Glad I’m Not Farming Anymore

I really liked farming, but I’m rather glad I’m out of the business these days, especially when I see headlines like this one over at agweb.com:

Betting the Farm and Losing: Banks Seek Collateral as Debts Rise

The financial situation for a lot of farmers is pretty stressful right now. Farm income is down 42% from what it was in 2013, farm land prices are dropping and they’re predicting land prices could drop 20% or more over the next couple of years. Corn prices are less than half what they were in 2012, cattle and hog prices are down 38%. Corn and soybean inventories are going to be at the highest level in something like 30 years. The University of Illinois says many farmers in the state are going to be losing about $28 an acre on their corn, and while soybeans are still profitable, they’ll be lucky if they make $67 an acre this year compared to $229 back in 2010.

The situation isn’t good when you look at the financial data. The Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City is reporting a decline in the financial health of farmers. They have less working capital, are having to resort to taking out loans just to meet operating expenses. In the Midwest banks are reporting that about 22% of farmers will have a negative cash flow for 2016.

As usual the farmers who are getting hit the worst are the young ones who are just starting out or have only been in business a few years. They don’t have the land base or the credit history to get enough capital to buy equipment or to even continue operating.

Farming is a difficult business at the best of times. And it operates under financial conditions that pretty much no other business faces. How many companies would invest huge amounts of money in infrastructure, equipment, land, buildings, labor, etc. when they have absolutely no idea what their product will sell for when it finally gets to market?

That’s the situation farmers face. Farming is a long term proposition. You invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in tractors, combines, planters. You spend tens of thousands of dollars on seed. You invest huge amounts of money buying or renting land. Invest tens of thousands of dollars in labor to plant and tend to a crop.

And you have absolutely no idea what that crop is going to sell for because you have no control over the markets. You could have a boom year like we had a few years ago when the drought drove commodity prices up through the roof, or you could lose your shirt because prices on the commodities markets fell. You can make predictions, run models, listen to the experts, make educated guesses. But in the long run you’re depending on a market that has so many variables; weather, political climate, disease…

I miss farming, but I am glad I’m not doing it any more.

Agrimoney.com | Revival in US milk prices to continue, says Dean Foods

 

Source: Agrimoney.com | Revival in US milk prices to continue, says Dean Foods

This is one of those situations where I don’t know where they’re getting their information because what they’re saying here isn’t what I’ve been reading in the ag news.

Dean Foods seems to be trying to claim farmgate prices are going to go up significantly, that US dairy exports are robust and growing, and that the markets are giving off “buoyant signals”.

But well, no, the market is doing no such thing, and there seems to be no indication that we’re going to be seeing any kind of significant increase in farmgate prices in the US any time soon.

While milk production in NZ and the EU is trending down a bit, here in North America it has continued to rise significantly, with significant numbers of new cattle being added to milking herds and continued increases in milk production. Texas was up about 11%, Minnesota and Wisconsin were up about 2% or a little less. Overall US production is around +1.2% to +2.3%, depending on the numbers you believe, and there doesn’t seem to be any sign that’s going to stop.

As for cheese, yes, there was a blip in the cheese price last week, but that happens all the time, especially as we get closer to major holidays, and we haven’t even begun to make a dent in the truly massive amounts of cheese and butter already in storage. The USDA’s recent purchase of about $20 million in surplus cheese (if I remember the number right) didn’t even make a dent in the amount of cheese in storage. And as of this morning, cheese prices have already started to fall again, down 6 cents over the weekend.

And the statement that “foreign buyers are lapping up” US dairy products is, aside from being a horrible pun, simply not true. Exports of dairy products actually dropped 2% in September.

There is always an uptick in prices this time of year as we approach the holiday baking season. Cream, cheese and butter prices almost always begin to rise around this time of year as retailers and suppliers try to cash in on increased demand. It’s a seasonal blip that doesn’t really indicate any kind of significant improvement in the market.

Maybe Dean foods is just trying to make investors feel a bit better about the fact that Dean’s profits fell by 28% last quarter?

Rise of the robot tractors | Dairy Herd Management

Ghost in the machine. A John Deere 7930 tractor rumbles across a canola field, buggy in tow, and eases alongside a rolling combine to collect grain. Speed, distance, and timing are synced in a farming machinery version of a harvest mating dance. Except this is no ordinary two-step. The box is empty. There is no wheelman in the tractor cab.

Source: Rise of the robot tractors | Dairy Herd Management

 

I’ve been waiting for someone to do something like this for a while now. I figured it was only a matter of time before someone out there came up with a system like this.

Now there are self-drive systems out there for high-end tractors, but they’re complex and expensive. Mr. Reimer here did it for around $8,000. Granted, it certainly isn’t as complex as what is needed to make a self-driving car, but it’s still useful and pretty darned neat. His system doesn’t have collision avoidance systems, radar, video or the other things necessary for automobiles, but the tractor is only used in large fields where there is little or no danger of it hitting something. For this application it works quite well indeed.

