Largest corn crop ever is in the works
NORSELAND, Minn. — Farmer Peter Anthony is perched in his combine, pushing deep into one of the thickest stands of corn he’s ever grown. On a digital screen in the cab, the numbers are ever changing.
YIELD: 225.2 ... 230.0 ... 231.6 ...
That puts yields in this Nicollet County cornfield over 225 bushels an acre — a phenomenal crop Anthony admits "would have been unbelievable to us in the middle of June," when the weather was soggy and chilly.
This autumn, what’s surprising is how well the 2008 crop turned out, not just here on the Anthony family farm but across much of Minnesota and across the nation, too.
The 2008 growing season has been the wildest of rides. Spring planting arrived late, and floods ravaged the heart of the Corn Belt. Then panic hit the grain market. Would the world run short of corn? Or wheat? Or soybeans? As fear of shortages spread, grain prices shot to almost unimaginable levels.
Then just as quickly, everything reversed at midsummer. Good growing weather returned. The troubled economy softened demand. Grain prices plunged. Now, the U.S Department of Agriculture predicts Minnesota will harvest its largest corn crop in history — and the United States will enjoy its second largest corn harvest ever. The strange journey has left the grain trade amazed.
"This crop has been through almost every conceivable hardship it could, except for an early freeze, and I think they’re going to find that the yields are pretty good," said Darin Newsom, senior analyst for DTN, a commodity information firm. "The general attitude is, the yields are going to be fine."
And that talk of food shortages? That’s much subdued, muted by a 12 billion bushel U.S. corn crop, a 3 billion bushel soybean crop and a shaky global economy.
What’s doubly welcome for many grain farmers is that they’ve locked in a good selling price and have lots of grain to sell.
That’s not exactly what everyone expected early on.
"In May and June, we thought we’d have a trendline (average) yield at best," said Anthony, 32, who farms with his parents, Willis and Rachel, and cousin Eric Annexstad. With a frosty spring and soggy fields, he said, "the year got off to a bit of a difficult start."
Not so good for soybeans
To be sure, not every Minnesota grain farmer was so fortunate. Seth Naeve, soybean specialist at the University of Minnesota, said the dry summer resulted in lots of disappointing soybean yields.
"It was just short enough on water that the soybeans had a tough time, but the corn looks pretty good," Naeve said. "We must have been on some sort of a tipping point with the soil moisture this year."
Markets are the big story
But the big story of Minnesota farming in 2008 was the extreme volatility in the markets. Spring wheat prices topped $20 a bushel in February, then collapsed to less than $6. Corn and soybean prices spiked in June, only to plummet 50 percent this fall.
"You have to be both gutsy and diversified, and really spread the risk around," Naeve said. "This is a time you can make a ton of money or lose a ton of money with volatile markets, and you can get caught at any time with these markets."
Statewide, the numbers show why this matters beyond the ag sector. In 2005, Minnesota’s corn and soybean crops together were worth about $3 billion. Last year, rising grain prices pushed that to a record $7 billion. Earlier this summer, even a $10 billion fall harvest looked possible.
That huge potential pulsed through rural Minnesota. Farmland values climbed. Farm income set records. Agribusiness stocks boomed. In the grain business this summer, the only decline came from farm subsidies, because every crop was too profitable to merit many government checks.
Angry grain buyers
Yet, if the boom left growers a little giddy, it also left grain users angry.
Livestock operators were livid about high-cost feed and the resulting significant losses. Foreign grain buyers were panicked about soaring prices and alarmed by the outbreak of food riots. U.S. consumers resented the ever-rising cost of groceries.
The Anthony farming operation sees the picture from both sides, as a grain producer and a grain user. It raises hogs and feeds cattle, in addition to growing corn, soybeans, wheat, peas and sweet corn. About two-thirds of its corn crop is fed to its hogs.
So, in a disastrous year for hogs but a magical one for corn, how’d it all work out?
"If you’re both growing corn and feeding hogs, at the end of the season it’s still a profitable year," said Anthony, who is Nicollet County president of the Farm Bureau.
But for those who must buy corn to feed hogs, he said, "it doesn’t look good at all."
What about next year?
All around rural Minnesota, the great worry now is whether a vicious squeeze is dawning for 2009. Grain prices are way down, but costs for seed, fertilizer and land rents are not.
Peter Anthony’s father, Willis, gave an example. In 2008 he paid $150 a ton for nitrogen fertilizer. For next year, the asking price is $850 a ton. The Anthonys are better situated than many farmers because they can use hog manure as fertilizer.
"There’s a lot of concern about 2009, seeing the rapid rise of input costs and land-rental costs," said Kent Thiesse, an agricultural banker at MinnStar Bank in Lake Crystal. "As you look ahead, it may be hard to project a lot of profitability."
On the Anthony place, Peter, the fifth generation of his family to farm the land, tries to take the long view.
"It’s a cyclical business," he says. "Things go up and things go down, and a person needs to keep that in perspective."