Category Archives: Iowa

Dr. Walter P. Falcon of Stanford Writes About Summer 2014 on His Iowa Farm

This is the third year in a row that I’m honored to present the reflections of Dr. Walter P. Falcon after he’s spent another summer season on his Iowa farm. His unique insights as an agricultural economist at Stanford/real world farmer are valuable and many. This year he talks about weather, policy, how wind energy expansion is impacting his rural community, cattle prices, and more. Enjoy.—-Kay M.

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“BLOWIN’ IN THE WIND” IOWA FARMER’S ALMANAC, PART III by WALTER P. FALCON*

It is August again, and my wife and I are back on our farm. We have a medium-sized operation in east-central Iowa that produces soybeans, alfalfa, and corn, and that also supports an Angus cow-calf herd. These summers are supposed to be quiet, relaxing times away from the bustle of Stanford University. However, the days here seem anything but tranquil. Two years ago my almanac report dealt with one of the worst droughts in Iowa’s history; last year the focus was on flooding and the wettest planting season on record. I suppose it is only fair that wind should be the main topic this year. For our rural neighborhood, only problems, not answers, seemed to have been blowin’ in it.

Two evenings after our arrival from California, we were sent scurrying to our doubly reinforced “safe” room in the basement. Warning sirens blared, all television stations went on emergency broadcasting, and the spontaneous neighborhood phone line magically got activated. Everything was for real, and all hell broke loose. Eighty-five m.p.h. flat-line winds, grape-sized hail, and buckets of rain. The power went out, and our safe-room conversation centered on whether or not to start our small generator—not for lights, but to assure that the sump pump continued working!

For a swath three miles wide and 15 miles long the tornado danced—jumping here and skipping there. Some farms were spared; others were pretty much demolished. We were moderately lucky. We lost an infinite number of branches and our largest oak tree—a four-foot diameter, 70-foot tall specimen. Entire trees were twisted off like toothpicks. Shingles from roofs went missing, as did white fencing. But we were among the lucky ones—no major buildings were lost and no people or animals were injured.

Two farms over, the five-bin corn storage unit took a direct hit. Two 120-foot tall elevators that lift grain to the top (called legs, although the anatomy analogy makes no sense) lay in a crumpled mess. These bins hold some 240,000 bushels of corn and there are massive amounts of steel involved. The broken legs looked, at 120X scale, like an angry third-grader had deliberately slammed his Lego creations onto the ground. The difference is that the repairs, labor costs, and replacement parts for the bins and legs total $750,000. Farmers soon began re-reading their insurance policies about acts of God, depreciation allowances, and the rules for full versus partial replacement.

The morning following the storm, an eerie calm was soon replaced by a different form of energy. Other work seemed to stop in a region larger than the storm-hit area. No one arranged it, but neighbors suddenly appeared at each other’s farmsteads with tractors, loaders, pickups, and chainsaws. Small mountains of brush, trees, and building parts began to emerge, to be burned at a later date—no doubt with generous burn permits being granted by the county.

At the time of the storm, corn was about waist high. Like the trees, it took a serious beating throughout the storm’s path. The corn stalks were tightly packed in narrow rows as a consequence of the changed density of planting—from 20,000 kernels per acre 20 years ago to 35,000 currently. (Bags of seed corn containing 80,000 kernels now typically sell in excess of $300, putting seed costs per acre about on a par with the cost of nitrogen fertilizer.) This tightly woven carpet of corn was now leaning at 45 degrees—or worse.

The question was whether the stalks would straighten up. And the answer turns out to be “sort of.” Many of them are “goose-necked,” a much used word now in farmer conversations. The concern is, IF large ears develop, will the stalks be sturdy enough to support them? Or, will a large amount of “ear droppage” seriously reduce yields and profits? We continue to be optimistic, and are still hoping for corn yields of 190 bushels per acre, not far from our best year of 220 bushels.


credit: Wikimedia.

Morning coffee conversations at the old limestone café have been fairly somber affairs this summer. (The general store has changed hands, but unfortunately, the watery coffee and the stale cookies have not improved.) Farmer faces were grim even before the storm, mainly because of what has happened to corn prices. In August 2012, local farmers were being offered $7.65/bushel [56 pounds] of corn; in August 2013, the price was $6.20/bushel, and on August 20, 2014, the price was $3.60/bushel. Suddenly the rush to buy new pick-ups and large harvesting equipment slowed drastically. John Deere, the major farm-equipment manufacturer, has already laid off hundreds of workers at various Iowa sites.