There are self-driving tractors out there, but the option is, as I mentioned, expensive, and it’s only available on new, high-end (and expensive) tractors. A system like this could be adapted for use on just about any tractor, no matter how old.

Agrimoney.com | China’s pork imports to ease from record, as domestic output grows

The top pork consuming country will see its imports ease, a bit, next year as the boost to domestic output from high prices works through

Source: Agrimoney.com | China’s pork imports to ease from record, as domestic output grows

The agriculture industry is going to have to begin to accept the fact that in the future China is not going to be the massive importer of food that it has been in the past. Unfortunately it seems that a lot of agribusinesses in the US, South America, NZ and the EU haven’t figured that out yet. This is especially true of the dairy industry which still seems to be betting the farm on the hopes that China will return to the days when it was importing all of the milk and milk products it could get its hands on.

For years now China has been pushing hard to improve its agricultural systems. It has been investing heavily in almost every type of agriculture, from grain production, to meat, to dairy, China has been putting a great deal of money and work into improving and modernizing its farming techniques. The ultimate goal of the country is to be at least 90% self sufficient in food production within the next ten to twenty years.

Whether or not China will succeed in reaching that 90% goal I don’t know. But even if they don’t, it will still have a profound effect on world agriculture. We’ve been treating China as a guaranteed market, a buyer of massive amounts of product that will always be there to help absorb our products. But it won’t. And the effects will be profound, as they were when China abruptly cut back drastically on milk product imports. The result from that was the price of milk and milk products plummeting by almost half, and the dairy industry still hasn’t recovered from that.

There will almost certainly be a China market, but it’s almost certain to be far smaller than it has been in the past. If agribusiness can’t learn to adjust, other agricultural sectors are going to find themselves in the same situation dairy is in now.

Merger Fever

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If you follow ag news you must be aware of the high profile mergers and buyouts going on in agribusiness. After months of trying to sell itself or merge with another agribusiness company, Monsanto seems as if it is going to be snapped up by pharmaceutical giant, Bayer, so the German company can increase it’s ag presence. Bayer is already a major maker of pesticides and snapping up Monsanto would give it a significant presence in the GM seed market as well.

It is not a done deal by any means. It still has to be passed by antitrust regulators both here and in the EU. There seems to be considerable resistance to the merger in Germany and in the EU as a whole, and a lot of politicians over there have been making disapproving noises.

This isn’t the only big ag merger going on, either. Dupont and Dow Chemical are in the process of merging, with the details still a bit up in the air. Swiss company Syngenta, which Monsanto had attempted to cut a deal with earlier, is being snapped up by the China National Chemical corporation, which is owned by the Chinese government. All four of these companies are major players in the agricultural chemical industry. (ChemChina seems to be on a buying spree. Last year it bought Pirelli, the Italian tire maker)

Mergers, acquisitions, buyouts, etc. aren’t anything new, especially in the ag industry. It’s been going on for ages. And generally the results, at least for the farmers, aren’t pretty. Over the years we’ve seen virtually every small, independent co-op, feed processor, seed maker, machinery dealer and independent mechanic be bought up, forced out of business or merged into ever larger semi-monopolistic businesses. And while competition has dwindled, farmers have fewer choices of where to go to buy seed, fertilizer, feed, chemicals and equipment, prices have, of course, skyrocketed.

The problem with all of these mergers is that they don’t seem to benefit anyone except a handful of investors, lawyers and, of course, the upper management of the companies themselves. They certainly don’t benefit the consumers, that is the farmers and you, the people who buy the milk, cheese, eggs, meat, vegetables and fruit that the farmers produce.

We used to plant 30 to 40 different types of soybeans in the US. Today, 90% of all the soybeans planted in the US are a single variety, produced by Monsanto. The fact that Monsanto has a literal monopoly on soybean seed isn’t the only problem with the situation. It’s the fact that we could be facing a very serious biological crisis. If a new disease pops up that this one variety of bean is susceptible to, the entire US soybean crop could be jeopardized because of this lack of genetic diversity. These monopolies have resulted in such a lack of genetic diversity in our agricultural systems that many of them now lack the genetic diversity to be sustained if a disease strikes them.

What these companies try to do, want to do, is lock farmers into a specific “system” of agriculture. You buy a specific type of seed to plant. That plant comes along with a specific program of herbicide and pesticide control systems, also sold by the company. Farmers do it because it’s easy. Sort of one stop shopping. They get everything they need from one vendor. And generally these systems are profitable.

At least at first. What generally happens is the company starts to get greedy. After releasing the system at a relatively decent price, the company starts ratcheting the price up once farmers get hooked into it. Prices go up until farmers realize the system isn’t all that profitable any longer. But by that time, well, they have such a heavy investment in the system they can’t really get out of it any more. Besides, where else are they going to go because the company has driven all of it’s competition out of business.

