2011 The Omaha World Herald.
By David Hendee
WORLD-HERALD STAFF WRITER
February 10, 2011
Note: Emphasis added by me...
Warnings of higher food prices headed for American supermarkets and restaurants were swallowed easily across much of farm country Wednesday.
The big gulp came when the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that global demand had pushed U.S. corn supplies to their lowest point in 15 years.
The price of corn, which has doubled over the past six months, affects most food products in supermarkets. It's used to feed the cattle, hogs and chickens that fill the meat aisles.
It is the main ingredient in Cap'n Crunch and Doritos. Turned into syrup, it sweetens most soft drinks and many foods.
Corn also is part of the agricultural blend that fuels the economies of Nebraska, Iowa and other farming states. Iowa is the nation's top corn-producing state; Nebraska is third.
Shoppers could see higher grocery bills as early as three months from now, though most of the impact won't be felt for another six months, said Scott Irwin, an agricultural economics professor at the University of Illinois.
Chicken prices are among the first to rise because the bird's life span is so short that higher feed costs get factored in quickly, he said. Price hikes for hogs take about a year and cattle two years. Prices on packaged foods take six or seven months to rise.
Tyson Foods, the nation's biggest meat company, said chicken, beef and pork prices are expect to rise this year, if only slightly, as producers seek to cover costs.
ConAgra Foods Inc. — the Omaha-based producer of brands including Healthy Choice, Banquet and Chef Boyardee — is raising prices on some of its products because of higher costs for corn and fuel, said Teresa Paulsen, a spokeswoman.
The price rally has bolstered the financial fitness of America's crop and livestock operators over the past eight months. Midwestern cropland is yielding record values. Rural banks and equipment makers report record profits.
“We're seeing record income levels for the ag community and ... wealth accumulation that cannot be denied,” said Bruce Johnson, an agricultural economist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “We've moved into a whole new level.”
Said Bruce Babcock, an agricultural economist at Iowa State University: “Farmers are going to be earning quite a bit more money.”
Jason Henderson, Omaha branch executive for the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, said farmers are buying more tractors, pickup trucks, grain bins and land.
“And they also come to Omaha to shop and go to events,” he said.
But it hasn't been simply a spending spree, Henderson said. Farmers are paying down debt and fewer are seeking loan renewals or extensions.
“It's a good time to be an ag banker,” said Brian Esch, president of McCook National Bank in southwest Nebraska. “But I have concerns over what this means for consumers. If one guy is selling at a record profit, someone is buying at a record level.”
Corn prices have risen over the past six months from $3.50 a bushel to nearly $7.
The U.S. will have a reserve of 675 million bushels left over in late August, when this year's harvest begins. That's roughly 5 percent of all corn that will be consumed, the lowest surplus level since 1996.
“There is going to be enough corn for food, for feed, for fuel and for export opportunities,” Tom Vilsack, the U.S. agriculture secretary, said at a Washington press conference.
Babcock, the Iowa State economist, said the U.S. mandate to increase the use of renewable fuels like ethanol is a major reason why the nation's corn supply is so low. About a quarter of the nation's corn crop is consumed by the production of ethanol. The ethanol industry's projected corn orders this year have risen 8 percent, to 13 billion bushels, after record-high production in December and January, USDA said.
“We've created a hungry business that is dependent on corn, even high-priced corn,” Babcock said.
Johnson, the UNL economist, said global supply and demand are the root causes behind low U.S. corn stocks.
“Ethanol is a factor, but it's not the driver,” he said.
Johnson said the declining value of the dollar not only has fueled greater agricultural export demand, but also has driven up the price of oil. That, in turn, has propelled higher prices for corn-based ethanol.
The agricultural economies of Nebraska and Iowa will continue to grow into greater prominence as global food providers, economists said.
Johnson said rising population numbers globally and greater demand in major developing countries for higher-protein diets have strengthened the Midlands' agricultural market.
Farm cash receipts — led by corn and other crops — doubled in Nebraska from 2000 through 2010. Crop receipts alone ended the decade in the $9 billion range, up from a 2000 total of $3 billion.
Nebraska's net farm income hit a record $4.25 billion last year, according to preliminary estimates. The 2010 level would be nearly 65 percent above the 10-year historical average, Johnson said.
Although farm income represents only about 6 percent of Nebraska's $75 billion personal income total, it has a major impact on local and regional economies, Johnson said.
“There is no question that agriculture buffered the state from going into a deeper recession these last few years, and it has helped pull us out of the recession faster than other areas,” he said. “Agriculture has been our pack horse.”