Orders have not stopped entirely, however, largely because of crop insurance. Virtually all farmers have either 75% or 85% revenue protection. If a combination of yield and/or price declines cause revenue to be less than 75% (85%) of normal, farmers are reimbursed by private insurance companies. The premiums for this revenue-protection insurance are heavily subsidized by the federal farm program. Taxpayers underwrite more than 60% of the total insurance premiums, which last year resulted in subsidies to farmers of about $9 billion. Historic yields are used in the insurance contract, and this year the early insurance lock-in price was $4.62/bushel. That price looked low in the spring, but now looks extremely favorable.

Unfortunately, many of my neighbors chose the “wrong” insurance option. They were able to purchase 75% revenue protection for about $4.50/acre, whereas the 85% protection cost about $19/acre. For a farmer with 1500 acres of corn, the difference in insurance premiums was more than $20,000. But given declining corn prices, the cheaper insurance option for 2014 will surely turn out to be the most costly choice at the end of the season. Farm decision making these days is mostly about risk management, and that is why crop insurance was such a big element in the new farm program.


USDA photo – Northeast Iowa

Perhaps the hottest topic of conversation at morning coffee centered again on wind, but not of the tornado variety. It turns out that “the wind comes sweeping down the plain” in Iowa as well as in Oklahoma. Iowa is the third-largest producer of wind energy, and wind power supplies a hefty 27 percent of Iowa’s total energy use. So why are my neighbors upset? It is something called the Rock Island Clean Line (RICL), and a bit of history is in order.

The old Rock Island Line was a rail company—made more famous than it really deserved to be by Johnny Cash. The line ran five miles south of our farm, and yes, it was a “mighty fine line” that did carry cows, sheep, pigs, and mules. But it went bankrupt in 1975. The Rock Island Clean Line originally planned to use some of the old right-of- way for quite a different purpose—transporting wind-generated power from northwest Iowa on huge towers, with cables carrying direct-current electricity into the Illinois market to the east. It turned out, however, that too much of the old right of way went through urban areas and was unsuitable, so RICL will purchase some 500 linear miles of farmland right-of-way for the towers.

Farmers are rationally and irrationally furious. (The line was originally scheduled to go across the full length of our farm, so we have been directly involved in the discussions.) It has been extremely difficult to get straight answers about the line, with the company and the Iowa Utilities Board doing a dance in which neither wants to lead. There is no doubt that these140-foot towers create an ugly line of sight; they complicate farming with large machinery; and they seriously impact adjoining fields during the construction phase. The company believes that it is offering generous one-time compensation—the equivalent of $10,000 to $15,000 per acre in most cases—but it then retains easement rights to this land forever, including the authority to sell the rights.

Farmers are livid—they basically do not want the line from which they will receive no benefits—but they are being faced with potential eminent domain proceedings if they do not agree to sell. All sorts of NIMBY arguments are being brought forward, from the “government can’t tell us what to do,” to “the lines will emit electrical forces that will cause health effects,” to “they are not paying enough,” to “why should we use good Iowa soil to transport electricity rather than to produce food for the hungry?” The last of these comments is the one I have heard most often. When I inquired as to whether the coffee group was also against ethanol—since 40% of Iowa corn is going into gas tanks rather than hungry mouths—I was NOT regarded as a helpful contributor to the conversation!

In the end, I suspect that the Rock Island Clean Line will prevail, and that farmers and their families will learn to accommodate the power towers. Many farmers will grumble publically, but smile privately en route to their banks with rather large checks. However, both the process and outcome have stirred up deep passions about who controls the land.

Not all farmers are sad this summer, and the winds of good fortune have blown in the direction of cattle feeders. The structure of cattle feeding in Iowa has changed enormously in recent times. I am the son of a mid-sized feeder, and spent a good deal of my youth working with cattle and driving cattle trucks. Most east Iowa farms these days are strictly grain farms, in large part to free farmers from the 24/7 burden of animal care. My neighbor talks about his corn-Texas crop rotation—growing corn in the summer and going to Texas for the winter.

There are only two large cattle feeding operations left in Linn County where I live, and both are within four miles of our farm. I was invited by one of the owners to attend a cattle auction with him, and to see for myself just how much things had changed. He owns his own 18-wheeler, and almost every week takes a load (36 head) of prime beef to the auction. Cattle are taken to the auction pens the night before the sale and are taken off of feed and water. These steers weigh between 1400 and 1500 pounds, and buyers want assurance that the animals have not gorged on feed and water just before crossing the scales. The cattle are weighed early the morning of the sale, and weights are then flashed on a scoreboard as the animals enter the sale ring.

There is still an amazing amount of ritual at a cattle auction—I had forgotten just how much! Prime steers are typically sold in lots of 12 animals. They enter the ring from one side, and are moved about by a “ring man” so that buyers can get a good view of them. Part of the ritual is where various people sit. A small group of farmers/sellers sits in one section, typically bantering about whom has the best cattle and whose will “top the sale.” The buyers sit near the top of the bleachers, in the same spot each week, but separated from each other. (They would not want a casual conversation between them to be construed as collusion!)

