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Farmers face $3.5 billion corn loss

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An aerial photograph shows corn harvested in Malden, Illinois, in September. U.S. farmers are about to get more government aid than at any time in the past decade, signaling the rising public cost of crop surpluses and cheap food. Bloomberg photo by Daniel Acker.

American farmers already stung by President Donald Trump's trade wars now face billions of dollars in potential losses as controversial data from the U.S. government snuffs out a rally in corn.

The Agriculture Department on Aug. 12 said farmers planted a bigger corn area than analysts estimated and pegged crop yields that also exceeded expectations, sparking the biggest rout in futures since 2013.

That was a blow to growers who were holding back supplies, hoping a rally that started in May due to delayed sowing would extend through the fall.

The decline represents a potential loss of almost $3.5 billion for U.S. farmers, according to the American Farm Bureau, and is another setback for them after prices fell following the USDA's previous acreage report, which was widely criticized for containing outdated data.

The latest data is compounding the pain from the trade war between Washington and Beijing, which has significantly reduced purchases from the world's largest soybean buyer. Policy uncertainty has also hit the farm economy as a new U.S. deal with Mexico and Canada is yet to be passed. What's more, the government is allowing 31 oil refineries to go without blending ethanol into fossil fuels, hurting demand for corn.

"This is a huge disappointment for farmers that have already been struggling with a lot of uncertainty with this corn crop, trade wars and what have you," said Tanner Ehmke, manager of the research team at CoBank, a $138 billion lender to the agriculture industry. "A lot of people were banking on the opportunity to sell at much higher prices. This report now really brings that into question."

While farm income remained weak in the second quarter, the pace of declines had slowed partly as the slowest corn plantings on record boosted prices, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.

The USDA pegged planted corn acres at 2.6% higher than expected while yields came in 2.8% above. Growers who were already disappointed by the price declines after the last acreage report had hoped the agency's rare re-survey of plantings would deliver a number that better reflects one of the wettest planting seasons on record. Soybean acres were below forecasts, though yields were higher.

"I still don't think anyone has a good, firm handle on acreage yields, and demand, especially not USDA," said Charles Williams, who farms 13,000 acres with his father and cousin in Marion, Ark. "There's a lot of calendar left to go on this crop, and I don't know if the market will know what we have until we throw it in a pile, so to speak, at harvest."

Some growers also questioned the report due to the discrepancy between the figures published by the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service, or NASS, and those by the Farm Service Agency, or FSA.

"We need to disregard this report, we won't know actual acreage until this winter, I guess," said Monte Peterson, a farmer in Valley City, N.D. "Makes me wonder if our system isn't a little broken. Harvested acreage will be a surprise at some point."

To be sure, some market veterans agree with the USDA acreage forecast.

Scott Irwin, a University of Illinois agricultural economist, said President Trump's trade aid plan may have encouraged farmers to sow more corn since the agency had initially announced payouts would be tied to acreage planted.

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