WATERLOO — A dark cloud has been looming over Northeast Iowa farmers this planting season and it’s producing more than just rain.
Record low soybean prices, an African Swine Fever plague and an escalating trade war with China have sent some soybean farmers into a tailspin, some comparing it to the 1980s farm crisis.
Soybean prices have officially hit 11-year lows, prices not seen since December 2008 during the nation’s Great Recession, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates report.
The report forecasts 2018-19 ending soybean stocks at 995 million bushels, up 100 million bushels from the April forecast. July 2019 soybean prices dropped 14 cents to $7.97 immediately following the release of the WASDE report, according to the Iowa Soybean Association.
In Iowa, the average price for soybeans was $8.25 per bushel, down 21 cents from the March price and $1.50 below the 2018 price.
Compounding the struggle is a tug-of-war trade situation with China that has left Iowa farmers with a dwindling market, forcing them to diversify their options.
The White House has raised its tariffs to $300 billion on Chinese goods this year, causing corn and soybean futures to sag as China retaliates with tariffs aimed squarely at American farmers.
The White House is looking at another $16 billion aid package for American farmers hurt by China’s retaliatory tariffs — on top of last year’s $11 billion farm bailout.
But some area farmers prefer trade deals over aid packages.
“It’s a Band-Aid, it’s not a fix,” said Rick Juchems with Juchems Farms in Plainfield, who said putting soybeans in the ground this year is a direct loss.
“I’m always hoping they’ll get it together and make it work out. … I don’t understand why it’s taking so long, why they can’t get some give-and-take done.”
He said there’s no incentive to get his crop planted “other than you hope that they sign the trade agreements and the prices improve.”
Juchems, who has been farming in Northeast Iowa for 40 years, said he has not felt the heat like this since the 1980s when President Jimmy Carter put an embargo on Russia for all grains. He farms about 300 acres of corn and soybeans and serves on the Iowa Soybean Association’s board of directors.
“If we had our druthers we just wouldn’t plant them at all, but we still have investments in the land and we still need to get things done,” he said, noting quitting is not an option for him. “That goes against everything.”
Juchems is looking into other options, like expanding the market to other parts of the world, including Egypt, Vietnam, Korea and India.
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“We’re working to improve other markets rather than having all our eggs in one basket. We’d like to spread it out, “ he said.
But China, with more than 400 million hogs — the largest herd in the world — has the highest demand for soybeans, for food and feed.
In the recent plague of African Swine Fever, Chinese hog farmers have lost from 20-40 percent of their breeding herd, causing Midwest farmers to take another hit.
Add heavy spring rains and flooding this year and farmers are left bedraggled, with rivers swelling and the growing season disappearing. Farmers only had one suitable day for fieldwork last week as much of the state saw unseasonable rains and damaging storms.
“The Corn Belt is stuck in a weather pattern that’s creating persistent, wet conditions,” said Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig in a release from the Iowa Department of Agriculture & Land Stewardship. “This is causing historic planting delays.”
In the 18 states that grow most of the nation’s corn, only 58% of the crop had been planted as of last week — a far cry from the 90% that would ordinarily be planted by that point. In states that grow nearly all of the soybeans, less than half of the normal crop had been planted. Farmers have even taken to Twitter — creating a #noplant19 hashtag — to commiserate and share photos of their swamped fields, according to the Associated Press.
“It will be a later harvest, wetter crops. It’s just going to be kind of a snowball. The little things add up,” Juchems said.
Pouring rain creates poor farmers, said Tyler Hundley-Schmidt, who sells seeds with Hundley Sales. Her brothers are third-generation farmers with about 180 acres of rotated crop.
“We have a high-risk growing season ahead of us,” said Hundley-Schmidt, who sells seed for Pioneer to area farmers.
“You can tell by the way they (farmers) make their seed purchases,” she said.
They’re coping a variety of ways — buying less, retiring, downsizing operations.
“Farmers in a perfect world should be able to sustain their families. We already have nature (insects, weeds) that we have to go up against, so if we can’t get stuff in the ground on time … it affects optimal potential, then we start losing.”
“It’s not days that grow plants, it’s heat,” she said. “With these cold rains, we can’t put the seed out there, they’ll just do nothing and die or rot. It’s truly amazing that we have the crops grow that we do, they’re up against so much, nature-wise.”
“Farmers are our heroes of the Midwest. They have a relationship with the land are more environmentally aware. ... It’s an honor, but it’s also very, very sad,” she said. “It sucks to see some of these guys have tears because of just stress.”