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Harvest Public Media is a reporting collaboration focused on issues of food, fuel and field. Based at KCUR in Kansas City, Harvest covers these agriculture-related topics through an expanding network of reporters and partner stations throughout the Midwest.Most Harvest Public Media stories begin with radio- regular reports are aired on member stations in the Midwest. But Harvest also explores issues through online analyses, television documentaries and features, podcasts, photography, video, blogs and social networking. They are committed to the highest journalistic standards. Click here to read their ethics standards.Harvest Public Media was launched in 2010 with the support of a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Today, the collaboration is supported by CPB, the partner stations, and contributions from underwriters and individuals.Tri States Public Radio is an associate partner of Harvest Public Media. You can play an important role in helping Harvest Public Media and Tri States Public Radio improve our coverage of food, field and fuel issues by joining the Harvest Network.

Farm Income Falling, Putting the Rural Economy on Edge

Grant Gerlock/Harvest Public Media
A narrow access road cuts through seemingly endless rows of tall corn in Keith Dittrich’s field near Tilden, Neb. ";

Farmers in the Midwest are facing a situation they haven't seen in years. Grain prices are down. After some of the most lucrative growing seasons they've ever seen, some producers could lose money on this year's crop. That could slow down the rural economy.

According to forecasts from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, this corn crop is worth about $7.1 billion less than last year. Receipts for soybeans will also be down $3.4 billion. The agency is predicting the largest single-year drop in farm income since 1983.

The irony is, some farmers are looking in the field and seeing the best crop they’ve ever grown. That’s the case for Keith Dittrich and Loren Broberg, two farmers and neighbors near Tilden in northeast Nebraska.

On a recent summer morning, the two farmers took me out to check crops. We walked into one of Dittrich’s fields on a narrow road, a wall of tall, green stalks on either side. He stopped to pull back the husks on an ear of corn bursting with golden grain.

“Looks like excellent corn,” Broberg said. He guessed it would make 200 bushels per acre. A strong stand, thanks to almost perfect weather here in the Western Corn Belt.

Credit Grant Gerlock/Harvest Public Media
Keith Dittrich (left) and Loren Broberg farm in the same part of northeast Nebraska. This summer they’ve had the right amount of rain at the right time. Even though most of their fields are irrigated, they have hardly run the sprinklers.

Dittrich agreed it would be a big crop. But that doesn’t necessarily add up to big profits. “Marginal profits at best,” Dittrich said. “Most likely losses. The best crop we’ve ever raised.”

Even after growing the best crop of their careers, these Nebraska farmers will likely lose money. And that’s where the weather is good. The situation is even worse in parts of Illinois and Missouri where the weather didn’t cooperate.

Corn prices peaked in 2012. Then came some of the biggest corn crops in history. With that oversupply, prices got cut in half. Now at around $3.50/bushel, prices are still good by historical standards, except Loren Broberg says, things like seed, fertilizer, pesticides, and even land cost a lot more.

“Our input costs tended to really accelerate in the last two or three years when we had higher commodity prices. It seems like we have a hard time to get those input costs to come down,” Broberg said.

Combine those higher costs with lower prices and the result is the kind of drop in farm income being predicted by the USDA. As a result, many farmers are leaning on lenders to get by.

“Going through 2014, we did see loan demand picking up at that time, but it's continued to rise,” said Nate Kauffman an economist at the Omaha branch of the Kansas City Federal Reserve. Fed surveys show farmers are taking out more loans, and larger loans. New and young farmers tend to be deepest in debt.

“So it does kind of raise the level of concern among lenders as they're looking at a sector that has been performing very well, but being cautious about what that means going forward,” Kauffman said.

At the same time farmers are spending less, especially on big ticket items like tractors and combines. That’s why machinery makers like John Deere and Case New Holland are taking the biggest hit in the farm economy today. They’ve cut hundreds of jobs at factories in states like Iowa, Illinois, and Nebraska.

But sales are not falling across the board.

“Anything that involves livestock, members that I talk to tell me that they're doing extremely well and their supply of back orders is good at this point,” said Vernon Schmidt of the Farm Equipment Manufacturers Association.

Crop farmers may be feeling the pain but livestock producers, especially cattle ranchers, are doing well.

That’s one sign that just because the market for row crops is down, doesn’t mean it’s time to panic. There’s still a lot working in farmers’ favor.

Oil prices and interest rates are both still unusually low. Land values are down, but not plummeting. And even though China’s economy has slowed down, it’s still a huge customer for U.S. corn. Nate Kauffman at the Federal Reserve says any potential crisis is still a ways off.

“Coming off of the level of income that we saw 2010 to 2013, it would take more than just one or even two years to think that we're at a point where that sector is starting to face some long term problems.” Kauffman said.

Corn prices could turn on a dime if a weather disaster hit farmers in South America. But for now farmers will take to their fields to haul in the harvest, even if they lose money on every bushel.

Harvest Public Media's reporter at NET News, where he started as Morning Edition host in 2008. He joined Harvest Public Media in July 2012. Grant has visited coal plants, dairy farms, horse tracks and hospitals to cover a variety of stories. Before going to Nebraska, Grant studied mass communication as a grad student at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and completed his undergrad at Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa. He grew up on a farm in southwestern Iowa where he listened to public radio in the tractor, but has taken up city life in Lincoln, Neb.