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Published February 17, 2014, 10:02 AM

High prices for corn may come to an end

WINDOM, Minn. — Corn farmers in the Upper Midwest have seen record profits in the past three years. But those good times appear to be over. The huge harvest last fall caused corn prices to tumble by nearly half from more than $7 per bushel.

By: Mark Steil, Minnesota Public Radio News

WINDOM, Minn. — Corn farmers in the Upper Midwest have seen record profits in the past three years. But those good times appear to be over.

The huge harvest last fall caused corn prices to tumble by nearly half from more than $7 per bushel.

That likely means lower profits this year for most crop farmers, says Mike Boehlje, a professor of agricultural economics at Purdue University.

“We don’t think we can continue to have the prosperity and the boom cycle that we’ve got,” Boehlje says.

But the past few years will make for sweet memories when corn farmers recall their glory days in the decades ahead.

Michael Wojahn, a farmer in southwest Minnesota who scraped and struggled for most of his life to keep ahead of debt is on solid financial ground for the first time.

“The pressure’s off,” Wojahn says.

For corn farmers, the pressure release valve opened when corn prices reached $8 a bushel, bringing them more than double what it took to grow the grain in some years.

Other crops, such as soybeans and wheat, also have had some very profitable years.

Wojahn, 60, says the boom years have paid for his retirement.

“It really wasn’t only until about the last five years that I could say that I was comfortable enough to feel good about an easy retirement,” he says. “Up until then, I was still wondering, how long am I going to have to farm to keep living?”

A University of Minnesota survey of more than 1,300 crop farmers shows just how good it’s been. For the three years from 2010 to 2012, their annual median net farm income was an average of about $188,000 per farm.

Data for 2013 isn’t available yet, but corn prices were good for much of the year.

Although the good times are ending, farmers enjoyed quite a run.

Boehlje says there have been only three other periods of sustained high profits in farming in the past century. Both world wars saw economic prosperity in agriculture. The 1970s also saw high farm incomes.

But, every cycle eventually ended, sometimes with a farm bust. That happened in the 1920’s, when depressed crop prices extended into the Great Depression.

The good times of the 1970s ended with a bust in land prices and the farm crisis of the 1980s.

Still, Boehlje thinks there’s a good chance the current boom will end without many farmers going out of business. If current assessments prove accurate, he says, soft economic landing is the most probable outcome.

“Soft landing doesn’t mean that you don’t have some financial challenges,” Boehlje says.

Indeed, the U.S. Department of Agriculture projects a decline of about 20 percent in net farm income in 2015 and 2016.

Although such a drop hurt farmers’ balance sheets, Boehlje says it should be manageable for most operations. Land prices could decline 15 percent or so. But no one is expecting what happened in the 1980s, when values declined by half, forcing many farmers out of business.

Boehlje says farmers also have kept their borrowing under control, reducing the risk of going under.

“We have continued to increase the amount of debt we use in agriculture since 2010, 2011. But it’s increasing only modestly,” he says.

Total farm debt in the past four years has risen about 16 percent, according to USDA. That’s much lower than the 50 percent debt increase seen in the 1970s.

What might be the biggest plus for farmers is the demand for corn, which comes from two primary sources, Citigroup Global Markets commodities analyst Aakash Doshi says.

“You still have an ethanol economy in the U.S. that leads to a pull on corn demand of roughly 40 percent of the annual crop,” Doshi says. “The second is that U.S. exports are remaining a cheap source for global consumers.”

About half the U.S. corn crop is used for ethanol or exported. But even with that demand, about $4.40 per bushel, corn prices are below the cost of production for most farmers. So it remains to be seen whether demand will be strong enough to boost prices back above break-even.

Wojahn says he can still make money on corn, largely because he has little debt. He says paying off loans is part of his long-term strategy of using the financial windfall of high profit years as protection against downturns.

“You can’t live year to year, you have to live decade to decade,” Wojahn says.

He and other farmers who think that way hope their philosophy will get them through the current run of low corn prices — however long it lasts.