort. But that time is not just yet.

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