There is also the auctioneer with his chatter, mile-a-minute delivery, and selling antics. The sale itself happens very rapidly. There are typically two to four bidders for a particular lot of animals, and the bids go back and forth among them at lightning speed. The bidding cues are highly personalized—one buyer uses the flip of his tally sheet, another raises his index finger, and one simply arches his eyebrow. In less than 45 seconds, the winning buyer has spent $27,000! And then the next lot appears. Cattle from this sale went to packing plants in Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska, and Illinois.

On the 25-mile ride home, my neighbor talked about how pleased he was with what had happened. His steers had gained well and had topped the market in terms of price at $1.57 per pound. He said that corn was very cheap, as was distiller’s grain—the high protein by-product from making corn-based ethanol—which is now an important part of cattle feeding rations. There would be a healthy profit from this load of steers that had grossed about $80,000.

But then he turned somber. What should he do about next year? The price of 600-pound calves that he would put into the feedlot for feeding and sale next year are selling at the astronomical price of $2.50 per pound and even higher. Perhaps next year, he said, was the year to stay out of the ring and go to Texas or Arizona for the winter. Risk had reared its ugly head once again. But my neighbor is first and foremost a cattle feeder, with a cattle feeder’s mindset toward risk. My conjecture is that he will somehow find a rationale for purchasing replacement calves, and that he will do everything all over again next year.

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“The answer my friend, is blowin’ in the wind,
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.”
(Bob Dylan, 1962)

*Walter Falcon writes about Iowa from an unusual perspective. He is Farnsworth Professor of International Agricultural Policy (Emeritus), and Senior Fellow, Center on Food Security and the Environment, Stanford University. A 78 he continues to be active, both in the classroom and in the Iowa farming community where he grew up.

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You may read

Dr. Falcon’s writing from 2013 summer here: “Stuck in the Mud: Stanford’s Scholarly Farmer on the Soggy Fortunes of Midwest Growers” by Walter Falcon

Dr. Falcon’s writing from 2012 summer here: Field Notes From An Iowa Farm by Walter Falcon

Remarkable Graphs of Corn & Soybean Profitability

CORN

Blue blocks: Profitable time periods. Note that I’ve altered the graph by adding red and blue blocks to show profitable years vs. profit-loss years. Source: Ag Cycles: A Crop Marketing Perspective By Chad Hart/Iowa State.

The remarkable graph above, showing corn profitability since 1972, says it all.

The article in which the graph is embedded, by Iowa Ag economist Chad Hart, begins like this… “Over the past seven years, corn and soybean producers in the United States have enjoyed their best run of returns in history.”

Hmmmm. Let me think. What happened about seven years ago?

After that he explains that profitability is cyclical in a competitive industry such as commodity farming, and that “economic theory indicates the long-run profitability of a competitive industry is zero.”

Hart says, “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.” !!!

He then warns of a near-term downward cycle of lower commodity and farmland prices.

It’s already happened. Corn prices have fallen. This year’s producers who are renting land that is priced according to yesterday’s profits, may see a tough bottom line.

Unfortunately, from there on out in this paper, Hart goes off on economist tangents about interest rates and input costs during recessions that aren’t as relevant as what I see as the biggest story when one talks about an over-produced commodity crop, which is policy. Furthermore, policy is what has driven down exports and feed demand for corn in recent years.

If we were dealing with a commodity that feeds the world’s growing populations, like Jim Rogers always tells investors, the price of corn would go up because of natural, growing demand. Instead, we’ve had overproduction of corn for decades on end, and it feeds agribusiness, not the world’s growing populations. The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 created a new and rapid demand for this input-heavy crop, rewarding the producer, the machinery maker, the fertilizer, seed, and chemical companies. Policies have supported corn growing both on the demand side, and through direct payment programs and crop insurance.

If we really wanted food and energy security, we’d promote fuel efficient vehicles instead of Chevy Tahoes and F350s that burn E85, and we’d preserve our soil, waterways, biodiversity, and aquifers so that future generations have healthy land on which to grow food.

Corn and soybean production in America today is mostly all about policy.

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SOYBEANS
Also interesting is the same information on soybean profitability as viewed on the following graph:

Source: Ag Cycles: A Crop Marketing Perspective By Chad Hart/Iowa State.

We can generalize that soybeans have, on average, had more profitable years than corn. They have enjoyed a boost in price, too, as a consequence of ethanol’s recent, large demand for corn. Plus, around 15 percent of our nation’s soybean crop is going to produce biodiesel these days.

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SOURCE: Ag Cycles: A Crop Marketing Perspective

3 Picks: Ogallala Aquifer, Biofortified Millet, Agriculture Students

Below, are today’s three chosen agricultural-related news picks.

