U.S. farmers take a gamble with belt-tightening as incomes slide

CHICAGO — Bracing for their leanest season in eight years, U.S. farmers are skimping on everything from machinery to fertilizers, betting that they can go down-market and yet maintain crop production and quality.

The belt-tightening has already squeezed sales of suppliers and farming experts warn the gamble can backfire: less robust crop protection and less resilient seeds combined with some rough weather could hurt crops this year and beyond.

Jon Sparks, who farms 1,400 acres in eastern Indiana, is scrambling to cut costs wherever he can: buying cheaper seeds, using less fertilizer and hoping his farm equipment will not break down this year.

Sparks is not alone as farmers nationwide are scrutinizing every expense. After four years of bumper crops and earnings, grain prices are plummeting and the U.S. Department of Agriculture forecasts this growing season to be the least profitable since 2007.

Across the nation’s Midwestern corn belt, new farm equipment sales are down, seed salesmen from Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer talk of a slump in business and fertilizer suppliers Mosaic and PotashCorp are reporting lower sales volumes for some products.

How such cutbacks, which have intensified since last autumn’s record harvest, will affect grain production is not yet clear, but the risks are considerable.

Right now, weather forecasts are largely favourable for U.S. grains this summer.

Yet as any forecasts, they come with a degree of uncertainty. If the weather turns foul, say agronomists, corn and soybean yields could drop 20 percent or more if growers skip disease or insect treatments to save money.

The United States is the world’s top soybeans and corn producer and a major exporter, so any dent in output would ripple through global markets. It could also hurt U.S. cattle and hog producers, who use corn and soybeans as feed.

“Whether it is new equipment, fertilizer or other inputs such as fungicide, growers are reevaluating every one of those decisions this year, probably at a higher level than they have in the past,” Tom Eickhoff, corn agronomic systems lead for Monsanto, one of the biggest seed makers, told Reuters.

It is too early to gauge how deep the farm spending cuts are, but the squeeze to suppliers’ profits and sales gives some sense of the scale of the belt-tightening.

Deere & Co., the world’s largest farm equipment maker, reported a 43 percent drop in profit in its first quarter to Jan. 31 and has already laid off 1,500 plant workers in Iowa, Illinois and Kansas, and furloughed another 500.

New equipment is “a convenience more than a necessity right now,” said Sparks.

Other cuts involve some risk taking. Sparks is planting corn seed without genetic resistance to rootworms in some of his fields this year because they lie outside the “hot zone” for the pest the USDA estimates causes US$800 million of losses each year.

Monsanto last week reported a 10 percent drop in seed sales in its second quarter to Feb. 28, with corn seed sales, its biggest revenue generator, down 15 percent.

A March 31 USDA report confirmed that U.S. farmers are planning to devote the least acres to corn in five years this season, switching to cheaper soybeans that require less fertilizer.

Meanwhile, more farmers than usual are passing on Monsanto’s newly launched, and most expensive, corn hybrids in favour of slightly older and cheaper ones, the company said.

In response, the biotech giant is cutting its seed production plans. Company officials told Reuters their contracted farmers will plant less seed corn this summer for use in the 2016 season, but declined to discuss the matter in detail.

DuPont Pioneer, which reports quarterly results later this month, said the shift away from corn planting is hurting demand for some of its bug-battling hybrids, but offered no further details on seed sales.

Choices made today will affect farmers until next season as they are trying to strike a balance between costs and crop quality and protection.

Planting a less resilient seed or too much of a single variety can amplify crop losses if there is a spell of poor weather, or an insect or disease outbreak. Skimping on fertilizer saves money, but also can reduce crop yields.

Still, Brian Duncan, who farms in Polo, Illinois, said he will forego spraying his corn crop with fungicide and supplemental insecticide.

Instead, he will rely on the built-in bug protection in his biotech corn seed, bought from a single company to get a bulk discount. If applied on all of the corn fields of his 3,900 acre farm, the strategy could save him as much as $35 an acre, or up to $123,000.

Many shun the new and embrace the old.

Southwest Indiana farmer Don Villwock is putting off a trial of DuPont Pioneer’s latest data-science advisory service this season, a $12-an-acre subscription, and will instead rely on his local agronomist for guidance, paying $8 an acre.

He is also tuning up his three-year-old corn planter instead of trading it in for a new one. Villwock also skipped a trip to the annual Louisville Farm Show showcasing shiny new machinery for the first time in a decade.

“I figured it’s best not to be tempted so I stayed home.”

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