Category Archives: input costs

Farmers Should be Protected During the Long Periods of Low Prices

This post is by Daryll E. Ray and Harwood D. Schaffer of the Agricultural Policy Analysis Center, University of Tennessee, in Knoxville. They write Policy Pennings, and I use their excellent analysis on this site from time to time.

Today’s writing by Harwood and Schaffer tells us that long periods of low prices which don’t cover crop inputs historically can last a very long time and thus they need greater policy support. (My impression is that the latest farm bill supports farmers better during periods of low prices – readers in the know are encouraged to weigh in to help enlighten us.) Beyond that issue we should perhaps be asking ourselves instead why our policy covers these monoculture crops so heavily in the first place, when the end result is always overproduction.—Kay M.


Commodity policy choice: Treat the symptoms or address the cause of low crop prices

When it comes to developing policy prescriptions to deal with the dynamic of long periods of low prices interrupted by much shorter periods of high prices, two approaches are possible: one approach provides symptomatic relief and the other treats the cause of low crop prices. One must choose one approach or the other.

If policy analysts develop and policymakers adopt public policies that treat the proximate cause of low prices—the presence of a supply that exceeds demand—there is no need for symptomatic relief. On the other hand, providing symptomatic relief (to short term price disturbances when prices are high and little relief when prices are low) ultimately becomes very expensive and risks losing public support for agricultural programs when farmers need them the most.

For many years, agricultural economists understood that agriculture was different from many other sectors of the economy in that an oversupply of grain and oilseeds and the ensuing low prices did not bring about a timely self-correction in agricultural markets. Low crop prices did not cure low crop prices within a reasonable time frame.

In other sectors of the economy, low prices cause suppliers to reduce their production of the item in excess supply and consumers to increase their purchases. The result is that supply and demand come back into balance at a profitable price level quite quickly. This timely self-correction does not occur in agricultural commodity markets.

Because they understood the dynamics of the market, policy analysts worked to develop policies that would isolate a portion of the supply from the marketplace, bringing about a balance between supply and demand and the return of prices that kept producers in business. To keep from accumulating ever-larger isolated stocks, policies were also developed to reduce production to allow demand to catch up with production.

Understandably, farmers were often frustrated with these policies. And from the perspective of an individual farm operation this made sense. If they had been allowed to produce more they could have earned more, they reasoned. And that is true for an individual farm. But when all farms seek to increase production, the result is an oversupply that drives prices downward for everyone, and the size of the decline in prices is greater than the increase in production.

In recent years, policy makers and many agricultural economists have simply chosen to ignore these dynamics and instead argue against policies that manage supply. In place of traditional supply management policies, they have advocated for policies that use crop insurance to protect farmers against variations in prices—symptomatic relief.

The problem is that these policies only work well when prices are at or above the cost of production. If prices remain low for an extended period of time, farmers end up paying premiums for policies that do not even cover the cost of production.

We understand that farmers do not want to hear this kind of analysis; they would rather hear about booming export demand, a growing ethanol demand, and a new “price floor.” When we are invited to speak to farm groups, producers come up afterwards and emphatically say, “I don’t like what you are telling me!” and then they continue, “But I needed to hear that.” When prices were high, many economists were telling farmers that there was a new price floor undergirded by increased input costs.

During this period, we continued to tell farmers about the low prices that would come when the yearly increases in ethanol demand began to stagnate and supply continued to increase. We cautioned farmers to put some of the increased profits in the bank instead of buying lots of new machinery and driving up the price of land. Today, some of those who talked only about high prices and a new plateau are saying to farmers, “I hope you put some money away during the good times.” Good advice, but a couple years late.

The trend in recent decades is toward policies that tend to provide producers with little income support when prices are low for an extended period of time. As a result, the associated costs of maintaining a vibrant agriculture can actually be more costly to U.S. taxpayers through emergency programs/payments. Failing that the results could be devastating to a large swath of farmers. For farmers in less developed countries, lower prices have severe consequences. When prices are low in countries where agriculture is a large portion of the economy, the impact on the economy is severe.

The challenge of policy analysis is not to design public policies that make the good times even better; rather it is to have policies in place to help protect farmers during the long periods of low prices. Over the last century, the periods of low prices have been much longer than the boom times.


Photo: FlickrCC by Rae Allen, c.1958.

A Farmer Speaks Out: Unsustainable High Input Costs of Industrial Farming

The fine folks over at Farm Journal’s AgWeb published a letter which they received from a viewer following a show that they aired about the U.S. Farm Report. I thought it was very well stated, and the unsustainability of today’s big ag trajectory is not discussed often enough. What is the cropland owner to do when caught on this hamster wheel???
—Kay M.


THE LETTER:

In today’s U.S. Farm Report Mr. Phipps rightfully pointed out that we all constantly need to learn new skills. But if these skills are just employed in the same direction we have been going for many decades now, then will accelerate the downfall of even more farmers.

Relentlessly driven by economic competition, farming today is a high input game hunting the highest yield.

Ironically in the same shows which feature serious brokers and farm journalists warning the farmers to be prepared for the consequences of their own endeavors and pointing out the vicious cycle of great harvests and depressed prices, farmers are still admonished to be early adopters of the latest technology, i.e. yield enhancing chemicals, machinery and growing methods…as if the narrow band of specialization of row crop farmers was leading anywhere but disastrous ruin for most in the long run.

Only a few very large operations of that kind make it – not without help from the taxpayer, by the way.

Who profits most? The providers of said chemicals, machinery and growing methods.

I do not need to point out who suffers most from that kind of agriculture which has been in the heads of most farmers. On the other hand, there are a good number of examples of farmers who are breaking the mold, resorting to very different approaches to farming, but they are not featured.

