The heavy rains and storms that have devastated much of the Midwest may have one unlikely beneficiary: Minnesota corn farmers.
In pockets of Iowa, Indiana and Illinois, monsoon-like rains have washed out newly planted fields and delayed the planting of millions of acres. But the devastation has also pushed corn to its highest price ever -- and that's been unmitigated good news for farmers in Minnesota, which has thus far largely escaped the crop damage to the south.
Corn futures for December delivery hit $7.915 a bushel in Monday trading on the Chicago Board of Trade, nearly double the price of a year ago.
The high prices -- driven by flooding, surging exports and increased demand for corn from ethanol producers -- has farmers raking in record revenue for all kinds of crops, including soybeans and wheat. For the time being, their windfall has overshadowed the plight of hog and poultry producers, many of whom are losing money because soaring corn prices are pushing up the cost of feed.
"I don't hear a lot of grumbling from farmers like I have in the past," Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Gene Hugoson said in an interview Monday. "With these higher prices, they're optimistic they can pay down some debt and purchase new equipment. ... It's really changed their outlook."
But a lot could happen between now and harvest time that might turn this fortune around. The high price of corn has already compelled some large ethanol producers to scale back expansion plans, and livestock and hog producers likely will cull the size of their herds if feed prices remain high, agriculture analysts said. And while reports of flooded Midwest cornfields has fueled trading in crop futures, floodwaters are receding and drier weather is expected to dominate the rest of the week. That could give farmers a chance to replant.
Whether they can remains uncertain. Dave Swenson, an economist at Iowa State University, said he just took a 350-mile drive through central Iowa to see the crop damage firsthand. "I saw farmers standing in the middle of fields that were totally ruined," he said. "No corn is going to come out of that land."
Darren Newsom, analyst with DTN, an Omaha company that tracks commodities prices, says the current flooding is worse than the devastating 1993 floods because it's wider spread and not just confined to river areas. His computer models show corn could reach $15 or $16 a bushel.
Nationwide, about 57 percent of the corn crop was in good or excellent condition as of Sunday, down from 60 percent a week earlier, and 70 percent a year earlier, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said in a Monday report. About 12 percent of the crop was in poor or very poor condition, up from 9 percent a week earlier and 8 percent last year. "It's unusual to see a crop stressed this early in the year," said Michael Swanson, a senior agricultural economist at Wells Fargo. He noted crop conditions often worsen later in the summer due to the heat.
Less than half of Iowa's corn crop -- 49 percent -- was good or excellent and 15 percent was rated poor or very poor.
But so far, Minnesota corn farmers have fared relatively well. About 63 percent of the state's corn crop is rated good or excellent; among Midwestern states, only Nebraska, Michigan and South Dakota have higher crop ratings. What's more, about 99 percent of Minnesota's corn crop is already planted, compared with 95 percent nationwide.
Many of this state's farmers are trying to jump on the high prices through so-called "forward contracts," which lock in future sales at current prices. "When I sold at $5 [in February], I never thought I'd see this again in my lifetime," said Jim Nichols, a farmer from Lake Benton and a former state agriculture commissioner. "Now, it's $7 a bushel. Corn looks very beautiful right now."
However, Nichols is worried about the ethanol producers that buy his corn and turn it into fuel. One of his buyers, VeraSun Energy Corp., the second-largest U.S. ethanol producer by capacity, said Monday it is delaying the opening of two plants because of high corn prices. The company planned to open ethanol refineries in Welcome, Minn., and Hartley, Iowa, each with a capacity to produce 110 million gallons.
Some publicly traded ethanol companies have lost two-thirds of their stock value over the past year. VeraSun has plunged 62 percent since October.
"There are winners, and there are losers, and as farmers, we've got to worry about the losers, too," Nichols said. "A lot of my customers are ethanol plants and a lot of those are farmer-owned. We don't want to see them suffer."
Indeed, corn farmers' big gains are generating pain for another group: hog farmers. Corn is the primary diet for pigs, and there is already concern that many pork producers in southwestern Minnesota may be forced to shrink or shut down unless corn prices return to normal. Recently, some farmers have been urging each other to reduce the size of their sow herds, a move that would eventually tighten supplies and bring up pork prices.
Duane Behrens, a hog farmer in Fairmont, said he stockpiled enough of last year's corn crop to feed his hogs through July. But then, he has to buy corn from nearby elevators at market prices. If corn prices stay at $7 to $8 a bushel, Behrens estimates he'll lose up to $25 to $30 for every one of his hogs. Given that he sells 4,000 hogs a month, the losses could top $100,000 a month.
Behrens said he's now debating whether to buy all his corn now -- even at these high prices -- because he's concerned that flooding may send prices even higher. "It's just about all we talk about around here," Behrens said of the high prices. "We can pay these higher corn prices. But the question becomes, how long will your lender go along with it?"
Chris Serres • 612-673-4308