U.S. Agriculture: Challenging Times Ahead

Having spent a lot of time analyzing U.S. agriculture and prognosticating on what will happen next, my bottom line assessment is that the heady returns of the last few years are probably over, but the fears of the most pessimistic among us are probably overblown as well. Simply put, Midwest American agriculture is likely entering the early stages of a cyclical correction.

Note that I reference the Midwest because the biggest boom (bubble?) has been in row crop agriculture in the Heartland (especially corn and soybeans), largely as a result of the ethanol boom.

Drivers Of The Ethanol Boom

Ethanol is at the core of the situation in which American agriculture finds itself today. Many people have asked me what drove this ethanol boom. In my view it was a unique combination of both private and public support to both supply and demand for ethanol:

  1. The U.S. government supported ethanol demand through RFS, blender subsidies, the phase-out of MTBE in gasoline and R&D support for ethanol research.
  2. The U.S. government further supported domestic supply of ethanol through tax credits on biofuel facility construction and imported ethanol tariffs.
  3. Private industry supported the demand for ethanol through the expansion of hybrid and flex-fuel vehicle fleets as well as the overall growth of the greentech investment industry.
  4. The supply side of ethanol was supported by the ag industry (which had a large supply of cheap corn) due to both productivity (GMO corn) and favorable weather. The private equity and banking sectors supported supply through large quantities of cheap credit.

The net effect of this public and private support to ethanol was a surge that resulted in some 200 ethanol plants operating in the U.S. consuming 30% to 40% of the corn crop.

As a result of the ethanol boom, the price of corn jumped from the average price of $2.37 over the 35-year span from 1970 to 2005 to a much higher range between $4 and $7.50 a bushel, about two to three times the historical average. I have heard ethanol supporters claim that ethanol has had no effect on corn (or food) prices. My only question is: What are you smoking? Of course ethanol has raised corn prices! A primary reason corn ethanol is so strongly supported by corn growers (and many others in agriculture) is precisely because it has had the effect of creating a solid demand (price) floor under the commodity.

We all know in agriculture that commodity prices are set by the marginal demand in the market. The ethanol boom created demand for 5 billion bushels of corn, most of which was met with new production. This demand for corn not only drove corn prices to new heights, but also raised the entire commodity crop complex (which after all has to compete with corn demand to get acres). I find it somewhat amazing that anyone could argue with a straight face that adding 40% incremental demand to a commodity crop would not affect the price. Anyone who could seriously advance this argument clearly flunked Economics 101.

By the way, I am not saying that higher corn demand and higher corn prices are bad for American agriculture. In fact, I think they are good for American farmers and American agriculture. Higher prices not only support farm income but also support the investments in emerging technologies that are crucial to increasing agricultural productivity to meet the burgeoning demands of feeding 9 billion people by 2050 without massive subsidies. Corn prices of $2/bushel would simply not support this investment. But we need to quit arguing that ethanol has had no impact on the price of corn or food — that is patently false and just embarrassing. Instead, let’s embrace that enhancing the profitability and productivity of agriculture is essential to building the capacity to feed the world in the future.

Oil Arbitrage

One unintended consequence of the ethanol boom is that we have created an arbitrage situation with oil. Since crude oil is converted into gasoline and ethanol derived from corn is a substitute for gasoline, resulting in a direct correlation between oil and corn prices. This helps agriculture when oil prices are high, but when oil prices decline (global recessions, fracked natural gas competition) it can put downward pressure on ag prices.

The Effect Of Monetary Policy

Another related effect is that of monetary policy. The U.S. government has been printing money at the rate of $85 billion per month for the past few years and has been using monetary policy to lower the relative value of the dollar, which supported higher commodity prices. With the focus on “tapering” all the talk in Washington right now, it’s possible we could see a stronger dollar, which could have a negative impact on commodity prices.