Most of them can be found in the organic and/or horse-farming community. As long as farmers let themselves be talked into the afore-mentioned rat race the attrition of their numbers can be safely assumed.

How about forming organizations in which farmers for example discuss optimal yields for themselves and their communities, not maximum outcomes with their price-destabilizing consequences? How about organizations which help farmers to overcome the narrow specialization and give them tools for more diversified farming operations?

I could give more examples, but the idea should be clear: If we continue to be going in the directions we have been going for several decades now we should not be surprised that we will arrive there. Only a few people with deep pockets can even start independents farms, most will be hirelings and/or dependents of large corporations.

–Respectfully, (Missouri Farmer)

Global Productivity Growth of Agriculture Developing vs. Developed

Productivity growth in agriculture enables farmers to produce a greater abundance of food at lower prices, using fewer resources. A broad measure of agricultural productivity performance is total factor productivity (TFP). Unlike other commonly used productivity indicators like yield per acre, TFP takes into account a much broader set of inputs—including land, labor, capital, and materials—used in agricultural production. ERS analysis finds that globally, agricultural TFP growth accelerated in recent decades, largely because of improving productivity in developing countries and the transition economies of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

During 2001-2010, agricultural TFP growth in North America and the transition economies offset declining input use to keep agricultural output growing. By contrast, declining input use in Europe offset growing TFP, resulting in a slight decline in agricultural output over the decade. In most regions of the developing world, improvements in TFP are now more important than expansion of inputs as a source of growth in agricultural production. Sub-Saharan Africa is the only major region of the world where growth in agricultural inputs accounts for a higher share of output growth than growth in TFP.

source: USDA

Do Corn and Soybean Farmers Feel Like Hamsters on Wheels?


Flickr CC photo by Asad.

Though we always hear that there needs to be more investment in agricultural research, an agronomy student once told me that his professors are frustrated by the fact that nothing they can offer in the way of agricultural advice will be adopted by farmers unless it increases their profitability. And, usually that comes by way of reducing labor, increasing yields, or through policy.

We have a situation today where the efficiency of industrialized agricultural methods are being challenged because of ever rising input costs as well as ever growing global production competition as more and more of the developing nations adopt our industrial methods of production. Additionally, whereas the U.S. used to be the world’s corn exporting powerhouse, we’ve relinquished export market share since mandated ethanol policy went into effect.

In recent years, the agribusiness giants have done extremely well and many corn and soybean farmers have just ended a cycle of great crop incomes, too. We all know how well the S&P 500 has done in the past five years, but Deere has done even better:

In part recent farm-related profits have been due to government policies of direct farm payments and crop insurance, and in larger part, because of the biofuels mandates. But, it looks like that good time period is about to end. A recently released FAPRI study forecasts breakeven crop prices through 2023 for U.S. farmers.

Furthermore, during the five-year corn commodity price bull run we’ve just experienced, the profits went to the top half of producers, while the bottom half was left out; the top 10 percent of producers made 10 times the amount of profits than the bottom 10 percent.

Approximately 97 million acres of corn and 78 million acres of soybeans were planted in the U.S. in 2013. Let’s take a look at profitability from the farmer’s perspective by using data provided by Mike Duffy of the Iowa State Extension Service, who provides ongoing data updates for the input costs per acre to grow corn and soybean crops in Iowa. His data shows that the machinery costs for growing corn rose 420 percent in the 46 years between 1968 and 2014. The cost for seeds, chemicals, and fertilizers went up over 1000 percent. The yield in corn bushels per acre went up 77 percent for an overall cost per bushel increase of 347 percent over the past 46 years.

My chart below helps demonstrate the numbers:

And the following chart by Chad Hart of Iowa State helps us more in visualizing input costs versus returns of Iowa corn farmers (note the number of years that the average cost of production exceeds the corn price):

source: https://www.extension.iastate.edu/agdm/info/agcycles/hart.pdf

Hart included this commentary with the graph above, “When we examine the average return to a bushel of Iowa corn over the entire time period from 1972 to 2012, it is a positive 5 cents per bushel. However, if you looked at 1972 to 2011, the average return was negative.”

Whereas the input providers can set their prices, the farmer-producer is always at the mercy of the markets. What the farmer has the liberty to decide, however, is his/her choice of methods.

As for benefits, a major economic benefit for the corn and soybean farmer comes from taxpayer supported policy programs which help to ensure that production costs are met each year. The new farm bill offers even greater support to the farmer when prices fall, putting a high floor under prices. Unfortunately, today’s policy also encourages farming on marginal land because of a guaranteed profit to the landowner.

Then, there is also the labor saving benefit of today’s row-crop farmer. Compared to the old rotational grazing systems, the grain farmer’s time commitments have fallen dramatically, offering a better lifestyle and the opportunity to work off the farm for additional income.

What does this all mean and where is the corn and soybean farmer headed?

First, precision agriculture may be another method to increase production, but it comes with a large price both in dollars and in trust of the technology, creating a new set of risks and challenges. Second, integrating cover crops into cash crops can make row-crop farming more ecological and more productive in the long run. And, third, it is expected that by planting closer together, and by further improving genetics, crop yields per acre can continue to increase, but that, too, will come with higher input costs of seeds, fertilizer, and machinery for farmers – which brings us once again to the hamster on the wheel situation.

The farmer who can reduce his/her input costs and produce a product of value, such as providing organic products to answer consumer demand, may do well, and, the younger farmer demographic is looking into new alternatives and ideas which challenge the status quo. Perhaps this is all best summarized by a CNBC news headline that I spotted over the weekend, “There’s a growing discontent around farming in America.”