Boom and Bust Final Thoughts

This is the last in a series of thoughts I had concerning our farm’s history and future as I read a paper released by the Kansas City Fed. You can read part 1 here and part 2 here.

Our friends at the K.C. Fed wind up their paper saying we’re in good shape as long as interest rates stay low, China keeps importing grain and we keep producing ethanol. Well, that’s reassuring. The Fed paper admits that, as before, interest rates are low so land prices are on the rise and cash rents are not keeping pace. So borrowing costs are low and returns are diminishing. Rising interest rates could be a real issue. From their paper:

Higher interest rates could have two distinct impacts on U.S. agriculture (Henderson and Briggeman). Rising interest rates may place upward pressure on the dollar, which could indirectly trim U.S. agricultural exports, farm profits, and farmland prices. In addition, higher interest rates also boost the capitalization rate, which weighs further on farmland prices. The impacts are compounded in highly leveraged environments when higher interest rates raise debt service burdens, as the 1920s and 1980s demonstrated.

However, they believe farmers are borrowing more responsibly now than they did in the ’70’s.

Unlike the 1970s, farmers today have been more restrained in their capital investments. To be sure, capital expenditures have risen sharply, but they have increased at roughly the same rate as farm profits.

But that level of profitability may have something to do with the fact that land rents aren’t keeping pace, not to mention all-time high prices for crops. When rents catch up or prices fall…who knows.

A little later in the fed paper (emphasis mine):

For more than a century, farm prosperity has shifted with U.S. agricultural exports. Surging exports spurred rising farm incomes, while plummeting export activity weighed heavily on farm incomes. In addition, leverage shaped fluctuations in agricultural land values. Low interest rates contributed to booming farmland prices and the accumulation of debt as farmers expanded investments in land, machinery, and equipment. Rising leverage, however, contributed to the farm busts of the 1920s and 1980s as farmers were unable to service their mounting debt. In short, if exports remain strong and leverage remains low, this cycle could be different.

Oh. It could be. This could be the cycle that never ends. Glory be! But what if this cycle is different…in that it is worse? From Corn and Bean Digest:

The current great super cycle is a triple whammy, impacting oil, metals and agriculture. It has now lasted for a decade, which is 2.5 times longer than any previous super cycle. Technology, innovation, large farms and agricultural audiences are the matters of the day. Land values have skyrocketed, particularly since 2007 and 2008, and while 260 million Americans in suburban and urban households have seen a decline of their income from $54,000 to $47,000, 60 million people in rural America have experienced profits and wealth accumulation.

And to counter the Fed’s notion that farmers have learned from the lessons of the 1970’s I offer this counterpoint from Deltafarmpress.com. Though the author thinks farmers will be bailed out by the government, hard times are going to come…sooner or later and he dares to include a timeline (emphasis mine).

Farming, whether we want to accept it or not, moves in cycles. Big periods of high income are almost always followed by some big periods of low incomes or losses. I think that’s where we’re headed. Incomewise, I think we should all buckle our seatbelts for some rough times financially over the next three to five years. Grain prices are deflating – not inflating. High prices choke off world demand and it takes years to build it back.

My prediction is that more than half of the farms in the U.S. will have negative income in 2014 and 2015. Farmland prices will soften – but not drop sharply. A 10 percent to 15 percent correction could easily occur as farmers quit buying and outside investor money steps in to help support the market. The majority of farmers have upgraded all of their equipment lines in the last five years. Many have enough equipment to farm two to three times what they are already farming.

Click Image for source.

I work in the world of software development. One philosophical issue developers face (yes, philosophical) is not just how to solve the problem but determining if the problem should be solved at all. We often simply write applications that make it easy for people to do things they shouldn’t be doing in the first place. Imagine a developer or project manager stepping into the SDLC to laugh and say, “Sure, boss. We could do that. Buy it’s a stupid thing to do.” (The developer would be asked to leave. The company would continue spinning its wheels.)

