News / USA

    US Officials Predict Drop in Crop Prices

    In this Sept. 2012 photo, John Honeywell directs a mixture of seed wheat and rye into a grain drill to plant winter wheat for cattle grazing near Orlando, Oklahoma.
    In this Sept. 2012 photo, John Honeywell directs a mixture of seed wheat and rye into a grain drill to plant winter wheat for cattle grazing near Orlando, Oklahoma.
    Prices of corn, soybeans and wheat are likely to decline this year, according to the latest forecast from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  

    Although farmers are going into this season with the ground still extremely dry after last year’s record-breaking drought, the USDA still expects good yields this year.

    Weather, like the winter storm which blew through the southern Great Plains this week bringing relief from the drought conditions which have lingered since summer, will be a critical factor.

    Hard-hit harvest

    Wet, heavy snow and ice blanketed Scott Neufeld’s farm near Fairview, Oklahoma.

    “This couldn’t have come at a better time," he says.

    Since September, Oklahoma has received half to two-thirds of its normal rainfall, and the winter wheat crop is in bad shape. Some of the fields Neufeld planted last fall hadn't even sprouted.

    “There are some of our acres that didn’t emerge," Neufeld says. "And this moisture will sprout that seed and get it out of the ground.”

    Neufeld expects his wheat harvest will probably still fall below normal.

    Needed rainfall

    Average rainfall the rest of the season would not get the region out of the drought.  Precipitation in Oklahoma has been below normal nearly every month for almost two years, according to National Weather Service meteorologist Scott Curl.

    “It’s going to be hard," he says. "We’ve been in such a deficit for such a long time. It takes a while to dig into these kinds of situations, and it takes a while to dig out as well.”

    To get back to normal, Curl says the state needs an additional 25 to 50 centimeters of precipitation on top of its usual amount.

    More than a third of the country is in severe drought or worse as farmers prepare to plant next season’s crops. It follows three consecutive down years for corn harvests and a bad year for wheat in 2011.

    The latest predictions call for drought to persist over the western part of farm country, but Texas A&M University economist Mark Welch says farmers don’t need a wet year to produce a good crop.

    “With the technology that we have built into the farming practices," he says, "with the varieties that have been developed, seed technologies, it’s just incredible what some of these crops can do.”

    Welch says it’s unusual to have two extremely dry years in a row and that there’s little connection between dry soil at the start of the season and crop yields at the end.

    Optimistic outlook

    Announcing the latest crop outlook Thursday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Chief Economist Joe Glauber was optimistic.

    “We’re expecting a rebound in yields," Glauder said. "We should see record production, I think, for corn and soybeans. That means lower prices.”

    But Glauber noted he made almost the same announcement last year. Then the drought hit.  With world supplies of corn and soybeans extremely tight, Welch says the weather forecast will drive the market.

    “If it’s for a dome of high pressure, up go the prices," Glauber says. "If it’s for a cold front to push through and bring some rain, down will come the prices. And so, we’ll bounce around with that all season.”

    That outlook suggests farmers and consumers alike should brace for another volatile year for crop prices.

    Steve Baragona

    Steve Baragona is an award-winning multimedia journalist covering science, environment and health.

    He spent eight years in molecular biology and infectious disease research before deciding that writing about science was more fun than doing it. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a master’s degree in journalism in 2002.

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