Farmers who want an alternative have enormous trouble even trying to find one. These semi-monopolies claim there is still a lot of competition out there. And it’s true that there are some competitors. But not many, and even fewer who could provide large scale farmers with the quantity of seed they need at a price they can afford to pay.

U.S. Bites Into Cheese Mountain With Stockpile Purchase (1) | Agweb.com

Milk glut has pushed dairy prices to lowest levels since 2009.

Source: U.S. Bites Into Cheese Mountain With Stockpile Purchase (1) | Agweb.com

The buy by USDA will do little to improve farmgate milk prices, and in the long run might actually do more harm than good by temporarily improving wholesale prices and thus encourage even more overproduction.

It has not been a good time to be a dairy farmer almost anywhere in the world over the last year or two. A variety of factors, including wide spread drought one year and China stockpiling milk products led to a dramatic upturn in the farmgate price for milk. And for a time dairy farmers were doing pretty darn good.

Unfortunately, it seems that everyone, including a lot of people who should have known better, seemed to think that this situation was going to continue into the future, that dairy prices would remain high, and that there were massive profits to be made if they expanded production. As a result dairy operations began expanding all over the world. The EU lifted its production restrictions, farmers added cows, processors began building new production facilities. Fonterra, the world’s largest dairy co-op based in New Zealand, was investing heavily in the Chinese dairy industry because it saw massive profits were just waiting.

Well, it couldn’t last. And it didn’t.

China wasn’t buying up milk products because it really needed them. China was buying because it was first of all, getting a really, really good price. It wasn’t using the products it was buying, it was stockpiling them against future price increases. Chinese consumption of imported milk products was also being driven by a series of serious food contamination scares, including the deliberate adulteration of milk by criminals with chemicals that made the milk appear to have higher protein levels in order to get higher prices. The adulteration resulted in hundreds, even thousands of people becoming sick and some even dying. Ventures into marketing milk products in Southeast Asia were failing badly. The Chinese themselves were investing heavily in domestic milk production. China hates being dependent on imported foods for obvious reasons, and has been trying to do something about it. Western style mega-farms were starting to pop up, supported by the government. China was also cleaning house internally, launching extremely strict monitoring of food production to prevent things like the milk adulteration horror. They actually executed people for that crime.

So while China’s imports of milk products was shrinking drastically, world wide demand was flat, production continued to expand.

And milk prices plunged.

My father often said that a lot of farmers were their own worst enemy. Unfortunately he was largely correct.

He was also enormously skeptical of government price support efforts, and he was largely correct there as well. While these government programs like this cheese buy are well intentioned, in the long run they only serve to make the problem worse by temporarily propping up market prices and encouraging over production. Once the program ends, the market ends up being worse than it was before.

 

Agrimoney.com | Farmland Partners unveils $197m land purchase – and plans for more

The group takes its portfolio of US land nearly to 100,000 acres – in a deal which will provide collateral for funding for more acquisitions

Source: Agrimoney.com | Farmland Partners unveils $197m land purchase – and plans for more

I’m beginning to wonder if it’s time to start to become worried about this trend. Farmland Partners is just one of dozens of investment companies buying up enormous amounts of farmland. Not to farm it themselves, but to turn around and rent it at the highest prices they can possibly get.

Given the volatility of the stock, bond and commodities markets, and the ridiculously low interest rates being paid by banks for standard savings accounts, the desire to invest in a fairly stable and relatively profitable venture like farmland is understandable. Farmland values do fluctuate, true, but not nearly as wildly as stocks and commodities. Compared to those ventures, farmland seems a fairly safe investment.

And a potentially profitable one because the land doesn’t just sit there, it gets rented for as much as $200 – $500 an acre, depending on local demand.

But I get very nervous when I see more and more farmland being concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer owners, especially investment companies who have no vested interest in preserving the long term quality of the land, and only in making a return on investment. This practice makes it increasingly difficult for real farmers who want to get into the business to get started. Land has become so expensive in many parts of the country that it’s difficult or even impossible for a small start up farm to get off the ground without having the backing of outside investors.

Even worse, because the holding companies are going to charge the maximum rent they possibly can, those who can afford to rent the land are going to be forced to engage in the most intensive, potentially damaging, high chemical input farming techniques they can in order to maximize their own profits. This results not just in increased pollution from fertilizer, pesticide and herbicide run off, but also results in the degradation of the quality of the land and it’s fertility, causing even further reliance on intensive chemical intervention to continue to get the best yields.

Is this legal? Yeah. It is. At least in most states. Some states have restrictions on the amount of farmland that can be owned by out of state investors, but over the years those laws have been changed or even eliminated to permit companies like Farmland Partners to move in and take over. And I can understand the attraction. I own a fairly big stock portfolio, and the volatility of the market often makes me more than a little nervous. Farmland seems a far more stable, if a bit less profitable, investment for a lot of people.

While it may be legal and understandable, that doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.

Personally I feel the adverse effects of these companies; the artificial inflation of land prices, potential degradation of farmland, etc. outweighs the benefits.