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Published January 02, 2009, 12:00 AM

Ag in ’08

The new year can’t come soon enough for some North Dakota farmers and ranchers, if only to get a mental break from a 2008 roller coaster ride that ended with falling prices all around. “There were some challenges,” said Jay Nissen, a Larimore, N.D., farmer who grows corn as his No. 1 crop. “But during the winter, we tend to forget about all the troubles.”

By: Dave Kolpack, The Jamestown Sun

The Associated Press

FARGO — The new year can’t come soon enough for some North Dakota farmers and ranchers, if only to get a mental break from a 2008 roller coaster ride that ended with falling prices all around.

“There were some challenges,” said Jay Nissen, a Larimore, N.D., farmer who grows corn as his No. 1 crop. “But during the winter, we tend to forget about all the troubles.”

It was another banner year for growing corn in North Dakota. Federal Agriculture Department estimates show farmers produced more bushels of corn than spring wheat for the second straight year. The USDA says the state’s corn crop should come in at 269 million bushels, while wheat is estimated at 224 million bushels.

Nissen said many young farmers see corn as the key to their long-term success, especially with increased interest throughout the country in ethanol. He has invested in more equipment for corn in the last few years.

“You know, 10 years ago, it was hard to imagine that corn would be this big,” Nissen said. “In the last five years, it seems like the momentum has been with us.”

But 2008 closed with plenty of uncertainty to go around. Corn farmers watched prices plummet 60 percent from a summer peak, to $4.20 per bushel in December. Observers are hoping it will lead to more consistency in prices that will boost the ethanol market.

A number of ethanol plants were either closed or put on hold after corn prices skyrocketed early in the year. The average profits on a gallon of ethanol fell from 31 cents in the summer to 3 cents in November, Iowa State University researchers said.

“I think what we’re seeing right now is some growing pains,” said Jeff Enger, a Marion farmer who is the chairman of the North Dakota Corn Utilization Council. “But the ethanol industry is here to stay and corn farmers have made the commitment to support it.”

Enger and others believe speculators drove up the price of corn during the summer.

“I think that showed when corn went to 6 and 7 and 8 dollars a bushel,” Enger said. “I think the investor has been taken out of it and the fundamentals are going to take over now.”

While corn farmers enjoyed record yields, they were forced to leave some of the crop in the field after bad weather pushed back their harvest. Some areas saw record moisture in the fall and heavy snow in December ended the work.

“This was one of the most difficult harvests anybody who is currently in production agriculture can remember,” Nissen said. “It was a battle of the elements to get the crop.”

It also was a volatile year for cattle producers, who witnessed a sudden collapse in the market when the recession deepened. Experts said consumers were buying less expensive cuts of beef like hamburger and chuck.

“As we started out the year, I think there was a lot of optimism and hope,” said Wade Moser, outgoing executive vice president of the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association. “All of a sudden when the economy went in the tubes, it drug us all down.

“It wasn’t as bad as some of the grain markets, but it was a disappointing ending,” he said.

The good news, Moser said, is that beef exports were getting stronger at year’s end, with Korea and Japan leading the way. A full year of access to Korean markets is expected to increase beef imports by more than 25 percent, experts said.

Even so, the pressure to make a profit is increasing, Moser said.

“We continue to see numbers (of producers) drop all across agriculture,” he said. “But the ones who are still here are top-notch producers. They are feeding the world, and they should be proud of that.”

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