Nebraska Land Manager

It’s no secret to farmers and landowners that current farm economics are tough. Profit margins are tight this growing season, and myriad reports corroborate this fact. From 2011-14, US farm income experienced a golden period, driven by good commodity prices and strong exports.

Now, according to the Congressional Research Service’s 2016 Farm Income Outlook, it is projected that exports are set to be 6 percent lower from 2015 and well below 2014’s record $152.5 billion, a fact attributed to a strengthening US dollar and weakening economies in several major foreign import countries, including China.

The report also found that national net farm income is also projected to be down—$54.8 billion in 2016—a 3 percent decline from last year. This means that US farm incomes, a key indicator of US farm well-being, will be the lowest since 2002, and is the third year in a row that farms have experienced a decline.

As Nebraska farmers and landowners can attest, land values comprise a significant portion of a farm’s asset base. As such, a change in farmland values is an important gauge of a farm’s finances. Naturally, lower farm incomes mean lower land values, and in this way, the report found that overall farm wealth is likewise set to decline for the second straight year, about 2 percent from 2015.

In this way, reports have found that farmland values of both non-irrigated and irrigated cropland decreased 4 and 2 percent respectively, from 2015. It is expected that cash rents, too, will decrease in 2016, this according to the University of Illinois’ Gary Schnitkey

“However,” Schnitkey says, “projected rent decreases are not large enough to cause farmers to have positive returns in 2016 given current projections of commodity prices and costs. The lagged relationship between returns and cash rents still exists.”

While the outlook is most certainly a pessimistic one, there is always a small silver lining—a mild decline of 3 percent in farm cash expenses in 2016 is expected. Government payments from the 2014 farm bill in the form of revenue support programs are also expected to trigger payments upwards of $9 billion in 2016.

Overall, though, farmers are resilient. Paul Pittman, CEO of Farmland Partners Inc. says that, as tight as things are getting, “Farmers won’t see the same kind of economic crisis they did in the 1980s.” After years of high prices, and only very slight increases in interest rates, most farms in the US are in better financial shape in which to weather the storm.

In summary, the reasons for the tough times are many—production outpacing consumption, a strong US dollar’s effects on exports, lower commodity prices, and a drop in land values—but all boil down to the fundamentals of supply and demand. In a world with a growing population, people must eat, and farmers optimistically hope to weather through this storm until the scale tips in their favor once again.  The recent uptick in soybean prices is a positive sign and corn is trending upward as well.  The summer weather is the wildcard that no one can predict for sure.

Sources consulted:  Bjerga, Alan. “The Crop Surplus is Bad News for America’s Farms.” Bloomberg.com. Bloomberg. 11 Jan. 2016. Web. 23 May 2016.  Schnepf, Randy. “US Farm Income Outlook for 2016.” Fas.org. Congressional Research Service. 16 Feb. 2016. Web. 23 May 2016. Wright, Kevin. “Tightening in the Ag Belt.” KansasCityFed.org. Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. Spring 2016. Web. 23 May 2016.