Topics: ,

Leave a Reply

Management Stories

ManagementThink You Know Water? Take WinField United’s ‘Unchartered Waters’ Quiz Via NatGeo
March 22, 2017
Water is among our most precious resources, and arguably the hardest working, with just one percent available for human use, Read More
Corn Field
LegislationTFI Hopes Court Dismissal Is ‘Final Chapter’ Of Des Moines Water Works Lawsuit
March 20, 2017
The Fertilizer Institute (TFI) released the following statement from President, Chris Jahn on the March 17, 2017, federal court dismissal Read More
ManagementSnowstorms, Asset Sales, and Soybeans Prices
March 16, 2017
Editors Paul Schrimpf and Eric Sfiligoj discuss the weather, precision ag, crop protection company mergers, and commodity prices in this Read More
Management2017 Commodity Classic Review
March 10, 2017
Editors Paul Schrimpf and Eric Sfiligoj discuss what happened at the recent Commodity Classic in San Antonio. Read More
Trending Articles
AdjuvantsA New Weed-Control Era Begins: But First, One Last Obstacle
March 4, 2017
There is trepidation, there is reluctance, and there is excitement. Ag retailers feel it all about the new dicamba and Read More
LIFT Academy video screenshot
Crop InputsLIFT Agriculture Academy: A Q&A With West Central Distribution’s Dean Hendrickson
March 1, 2017
West Central Distribution recently launched its LIFT Agriculture Academy, a new, premiere training and professional development resource for West Central’s ag Read More
Farmer and aptop
Matt Hopkins10 Warning Signs Your Website Is Grossly Outdated
February 8, 2017
Your Website is often a visitor’s first impression of your ag retail business. A positive first impression can set the Read More
AgriSync
Matt Hopkins17 Agriculture Apps That Will Help You Farm Smarter In 2017
December 9, 2016
Ag professionals are working smarter, not harder, than ever before. Smart farming technologies have enabled them to reduce costs, maximize Read More
R4023 Sprayer, John Deere
CropLife 100Ag Retail Equipment Report: The Green Party Continues
December 7, 2016
In the annual race for sales in the ag retail equipment marketplace, the color schemes for participants are a little Read More
Mike Stern
Precision AgClimate Corp. CEO Talks Retailer Support For Digital Ag
December 1, 2016
CropLife Magazine’s sister publication, AgriBusiness Global, recently sat down with Mike Stern, CEO of The Climate Corp., following the Monsanto subsidiary’s Read More
Latest News
UncategorizedPrecision Ag, Iowa Water, and GM Corn Updates
March 24, 2017
Editors Paul Schrimpf and Eric Sfiligoj look at the state of precision agriculture, the dismissal of the Des Moines Water Read More
Pam Marrone
Crop InputsMarrone Bio Innovations Enters Biostimulants Market Wit…
March 23, 2017
Marrone Bio Innovations, Inc. is expanding beyond biopesticides and crop protection and into the biostimulant market by commercially launching Haven Read More
Nutrients for Life Foundation Teacher
FertilizerNutrients For Life Foundation Celebrates 10 Years Teach…
March 23, 2017
Those in agriculture know fertilizer is a vital ingredient to grow strong, productive crops. In fact, fertilizer is responsible for Read More
ManagementThink You Know Water? Take WinField United’s R…
March 22, 2017
Water is among our most precious resources, and arguably the hardest working, with just one percent available for human use, Read More
Corn Field
LegislationTFI Hopes Court Dismissal Is ‘Final Chapter’…
March 20, 2017
The Fertilizer Institute (TFI) released the following statement from President, Chris Jahn on the March 17, 2017, federal court dismissal Read More
Wheat Growers
Industry NewsWheat Growers CEO Dale Locken To Retire
March 20, 2017
CEO Dale Locken has announced that he plans to retire from Wheat Growers. Locken has served almost 15 years as Read More
Bayer Monsanto
Eric SfiligojBayer-Monsanto: Life, LibertyLink, And The Pursuit Of R…
March 20, 2017
As the calendar officially turns to spring, life is in full renewal mode. Flowers are blooming, birds are singing, and Read More
Corn Field
Crop InputsUltra Yield Micronutrients Acquires Kronos Micronutrien…
March 16, 2017
Ultra Yield Micronutrients, Inc. ”Ultra”, an affiliate of Cameron Chemicals, Inc., is pleased to announce that it has acquired the Read More
ManagementSnowstorms, Asset Sales, and Soybeans Prices
March 16, 2017
Editors Paul Schrimpf and Eric Sfiligoj discuss the weather, precision ag, crop protection company mergers, and commodity prices in this Read More
Soybean Field
Seed/BiotechBayer Invests $8.1 million In Soybean Advancement In Th…
March 16, 2017
Growers in Illinois and across the Midwest now have the added benefit of a state-of-the-art soybean research facility, increasing accessibility Read More
CHS
CropLife 100CHS Acquires Western Co-op Transport Association
March 16, 2017
CHS Inc., North America’s leading farmer-owned cooperative and a global energy, grains and foods company, has purchased Western Co-op Transport Read More
Young corn plants in soil
HerbicidesBest Management Practices To Control PPO-Resistant Weed…
March 14, 2017
Weeds resistant to the class of herbicides called protoporphyrinogen oxidase (PPO) inhibitors are spreading at a faster rate than weed Read More
Photo credit: The United Soybean Board/The Soybean Checkoff.
Eric SfiligojFungicide Resistance On The Horizon
March 13, 2017
For many years now, the agricultural market has struggled to keep ahead of an ever-growing number of herbicide-resistant weeds. According Read More
Management2017 Commodity Classic Review
March 10, 2017
Editors Paul Schrimpf and Eric Sfiligoj discuss what happened at the recent Commodity Classic in San Antonio. Read More
Farmer using AgriSync
ManagementMajor AgriSync Update Aims To Extend Ag Experts’ Power …
March 10, 2017
AgriSync announced a major update to its leading collaboration and service management tool for professional ag advisors and their farmer Read More
Agrible Pocket Spray Smart App
EquipmentNew Agrible Pocket Spray Smart App Alleviates Spraying …
March 10, 2017
There’s a new app to help farmers decide when to spray their fields. Pocket Spray Smart is a free iOS Read More
BPIA logo
Crop InputsBiological Products Trade Association Changes Name, Exp…
March 9, 2017
The Biological Products Industry Alliance (BPIA), formerly the BioPesticide Industry Alliance, is the new name of the rapidly growing U.S.-based Read More
BBI MagnaSpread Salford BBI
Equipment14 Fertilizer Spreaders For 2017
March 9, 2017
Application equipment manufacturers stressed flexibility and accuracy with this year’s crop of fertilizer spreaders. From AGCO’s TerraGator TG9300B and Case IH’s 810 Read More