SPRINGFIELD, ILLINOIS —
For Illinois farmer Garry Niemeyer, it’s a slow time of year, spent indoors fixing equipment, not outdoors tending his fields, which now lie empty.
All of his corn and soybeans were harvested in what has turned out to be a good year.
“This is the largest amount of corn we’ve had ever,” he said.
And this bounty is not limited to Niemeyer’s farm. It can be seen throughout the United States.
“We’re talking 14½ billion bushels of corn,” Niemeyer told VOA. “That’s a lot of production.”
WATCH: Awash in Corn, Soybeans, US Farmers Focus on Trade Deals
Piles of corn, soybeans
That production is easy to see at nearby elevators, where large piles of corn under white plastic wrap extend into the sky. There is more corn and soybeans than existing storage facilities can hold.
“You can drive by just about any elevator out here in the country and see some pretty large piles of corn that are covered outside of the bins,” said Mark Gebhards, executive director of Governmental Affairs and Commodities for the Illinois Farm Bureau. “That is a direct result of a lot of carry-over from last year; i.e., we need to move this and create market demand to get the product moving.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports record harvests of corn and soybeans in the United States in 2017, with stocks overflowing at elevators and storage bins across the country.
In Illinois, Gebhards notes that up to half of the state’s corn supply, and even more soybeans, will eventually reach foreign shores.
“Usually we say every other row of beans is going into the export market,” Gebhards said.
But Niemeyer wants even more of his crop to find a market overseas.
“We have overproduced for our domestic market,” he told VOA. “Our profits will lie in the amount of exports we are able to secure in the future.”
The NAFTA question
Which is why the Illinois farmer is looking for some indication from U.S. President Donald Trump on the current efforts to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA.
“NAFTA is huge,” Niemeyer said. “NAFTA consumes $43 billion worth of our crops and livestock and other things we exported out of this country in 2016.”
Niemeyer is pleased with Trump’s efforts to roll back environmental regulations and institute tax reform. But there was little hint of NAFTA’s fate during Trump’s Jan. 8 speech to the American Farm Bureau Federation Convention in Nashville, Tennessee.
“If anything was maybe left as an area of concern, it’s still what’s going to happen to that trade agreement,” said Gebhards, who warns the U.S. withdrawing from NAFTA could impact prices.
“On the livestock side, it’s estimated you would see $18 per hog or $71 per cow if we were to withdraw. It’s estimated that we would see potentially a $0.30 per bushel decrease in the corn price and $0.15 on the soybean side.”
Prices are a factor growers like Niemeyer maintain a close watch on.
“(The) price of corn is about $3.30 a bushel, so $3 corn, it’s hard to make anything work, even with a large yield,” which, Niemeyer said, is why many farmers are holding on to what they have.
“Everybody’s sitting still, that’s the reason you aren’t seeing much corn move right today because the price has done absolutely nothing,” he said.
Niemeyer wants a final NAFTA agreement soon, so negotiators can focus on new trade agreements that could help create more demand, improve prices and ultimately move the supply that has piled up in the U.S.
Gebhards said the world is watching the negotiations for clues on how reliable the U.S. is as a trading partner under Trump.
“It’s a short term issue for us not to lose ground as we try to renegotiate NAFTA,” Gebhards said. “But I think the long term is what kind of a signal do you send as a reliable trading partner to the rest of the world that if you enter into this agreement with the United States you know that you will be able to get that product that you’ve agreed to buy.”
Trump has recently suggested a deadline extension for modernizing NAFTA, which means the uncertainty for farmers like Niemeyer could extend into March or April, when he is preparing to put a new crop in the ground.