In 2017 Extension Economists from across the South worked on a major producer education effort that resulted in a book titled Surviving the Farm Economy Downturn. The 1980s is second only to the Great Depression in terms of really bad financial outcomes for agricultural producers in the United States. In the 1980s, the sustained decline in farm incomes and corresponding drop in land values triggered a large number of loan defaults leading to a significant number of farm bankruptcies. The chapter I worked on was titled “Are We Headed Toward Another Farm Financial Crisis as Severe as the 1980s?” The chapter evaluated six of the variables often cited as contributing in some way to the 1980s downturn such as high interest and exchange rates, collapsing land values, and rising debt to asset ratios. At that time the conclusion was that while the late 2016-2017 period had a few caution signs, only the strong exchange rate was similar to the 1980s and that U.S. agriculture was not going into another major downturn.
The Federal Reserve recently increased interest rates by one-half point with strong signals that more increases are on the way. This triggered my thinking about what happens when our current near record crop prices decline to their new normal along with inputs prices that are sticky on the way down. According to USDA survey data, U.S. agricultural producers, on average, have relatively low debt and many are in quite strong cash flow positions. Low debt makes farmers much less vulnerable to a collapse in land values. But, I think the biggest reason the U.S. won’t see a crisis like the 1980s again is the federal crop insurance program. Crop insurance had very low participation during the 1980s with less than 50 million acres covered generally at low levels of buy-up on yield policies (Figure 1). Over time, a lot of innovation has occurred in crop insurance policies. Now, around 225 million acres are covered generally by revenue insurance policies bought up to at least the 70 percent coverage level. With virtually all cropland covered by some type of policy, significant within year price declines will be covered by revenue insurance. Due to this, there wouldn’t be the tremendous pressure on farm incomes contributing to lower land values and increased loan defaults. What about a sustained price decline scenario? That is where crop insurance coupled with price loss coverage provides significant protection.
Figure 1. Planted Acres for Major Crops in Crop Insurance, 1981-2021.
While questions about market power in the meatpacking sector have been around for well over 100 years, the spike in retail beef prices following the fire at the Tyson facility in Holcomb, Kansas, in August 2019, and the COVID-19 outbreak in early 2020, brought about a renewed focus on the issue. In response to concerns in the countryside, several legislators offered policy solutions, with the bulk focused primarily on enhancing transparency and increasing negotiated trade volumes in fed cattle markets.
With a number of legislative proposals floating around and with the Livestock Mandatory Reporting Act set to expire in September 2020, the bi-partisan leadership of the House Agriculture Committee asked the Agricultural & Food Policy Center (AFPC) at Texas A&M University to evaluate a number of issues in the cattle markets. Given the sensitivity and regional nature of the topic, we chose to partner with several respected livestock economists from across the country. That work ultimately culminated in the release of a book in October 2021 that cautioned against many of the proposed changes, warning that proposals to mandate a minimum amount of negotiated purchases could ultimately reduce prices to cattle producers.
Following the release of that book, Senators Grassley (R-IA), Fischer (R-NE), Tester (D-MT), and Wyden (D-OR) released a compromise bill – the Cattle Price Discovery and Transparency Act of 2021 (S. 3229) – that would, among other things, require the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture to establish a regional mandatory minimum threshold for the percentage of cattle purchased under negotiated grid or negotiated pricing terms. Senator John Boozman, Ranking Member, Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry asked AFPC to evaluate the bill. Our January 2022 report found that an additional 6 million head would have to be purchased via negotiation from 2022 to 2026, with the burden (and cost) falling largely on the Southern Plains.
In April 2022, Senators Fischer (R-NE), Grassley (R-IA), Tester (D-MT), and Wyden (D-OR) released an updated version of their bill – the Cattle Price Discovery and Transparency Act of 2022 (S. 4030). Senator Boozman again asked AFPC to weigh in on the updated bill. Our latest report, released last Friday, found that the number of head impacted by the updated bill would likely be lower than in S. 3229, but we cautioned that the updated bill gives so much discretion to the Secretary that it was virtually impossible to assess the expected costs to the cattle industry. When taking all of the uncertainty into account, we noted that it was conceivable that the estimated cost of the latest bill could far exceed earlier estimates.
