Welcome to Agriculture Economic Tidbits, a weekly e-newsletter (emailed Mondays) for farmer and rancher members of Nebraska Farm Bureau. Agriculture Economics Tidbits will provide you with timely tidbits of economic information and policy analysis focused on Nebraska’s largest industry, agriculture, and its key players, Nebraska’s farmers and ranchers.  The newsletter will break down global and national economic trends and what they mean for Nebraska agriculture, stay abreast of latest market movements, and provide the latest results from Farm Bureau research on current policy issues like property taxes, school funding, farm programs and international trade—all with the goal of helping you maintain a viable farming or ranching operation.

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Last year was a struggle for agriculture on many fronts. Probabilities would suggest 2020 should be an improvement. Like every year, several drivers will influence the roads agriculture travels this year.

Reduced corn and soybean production in 2019 and a steady demand have provided underlying price support for crops heading into 2020. Markets are still heavy with supplies, but hawing trade relations and growing livestock production should help stimulate usage.

Cattle numbers in recent years have been increasing, but it appears the cycle is peaking. Last year saw the most cows sent to slaughter in any year since 2013, and a greater number of heifers were sent to feedlots, suggesting fewer producing cows on ranches this year.

The U.S. economy keeps puttering along like an old, used vehicle which just keeps running and running—not the sexiest vehicle on the road, but it gets the job done. The current economic expansion is now the longest in U.S. history.

This year should bring more certainty to U.S. trade relations with the rest of the world. The House of Representatives has passed the revised agreement with Canada and Mexico (USMCA) and the Senate is expected to pass it soon.

Improvements in trade relations have set the stage for potential export growth for U.S. agricultural goods. What do the economics suggest?

Election year politics can have undue influences on markets and economies. Add to this the President’s impending impeachment trial in the Senate and tensions in the Middle East and the political and international atmosphere will be especially charged in 2020.

As noted in last week’s edition, producers are increasingly turning to debt to finance their operations. Fortunately, with today’s interest rates, the interest costs on the debt are relatively low from a historical perspective.

The economic picture has improved for agriculture producers this year compared to last year. Steady economic growth, growing consumption, and improved trade prospects offer some hope.

“There are [U.S.] firms that rely heavily on China as a supply base and market, from Apple to General Motors, which sells more cars in China than in America.” China’s view of America, 440-pound rivals, The Economist, January 4th, 2020.

Last year was a doozy for Nebraska farmers and ranchers. Blizzards, floods, delayed planting, livestock death losses, a late harvest, trade disputes, and other out-of-the-ordinary events created production problems, management headaches, and higher costs.

The continued struggle to generate positive income has led to higher producer debt levels. Survey results from the Tenth District Federal Reserve Bank in Kansas City show loan renewals or extensions were higher than the previous year in the third quarter of last year.

Nebraska average land values since 1970 are plotted in Figure 3. After experiencing unprecedented growth between 2004 and 2014, when growth rates exceeded 10 percent in 9 out of 10 years, land values have cooled.

USDA county cash rent data for cropland and pasture ground showed mixed changes between 2017 and 2019. Rents for irrigated and dryland crop ground were lower, but rents on pasture ground were higher.

Statistics show 35 farm bankruptcies were filed in Nebraska through September 30, 2019, or 19 percent more than the same period for the previous year (Figure 4). Nationwide, farm bankruptcies over the same period were 24 percent higher.

“If all we want are jobs, we can create any number—for example, have people dig holes and then fill them up again, or perform other useless tasks. Work is sometimes its own reward. Mostly, however, it is the price we pay to get the things we want. Our real objective is not just jobs, but productive jobs—jobs that will mean more goods and services to consume.” Milton Friedman.

USDA data released in late October shows the value of Nebraska agricultural commodity exports in 2018 grew $450 million, or 7 percent, compared to 2017.

The McPherson and Logan County Farm Bureaus have organized a Cow/Calf Symposium to be held Jan. 7 in Stapleton, Nebraska, beginning at 2:00 p.m.

Two developments on the trade front can be celebrated by Nebraska agriculture. First, Democrats in Congress, the Trump Administration, and Mexico have agreed on provisions to include in the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) which should pave the way for passage.

U.S. exports of petroleum have exceeded imports for the first time in 50 years. The U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA) estimates that the United States exported 140,000 barrels/day more total crude oil and petroleum products in September than it imported. If confirmed, it would be the first time the United States exported more petroleum than it imported since EIA records began in 1949.

A common refrain heard at recent Nebraska Farm Bureau meetings is this year can’t end quick enough. The year was filled with enough unusual, atypical, unexpected, and low probability events to last a life time.

The record operating margins for packers following the fire at the Tyson facility in Holcomb, Kansas, elevated ongoing concerns in the cow/calf sector regarding the share ranchers receive of the retail value of beef.

The Kansas City Branch of the Federal Reserve Bank published its latest edition of The Nebraska Economic Databook on October 21.

President Reagan used to say that if the game Trivial Pursuit were designed by economists, the game would have 100 questions and 3,000 answers.

“People have been generally moving out of cities and rural areas, and into suburbs, as suburbs have seen net increases in migration of at least 2 million since 1987. But this year, for the first time since 1998, rural areas drew more residents from cities and suburbs than they lost.” Americans are moving less than ever before, Jeff Andrews, Curbed, Nov. 22, 2019

An astute reader caught an error in last week’s story concerning USDA beef market projections. The story mistakenly reported this year’s production, imports and exports in “million” pounds, when the figures should have been reported in “billion” pounds. The corrected language is:

Continuing with the theme of USDA projections for livestock markets, this week Tidbits turns its attention to pork.

The Purdue University/CME Group Ag Economy Barometer, which measures agriculture producers’ sentiment regarding the agricultural economy, posted a gain in October to a reading of 136.

Signup for the 2018 Farm Bill programs began September 3 and ends March 15 of next year.

Figure 2. Share of Disposable Personal Income Spent on Food in U.S.

Chart of the Month