Sliding commodity prices, declining ethanol demand and lingering trade disputes have combined to raise alarms among tri-state farmers as they enter the late stages of summer.
Area crop producers were dealt their latest blow early this week when the U.S. Department of Agriculture upped its national corn production forecast by 26 million bushels. Concerns about excess supply sent corn futures tumbling and left some area farmers scratching their heads.
Craig Recker, president of the Dubuque County Farm Bureau, questioned whether the forecast was an accurate representation of the actual yields farmers will produce.
In eastern Iowa, farmers have been reeling ever since an unusually wet spring delayed their planting season. Recker finds it hard to believe that farmers throughout the U.S. will produce the yields the USDA is projecting.
“A lot of the crop got planted this year, but it wasn’t planted in good conditions,” Recker explained. “I think what you may eventually see is one of the poorer crops in the last five years.”
Larry Jerrett, who farms corn and soybeans near Lancaster, Wis., said the fate of his crop is “kind of iffy” at this point. He noted that a significant portion of the crop could be wiped out in the event of an early frost.
In the meantime, government projections have made marketing grain more difficult.
“The report really surprised me and it pushed prices way down,” he said.
Further complicating the fate of farmers is dwindling demand from the ethanol industry.
The Environmental Protection Agency last week announced 31 refinery exemptions from the Renewable Fuel Standard, a federal program that requires refineries to blend a certain amount of renewable fuels into gasoline.
The RFS has long been viewed as a driver for ethanol demand. Consequently, a growing list of exemptions has moved the needle in the opposite direction.
“They keep giving waivers to these refineries, and ethanol demand is suffering because of that,” Recker said.
The timing adds insult to injury for corn and soybean farmers, who have seen export markets dry up in the face of prolonged trade wars, most notably with China.
Chinese officials this month officially ordered a halt to all agricultural imports from the United States, providing further evidence that the U.S.-China trade war has no end in sight.
“I’d like to see more exports going out, but it doesn’t seem like that is real close to happening,” Jerrett said.
The confluence of factors has left local crop producers with fewer avenues for selling their product. In many cases, the best option is to stockpile the grain and wait for a turnaround in the market.
Recker said local farmers have a fair amount of “carryover” grain that couldn’t be sold the previous year. He expects those stockpiles to increase in 2019.
The fact that grain can be stored is one of the few bright points for crop producers.
“You can keep corn in a bin for a long time and it won’t perish,” Recker said. “With grains, you can stockpile. If you’re a dairy or beef farmer, you don’t have that option.”
Even so, this option may increase costs for farmers that lack an abundance of on-site storage capacity.
Annette Eggers, manager for the Jo Daviess County (Ill.) Farm Bureau, also is attempting to focus on the positive.
She noted that an extended stretch of cooperative weather means many northwest Illinois farmers could salvage more of their crop.
“One thing that did help a lot was we had some pretty extreme heat a few weeks back,” Eggers said. “The corn loves that kind of weather and thrives on it.”
Eggers believes the summer weather might help farmers make up for some of the time they lost during a soggy spring season. This could result in a better crop than originally expected.