Last week, a group of livestock economists – all of whom were involved in drafting the book noted above – independently released a report noting there is “no research evidence of any significant or persistent fed cattle price discovery problem at this time” and that proposed legislation would impose “many millions of dollars of additional cost, added risk, and lost value” that would result in “lower feeder cattle prices and higher consumer beef prices.” Over the course of the past two years, that is a consistent message we’ve heard from every economist we’ve consulted.
Often in agricultural policy we find that well intentioned policies designed to solve a problem often have unintended consequences. A good example of this is the U.S. ethanol industry.
Since the 1970s the U.S. government has implemented a variety of policies aimed at increasing the use of gasohol that later became known as ethanol. There were a variety of tax credits offered to blenders in an attempt to increase the use of ethanol in motor fuels. One of the major boosts to biofuels came in 1996 when California announced it was banning Methyl tertiary-butyl ether (MTBE) as an oxygenate in motor fuels by 2003. This change brought to light the need for a replacement oxygenate that ethanol was touted as being able to fill. However the most significant boost for the ethanol industry came from the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (EPA of 2005) and the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA of 2007) both aiming to increase U.S. energy independence. The EPA of 2005 mandated increasing levels of biofuels (ethanol and biodiesel) that had to be blended into the nation’s fuel supply each year from 4 billion gallons in 2006 up to 7.5 billion gallons by 2012. Overnight this effectively created a demand for biofuels and therefore corn leading to a significant price increase (Figure 1). The EISA of 2007 increased the mandate each year to 36 billion gallons by 2022 (15 billion gallons of corn ethanol and 21 billion gallons of other renewable fuels). Corn prices continued an upward trend spiking during the midwest drought of 2012.
At the same time all of this was happening in the U.S., the rising corn prices were seen not just by producers in the U.S. but by producers around the world. Spurred on by prices that were now profitable, producers increased their corn production. This created an unintended consequence of incentivizing corn production and exports by several countries who had previously not been significant competitors – namely Brazil and Ukraine (Figure 2). Prior to the 1990s, the U.S. was the unrivaled corn exporter in the world with only Argentina with significant corn exports. Now, Argentina, Brazil and Ukraine (prior to being attacked by Russia) are all major exporters of corn who compete with U.S. producers.
Figure 1. U.S. Marketing Year Average Corn Price, 1980 to 2021
Figure 2. Corn Exports by Major Exporting Countries, 1980 to 2021
Source: USDA. Found at https://apps.fas.usda.gov/psdonline/app/index.html#/app/home
It’s around this time of year – with the release of the President’s budget – that we start to get a lot of questions about what’s going to happen with Federal spending for the year. The questions are quite natural given the amount of attention the release of the President’s budget generates and the enormous volume of pages it fills (i.e. this year the Appendix alone spans 1,400 pages). It’s somewhat ironic, then, that the Constitution gives no formal role to the President in the federal budget process. In fact, the Constitution vests the authority to “lay and collect taxes” and to authorize the withdrawal of funds from the Treasury exclusively in the U.S. Congress.
While Congress controls the power of the purse, for the past 100 years – since passage of the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921 – there has been a statutory role for the President in establishing a budget and presenting it to Congress. For the past 30 years, Federal law has stipulated that the President is to submit the budget to Congress “on or after the first Monday in January but not later than the first Monday in February of each year” (we’ll save the discussion about whether they are submitted on time for another day).
If Congress controls the purse strings, then what’s the point of the President’s budget?
First, it kicks off the Congressional budget process. In exercising the power of the purse, Congress establishes a budget resolution, which is a broad revenue/spending framework (which is also the basis for budget enforcement) that also provides spending allocations to the Appropriations Committees. The budget resolution can also include reconciliation instructions, which featured prominently in last year’s debates on the Build Back Better Act.