1) Kansas State Study on Ogallala Aquifer Use: “If current irrigation trends continue, 69 percent of the groundwater stored in the High Plains Aquifer of Kansas will be depleted in 50 years. But immediately reducing water use could extend the aquifer’s lifetime and increase net agricultural production through the year 2110. Those findings are part of a recently published study by David Steward, professor of civil engineering, and colleagues at Kansas State University. The study investigates the future availability of groundwater in the High Plains Aquifer—also called the Ogallala Aquifer—and how reducing use would affect cattle and crops.”

2) Scientists Deploy Iron-Rich Pearl Millet Against Malnutrition: “Iron-rich pearl millet is being conventionally bred by ICRISAT as part of the HarvestPlus program, which seeks to develop and disseminate staple food crops rich in micronutrients to improve nutrition and public health. One recently released variety, ICTP8203Fe, commonly known as Dhanshakti (meaning prosperity and strength), is now being cultivated by more than 30,000 farmers in Maharashtra. It is the first biofortified crop cultivar to be officially released and adopted by farmers in India.”

3) Iowa State sees largest enrollment in the College of Agriculture: “Expectations are high in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences(CALS) this year, with the college anticipating approximately 4,000 undergraduate students for the fall of 2013. The past two years have trumped the last undergraduate enrollment record set back in the fall of 1977, which had 3,623. … For the past 15 years, the employment rate of agriculture and life sciences graduates has been at or near 98 percent, acting as a driving force behind the record numbers in enrollment.”

This news post was written and compiled by K. McDonald.

3 Picks: DIY Verticle Garden, Microgrids, E85 Nonsense


Photo credit: The Dirt

Below, are today’s three chosen agricultural-related news picks.

1) A DIY Verticle Urban Garden Using 2-liter Pop Bottles: Phil Stamper posted instructions on how to make a hanging bottle garden. This is a verticle urban garden system that anybody can do with some rope and empty pop bottles. It comes from the Brazilian design firm, Rosenbaum, and it was such a hit that they released these instructions so that they are available to everyone. (Please go to the source to view the instructions.)

2) ENERGY: Is the Future Micro-Grids? “One of the most under-reported stories in the U.S. energy industry today is Connecticut’s ambitious electricity pilot project—one that could have a widespread ripple effect across the country. On July 24, state government officials announced plans for nine micro-grid projects as part of a Micro-grid Pilot Program aimed at ensuring electricity grid resilience and reliability during severe weather events. “Micro-grids” are essentially small-scale electricity generation and distribution systems that integrate various distributed energy resources and can be managed locally and, if necessary, independently from the main grid. Diesel-powered micro-grids are common in the rural areas of many developing countries such as Haiti, Indonesia, and the Philippines, and some military bases, telecommunications bases, and Internet server farms have done the same, in order to ensure a steady flow of power even if a natural disaster or terrorist attack should take down the main grid. … “

3) How much E85 would be consumed if we gave it away? That is my question for Bruce Babcock (of Colbert Report fame) at Iowa State, who suggests that we need an economic incentive to get past the ethanol blend wall by having E85 available at more stations and by reducing its price in a piece titled, “Price It and They Will Buy: How E85 Can Break the Blend Wall”. (Pretty sure I was not his intended audience.) He says, “The resulting demand curve for ethanol above the E10 blend wall suggests E85 consumption of about one billion gallons if E85 were priced to generate a six percent reduction in fuel costs. If the price were lowered further to generate a 15 percent reduction then about two billion gallons could be consumed, and a 30 percent reduction would be needed to induce three billion gallons of consumption. … rather than being a physical barrier to increased ethanol consumption, the E10 blend wall is an economic barrier that can be overcome by increasing the incentive for drivers to use E85 to fuel their vehicles.” K.M.: Or, maybe it would help if you labeled it what it really is. Hardly anyone is aware of the fact that the ASTM lowered the minimum requirement of ethanol in E85 to 51 percent “E51″ in early 2012… “to ensure that ethanol fuel blends for flex-fuel vehicles can meet seasonal vapor pressure requirements in all regions of the country.” Next up, I’d like to see reports from Babcock on 1) the non-mandated use amounts of E85 in our top five corn producing states, 2) the average ethanol blend produced under the E85 label today, 3) who will be paying for the 30 percent price discount of E85 in his proposal and what will that cost? 4) how do your cost discount incentives for selling E85 compare to energy content in the product? and, 5) How much would your economic incentives contribute to the problems of water quality, habitat and soil loss in your state of Iowa?

(Note that the EPA has recently indicated that it will reduce targets in 2014 to address “blend wall” concerns, and, the anti-ethanol sentiments and voices are heating up in Washington, on TV ads, and elsewhere.)

This news post was written and compiled by K. McDonald.