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PRINCETON, ILLINOIS —Although the skies are gray and the fields are bare, even before the first seed is planted in the fertile soil later this spring, farmer Evan Hultine knows corn is king this year.
In fact, corn is the only crop you’ll see in his fields.
“No beans this year for us,” Hultine told VOA while working on his planter.
“After about three months of the trade war, it was pretty clear that the president had long-terms goals in mind and at the time, my dad and I had talked, and we were way more comfortable with our ability to produce high-yield corn,” he said.
Corn and soybeans typically bring in the largest amount of profit for U.S. farmers each year. While many rotate planting the crops season to season as a way to improve the soil, the ongoing U.S. trade dispute with China is affecting routine decisions for farmers as they prepare to head to the fields for spring planting.
“It’s definitely influencing the way we do things on the farm,” Hultine said.
His decision to avoid soybeans altogether comes after a tumultuous year for the crop’s prices, affected mostly by the trade dispute and resulting tariffs China imposed on the commodity in retaliation to U.S. tariffs on imported Chinese steel and aluminum.
“We lost anywhere from about $1.50 to $2 a bushel, depending on the day,” he explained. Fortunately, Hultine was able to sell about 60% of his soybean crop before prices plunged, but the rest had to be sold for far less.
Hultine said the financial assistance from the United States Department of Agriculture’s Market Facilitation Program helped reduce those losses somewhat, but he doesn’t expect the program to continue this year.
Now, as trade talks between the U.S. and China continue without an agreement, so does the uncertainty.
“You are watching the futures market price for soybeans fluctuate based on the latest news of whether or not we’re making progress,” said Michael Doherty, a senior economist and policy analyst with the Illinois Farm Bureau. “Is it real that we are going to get back to a normal trading relationship with the Chinese?
“Businesses do not like uncertainty. You are trying to plan for the future. Farmers can do some things to mitigate a situation in which the market is not what it used to be and the market has changed … but they need to know what that change is,” Doherty said. “The sooner we get to a point of certainty about what we are dealing with and how long it’s going to last, the sooner businesses such as farmers can make concrete adjustments.”
A record amount of soybeans still waiting to be sold is making it even more difficult for farmers, he said.
“We have more beans in storage right now than we ever had in the history of the United States. We are sitting on a mountain of soybeans,” Doherty explained. “How long is it going to take us to unwind that? We have well over a billion bushels (more than 27 million metric tons) of soybeans in the United States and we are selling it far less rapidly and in smaller volumes than we normally would at this point of the year, and so that’s weighing the market simply to just have the gigantic inventory of soybeans.”
Even though Hultine managed to market most of his soybeans, some of his grain bins are still full of last year’s corn.
He admits the decision to skip the beans isn’t an easy one.
“It takes so much more capital to raise an acre (a bit less than half a hectare) of corn than it does an acre of beans, so we had to borrow more money, and interest rates are rising, which makes borrowing even more of a challenge and an issue, and you know input prices to produce are fluctuating with oil prices,” he added.
Increased costs to raise crops for farmers means a potential decrease in overall profits.
Hultine said it’s “definitely tight. Margins are pretty thin.”
While the USDA forecasts a modest increase in overall farm incomes this year, Doherty, the Illinois Farm Bureau economist, isn’t as optimistic.
“I would expect that we will have one of the worst farm income years we’ve had out of the last five or six years is what we’re looking at in 2019,” he said.
Hultine is hoping that everything else he can’t control, such as the weather, works in his favor so his decision to only plant corn isn’t one he’ll regret.
“We’ll see. Time will tell,” he adds.
Kane Farabaugh is the Midwest Correspondent for Voice of America, where since 2008 he has established Voice of America's presence in the heartland of America.