Second, the President’s budget is an overview of the President’s policy vision. Often, that vision includes proposing significant changes to existing Federal programs. With respect to agriculture, notably, the last two budget cycles broke with recent tradition which had proposed a litany of ways in which farm policy could be slashed to save money. Last year’s budget was silent on the matter and this year is no different. With that said, the budget does hint at other significant changes that could have a major impact on agriculture. For example, the so-called Green Book –the Treasury Department’s explanation of this year’s revenue proposals – contemplates imposing capital gains at death. The Agricultural & Food Policy Center (AFPC) reported last summer on the enormous impact that the elimination of stepped-up basis (or the imposition of transfer taxes) could have on agricultural producers. While the President can propose changes, only Congress has the power to actually change the law.
Bottom line: the President’s budget kicks off the budget process and signals the policy priorities of the Administration, but it’s Congress that ultimately controls the purse strings.
On March 16, I testified before the House Agriculture Committee at a hearing titled
“A 2022 Review of the Farm Bill: The Role of USDA Programs in Addressing Climate Change”. Working closely with commercial producers has provided the Agricultural and Food Policy Center with a unique perspective on agricultural policy. While we normally provide the results of policy analyses at committee hearings, on this occasion I was carrying the message from the nearly 675 producers we work with across the United States.
In preparation for the testimony we emailed our representative farm members the following points that I planned on making and asked them to let us know if they agreed or disagreed with each of the 5 points. In two days, we received 105 responses and several more after I had submitted my testimony.
Having a strong safety net from Title I programs (ARC/PLC and the marketing loan) and Title XI (crop insurance) remains critical even with new carbon market opportunities.They unanimously agreed with this statement in spite of the fact they expect very little benefit from Title I programs this year.
USDA conservation programs (CRP, CSP and EQIP) that have incentivized a broad array of conservation practices have worked well in the past. They have just been under funded. Producers much prefer this type of program to the current carbon program situation where the significant record keeping requirements, additionality requirements, uncertain soil tests, and very low financial benefits have the majority of our representative farm panel members not interested in participating.
Congress should strongly consider providing financial incentives to early adopters who are not eligible to participate in current carbon programs due to the additionality requirement. If it is good to sequester carbon it should also be good to keep carbon sequestered. Many of the producers who responded to my request indicated that they are disgusted with a system that only rewards late adopters
All producers regardless of size, region, or crops planted should have opportunities in any new USDA climate programs. This statement appears fairly benign but let me assure you it is not. If all producers in the U.S. do not have some USDA NRCS identified practice they can undertake in the name of sequestering carbon then there will be regional winners and losers, and by crop, and by size as carbon programs are created.
Congress should consider providing USDA the authority to safeguard producers from being taken advantage of in current carbon markets dealing with private entities. For example, signing a carbon contract with at least one current company would require a producer to forgo commodity and conservation program benefits on that land. This is really the only point where many producers disagreed with me. Several producers would rather not have the government get involved in the carbon market at all and asked me to point out that while they see a problem – it could be made worse.
Producers are calling asking about the FSA signup decision they have to make by March 15th. Even though commodity programs have used marketing year average prices to trigger payments for decades, there still seems to be some uncertainty among producers.
A quick look at nearby futures would indicate that neither agriculture risk coverage (ARC) nor price loss coverage (PLC) will likely trigger a payment for the 2022 crop. While it makes some sense to look at nearby (old crop) and harvest time (new crop) futures to help decide what to plant, futures prices may or may not be a very good guide for program signup decisions.
Why? Because marketing year average prices start being calculated at harvest of this year’s crop ending prior to the next year’s harvest (Figure 1). At the end of the marketing year, USDA will multiply each monthly price for the commodity by the percent of the crop marketed that month to arrive at a marketing year average price that weights the monthly prices with higher marketings greater than those months (like right now) with very little marketings occurring.
While most would agree that the current futures outlook would indicate no ARC or PLC payments, trying to guess at weather, geopolitical and trade conditions around the world 18 months in advance can be daunting.
Figure 1. Marketing Years and Expected Date Final Price will be Reported by Commodity.