Clink image for source

The problem, for example, is not the lack of software to schedule meetings. The problem is the meeting itself! It wastes an hour or two of everyone’s time when no decisions are made and a memo would have done the job. Farmers do the same thing. We buy bigger and bigger equipment so we can more efficiently do whatever we are doing without stopping to ask why we are doing it! The time will come when the man behind the curtain has a heart attack and the illusion fades. Cows can just eat grass. Corn is not an efficient source of ethanol. Chicken is the most expensive meat source. What happens to John Deere when farmers realize their equipment needs are more than covered and realized profits are better than write-offs?

Farm Credit Services of America weighs into this issue by saying farmers should know their land costs per acre. And that’s an important point. A farmer who bought land in 1988 for $500/acre is sitting on a lot of equity right now compared to a farmer who bought in 2005 for $4,000/acre. The deck is stacked against new farmers carrying a lot of debt and a high per-acre land cost. I am particularly amused by the Farm Credit Services of America article because it seems so optomistic.

Here is a northern Iowa example to illustrate how the caps are derived:

  • Assume a 200-bushel-per-acre corn yield and a $4.50 per-bushel price. That’s $900 per acre in gross revenue.
  • Estimate operating costs based on the benchmark Iowa State University variable and fixed-cost budgets.
  • Assume a 3.5% capitalization rate, or return on investment in land.

With these assumptions, we see a return to real estate of $320-$350 per acre. Applying the 3.5% capitalization rate, the sustainable market value of the land would be $9,000 per acre. We would lend up to 65% of that, or $5,900 per acre.

Go ahead and question that $4.50 per-bushel price and see what happens to the numbers above. BTW, the annual average price for corn has only gone above $3.83 four times…all in the last 6 years. Also as you read the above remember what Hughes said earlier about land in trusts not being well cared for. No user owns it. Nobody cares. That government agency (Farm Credit Services) is not loaning out its own money. It is loaning out your money. What do they stand to lose if farmers go broke? Farmers have gone broke over at least two cycles since they were created and it hasn’t mattered a bit to the agency. There are no consequences for advising financial ruin. They are in business to loan money without worrying about the human costs. Here’s a quote on the creation of that agency:

The Federal Farm Loan Act enacted on July 17, 1916, answered agricultural producers’ demand for credit to finance land and farm machinery purchases which had increased in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as America’s agriculture became more commercialized to meet growing domestic and foreign food demand. Private lenders at the turn of the century proved increasingly inadequate to meet these needs for financing. Slowly, a consensus emerged in Congress that the Federal Government should develop facilities for providing farm mortgage credit to assist farmers and ranchers in purchasing land on affordable terms.

Private lenders were afraid to risk their money so farmers asked the government to do something about it. Again, this was still at the peak of agricultural prosperity in our nation – the lauded Golden Age of Agriculture – and somehow farmers still needed more credit! So they asked the government to give them affordable terms and they got affordable terms…and got them good and hard (apologies to Mencken). You know, the kind of terms that displaced farmers in the depression. And again in the 1980’s. But it’s not that simple, it also led to copious amounts of additional legislation and the ridiculous notion of price parity!

But I digress.

I don’t think we have reached a point of permanent agricultural prosperity. Interest rates are low. They have been low before. China is buying a lot of beans…but Russia used to buy a lot of wheat. Farmland prices are at an all-time high. Grain profits are near an all-time high. But we have seen highs before. We export a lot of soybeans but Brazil, in a normal year, exports more soy than we do. And what happens if John Deere equipment sales fall by 70%? Are farms at the 1999 price point of NASDAQ? I don’t know. I am looking to minimize my own farm’s debt load and am working to minimize the debt required by the next generation. Whatever price the government sets on money, I have to repay it. However attractive I think the land across the fence looks, I am liable. It’s on me.

Not only do I need to keep my day job, I need to focus on lowering production costs and maximizing the utility of my farm as we work off our loans. At the very least I want to hold on to the farm for the next generation. Better yet, I should store up a war chest should I have the opportunity to accumulate resources at a discount. As should my neighbors. As should you! Sometimes things happen. Isn’t it better to survive the hard times (or even expand) than to be crushed? And hard times always come.

