Farm income heading toward third straight annual decline

  • Comments
  • Print

The squeeze on U.S. farmers is getting worse as low crop prices and rising costs erode incomes that not long ago were the highest ever.

“The budget picture for corn and soybeans is as negative as we’ve seen in a long time,” said Brent Gloy, an agricultural economist at Purdue University in West Lafayette. “You will see some farmers not able to cover their production costs.”

Illinois grower Jason Lay said he will buy 30 percent less fertilizer for his 2,500 acres of corn and soybeans, and 7 percent fewer seeds for spring planting. After his most profitable year ever in 2012, Lay said he upgraded his combine, tractor, sprayer and planter. With crop futures now near five-year lows, he has no plans to buy any new equipment.

“You spend when times are prosperous so you don’t need to when they’re not,” Lay, 41, said by telephone from outside Bloomington, Illinois. “That’s how you make it through.” He estimates his profit is down by a quarter from its peak.

Farm income in the U.S., the world’s top agricultural producer and exporter, will drop for a third straight year in 2015, the government said Tuesday. While raising livestock remains profitable, as tight meat supplies keep prices high, growers of corn, soybeans and wheat saw crop and land values fall faster than many of their costs. That’s pinching sales for equipment maker Deere & Co. and seed and chemical producers including DuPont Co.

USDA forecast

Net-cash income from all farm activity will tumble 22 percent, to a five-year low of $89.4 billion, after a 2014 decline of 12 percent, to $115.1 billion, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said. Net income, including the value of inventory and non-cash income, was forecast to drop 32 percent, to $73.6 billion, with expenses at a record $370.4 billion, the government said.

Crop receipts will drop 7.9 percent, to $182.6 billion, after a 9.3-percent decline in 2014, the USDA said in its revised estimates. Livestock, which jumped 14 percent last year and topped crops for the first time in eight years, will drop 4.9 percent, to $199 billion in 2015, the government said.

The agriculture industry has boomed over the past decade as record land and crop prices boosted sales of seed and farm equipment. Net-cash income touched a record $137.1 billion in 2012. Land values have kept rising, up 8.1 percent last year to an all-time high of $2,950 an acre, while beef and pork prices were the highest ever.

Crop slump

Record-high crop prices in 2012 helped fuel a surge in global output, creating a surplus that sent futures tumbling. Corn traded at $3.87 a bushel Tuesday morning on the Chicago Board of Trade, down 54 percent from a record in August 2012, and soybeans were at $9.7275 a bushel, down 46 percent from their all-time high.

Bumper crops weren’t enough to prevent crop receipts last year from dropping to $193.5 billion, the lowest since 2010, USDA data show. At the same time, seed costs rose 2.7 percent and rents paid by farmers on land they didn’t own rose 2.9 percent. That’s eroding Farm Belt income that the USDA says insulated rural areas from the worst of the recession that lasted from the end of 2007 to mid-2009.

Moline, Illinois-based Deere, the largest manufacturer of agricultural machinery, said last month it will lay off 910 factory workers as profit falls for a second straight year. Monsanto Co., the world’s top seed seller, said last month there will be fewer U.S. corn acres planted this year, which will be a drag on the St. Louis-based company’s profit.

Cheaper fuel

Farm income this year may benefit from cheaper fuel, which accounts for about 5 percent of expenses. Amid a glut of crude oil, the price of diesel used in tractors and harvesters is down 22 percent since Oct. 31, touching a five-year low of $2.793 a gallon on Feb. 2, motoring group AAA said.

Property values are also showing signs of easing. Lower-quality farmland has dropped about 15 percent from its peak, while prices for better land has leveled off, Farmers National Co., which manages 2.1 million acres of farms in 24 states, said Feb. 5.

Such declines may not provide much help this year to farmers who rent their land in multi-year agreements, said Pat Westhoff, an agricultural economist at the University of Missouri in Columbia.

 “Many farmers are paying a lot more in rent now than they were three-four years ago, and once you take that into account, some will actually lose money,” Westhoff said in an e-mail.

Livestock profit

While crop farmers are getting squeezed, most livestock producers are making money and probably will surpass crop receipts for a second straight year, said Chad Hart, a farm economist at Iowa State University in Ames.

In 2014, revenue from chickens, cows, hogs and other animals jumped to a record $208.7 billion, surpassing crops for the first time since 2006, USDA data show.

That’s prompted a shift on Don Steinbeisser Jr.’s farm and ranch near Sidney, Montana, where he has 3,500 acres of crops and about 650 cattle. He is planting less corn and using it to feed his livestock rather than sell in the market.

“With corn under $4, we’ll take that for the cattle,” said Steinbeisser, who also grows wheat, soybeans, barley and sugar beets. “Times like these, I’m glad I’m diversified.”

Please enable JavaScript to view this content.

Story Continues Below

Editor's note: You can comment on IBJ stories by signing in to your IBJ account. If you have not registered, please sign up for a free account now. Please note our updated comment policy that will govern how comments are moderated.