American farmers worry as crop prices dip amid corona outbreak

Dave Burrier walks back to his tractor as he plants corn in the Marvin Chapel field in Maryland. Burrier hopes to make it through yet another uncertain year. (AFP)
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Updated 26 May 2020

American farmers worry as crop prices dip amid corona outbreak

  • Farmers growing corn and soy — the biggest crops in the world’s largest economy — were hoping for a turnaround this year

MOUNT AIRY: Dave Burrier steered his tractor through a field, following a GPS map as he tried to plant as much corn as possible amid the yellow and green rye covering the ground.

Striving to get a massive yield out of his crops in rural Maryland is how Burrier hopes to make it through yet another uncertain year, beset by market disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and renewed trade tensions between the US and China.

“We’ve had so much price erosion that we’re basically at below the cost of production. We’ve got to figure out how to manage and turn a profit,” Burrier said. “That’s harder than planting this corn.”

American farmers growing corn and soy — the biggest crops in the world’s largest economy — were hoping for a turnaround this year after Washington and Beijing reached a truce in their months-long trade war, which included a pledge to buy more US agricultural goods.

But the coronavirus hit before the benefits of that deal could be felt, disrupting transportation and operations at slaughterhouses, sapping demand, while the global oil price crash closed the ethanol and biofuel plants that could have picked up the slack.

“It’s kind of glum,” said Dave’s wife Linda Burrier, a soybean farmer who serves on the United Soybean Board, the crop’s governing body in the US. Yet she remains guardedly optimistic.

“Farmers are one of the most faithful people there are,” she said. “You put a seed in the ground, you expect to get a crop out of it.”

Facing a supply glut, the US Department of Agriculture projects the average farm price for corn will to drop to its lowest level in 14 years in the 2020-2021 growing season. Soybean prices also are expected to fall. And a study from the University of Illinois and Ohio State University earlier this month predicted that even with payments from government safety net programs, corn and soybean farmers are facing total revenue losses of $8.5 billion to $10.2 billion amid the pandemic.

President Donald Trump’s administration spent $28 billion in 2018 and 2019 to help farmers hurt by the trade war, and pledged another $16 billion this year to offset the market disruptions.

Dave Burrier said the current conditions are a grim echo of the 1980s — a decade he would prefer to forget — when a combination of low commodity prices, heavy debt burdens and a grain embargo against the Soviet Union ruined American farmers. “It gives me a chill to talk about it,” he said.

Plenty has changed in the more than four decades Burrier, 67, has been farming.

Computer monitors in his tractor display detailed metrics to track his planting, replacing the pen and notebook his father relied on.

The Soviet Union is gone, but US farmers once again are partly at the whim of a foreign power.

China retaliated for Washington’s unilateral trade actions with crippling tariffs on US soy that drove a steep drop in total US agricultural exports to $9.2 billion in 2018, less than half the 2017 amount, according to government data. Exports recovered to nearly $14 billion last year.

In the “phase one” deal reached in January, Beijing agreed buy up to $50 billion in US farm products. But with Trump accusing China of covering up the origins of the coronavirus, fears are rising that the deal will fall victim to the acrimony.

“Agriculture in America is very vulnerable right now, but if we have a good growing season we should be able to get through this year,” said Arlan Suderman, chief commodities economist at INTL FCStone.

Danielle Bauer, executive director of both the Delaware and Maryland soybean boards, said farmers in her area have stepped up exports to Taiwan and are expecting increased demand for high oleic soybean oil, a variety grown exclusively in the US.

“There is a lot of uncertainty. The farmers are bracing for a really hard year all around,” she said.

The Burriers also plant wheat and make good money selling hay to a nearby racetrack, and Dave’s corn yield last year was double the county average.

But 60-year-old Linda admits the setbacks of recent years plus the pandemic mean the couple probably will have to delay retirement.

“We’re going to have to wait, I don’t know, another 5 or 10 years, if we can, physically,” she said. “My husband’s worked really hard. I don’t know how much longer he’s going to want to keep at it.”


Saudi Arabia’s 6-point plan to jumpstart global economy

Updated 07 July 2020

Saudi Arabia’s 6-point plan to jumpstart global economy

  • Policy recommendations to G20 aim to counter effects of pandemic

DUBAI: Saudi Arabia, in its capacity as president of the G20 group of nations, has unveiled a six-point business plan to jump start the global economy out of the recession brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yousef Al-Benyan, the chairman of the B20 business group within the G20, told a webinar from Riyadh that the response to the pandemic -— including the injection of $5 trillion into the global economy — had been “reassuring.”

But he warned that the leading economies of the world had to continue to work together to mitigate the effects of global lockdowns and to address the possibility of a “second wave” of the disease.

“Cooperation and collaboration between governments, global governance institutions and businesses is vital for an effective and timely resolution of this multi-dimensional contagion transcending borders,” Al-Benyan said.

“The B20 is strongly of the view there is no alternative to global cooperation, collaboration and consensus to tide over a multi-dimensional and systemic crisis,” he added.

The six-point plan, contained in a special report to the G20 leadership with input from 750 global business leaders, sets out a series of policy recommendations to counter the effects of the disease which threaten to spark the deepest economic recession in nearly a century.

The document advocates policies to build health resilience, safeguard human capital, and prevent financial instability.

It also promotes measures to free up global supply chains, revive productive economic sectors, and digitize the world economy “responsibly and inclusively.”

In a media question-and-answer session to launch the report, Al-Benyan said that among the top priorities for business leaders were the search for a vaccine against the virus that has killed more than half-a-million people around the world, and the need to reopen global trade routes slammed shut by economic lockdowns.

He said that the G20 response had been speedy and proactive, especially in comparison with the global financial crisis of 2009, but he said that more needed to be done, especially to face the possibility that the disease might surge again. “Now is not the time to celebrate,” he warned.

“Multilateral institutions and mechanisms must be positively leveraged by governments to serve their societies and must be enhanced wherever necessary during and after the pandemic,” he said, highlighting the role of the World Health Organization, the UN and the International Monetary Fund, which have come under attack from some world leaders during the pandemic.

Al-Benyan said that policy responses to the pandemic had been “designed according to each country’s requirements.”

Separately, the governor of the Saudi Arabian Monetary Authority said that it was “too early” to say if the Kingdom’s economy would experience a sharp “V-shape” recovery from pandemic recession.