A longtime reader, SailorsSmallFarm, has often suggested that I read “The Farming Ladder” and I am finally getting around to it today. I am sorry it took me so long. Early in the book Henderson was discussing the deplorable condition of the farm he was preparing to purchase,

…in view of the unparalleled prosperity agriculture had enjoyed during the Great War and two years after it, which left the farms and farmers poor in everything except money. It was very certain that on this farm far more had been taken out than had been put in.

Chew on that for a minute before I finish up. We are at a point where prices for everything involved are higher than they have ever been. Farmers face a strong incentive to capitalize on the current opportunity by exporting everything from nutrients to livestock to scrap iron. I think it’s a good idea to build up a war chest of cash for later deployment. Also a war chest of soil organic matter. And a war chest of soil fertility. And a war chest of high-quality genetics. Plow those profits back into farm assets, not cool, new tractors! Cash for cash’s sake is not worth having. If you don’t have a plan for your resources you won’t hold on to them. And believe me, if you become comfortable with a high income ($4 corn) you will find a lower income to be incredibly uncomfortable ($2 corn).

I think the Fed paper is far too optimistic. The government will certainly provide assistance to farmers but if profits have been at record highs for the last decade why should they need my money? Will they squander that prosperity buying new trucks, 4WD tractors or land at ridiculous prices? I don’t know. But maybe we should anticipate their coming failure. Maybe we should start planning auctions and to put those assets in the hands of capable entrepreneurs at reasonable prices. Pick up the broken pieces and move on. That sounds better than taking taxpayer money to pay for the mistakes of the once high-income few who didn’t plan for a rainy day.

Maybe this advice is more for me than it is for you. But maybe you will appreciate it too. Don’t worry about land prices and don’t worry what the other guy is or isn’t doing. Get your own house in order. Be productive. Focus on keeping costs low and improving fertility. Minimize debt. Realize profits and take that money off the table cause hard times are coming. You’ll regret it if you don’t have a plan. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But soon and for the rest of your life.

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6 thoughts on “Boom and Bust Final Thoughts

  1. Great information. You write about farms with grain commodities to sell. Am I being too naive to think a farm that is diversified; selling grain, pork, cattle, and others; would be better off?

    • One thing I read over and over in book after book: long-term farmers are not gamblers. They don’t just bet it all on one roll of the dice. Grandpa had cattle, hogs, grain, equipment sales, fertilizer sales…diversification. Insulation. And he was always plowing profits back into future growth.

      I am devouring The Farming Ladder right now. Early on he says they will devote £50 to each of four livestock operations, only growing each as the profits from that operation allow growth. That means they are not tempted to over-invest in a bubble.

  2. STUN method – that’s what I use for houseplants, and I had no idea it had a name, lol.

    I am so glad you’ve dug into the Farming Ladder. Knew it would be up your alley. This has been a great series, very thought provoking. We’ve been away Down Under, hence my unusual silence :).

    Your observations here make me think of the fragility of New Zealand’s situation; agriculture, dairy specifically (not sheep) is their primary industry, and yet they are at the mercy of export markets and shipping over long distances. How can they change this situation? I have no idea. Here in Canada, there is a slow grumble that began a few months ago – the Prairies had a bumper crop of grain last fall, and most of it is still sitting in the bins all over Saskatchewan and Alberta. Why? I’m hearing blame on the government (for disbanding the marketing board a couple of years ago), on the railway companies for refusing to contract for shipments, but nowhere am I hearing the obvious – there’s no demand. It was a good crop lots of places last year. No one needs to buy the grain. That’s commodity farming. Boom and bust, like you said.

    • Garet Garrett wrote a book called Satan’s Bushel. Production is great until it’s not. At some point the straw breaks the camel’s back. That extra bushel every farmer got off of every acre this year crushes the market. Bumper crop, horrible prices. Logsdon has quite a bit to say about that too.

      I’m so glad you commented. Four hours ago I told Julie I was going to send a search party for you. For real.

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