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Serving: MI
A steak served on a white plate with carrots and green beans Lew Robertson/Getty Images
FRIENDLY WAGER: Several years ago I made a steak bet on corn prices. I won, but only because it didn’t happen as quickly as predicted.

I won the bet, lost the cause

The feeling of helplessness often felt by farmers, now shared with pandemic’s toll.

Eight years ago, when being in agriculture was a little more fun, I sat between two seasoned farmers at a conference. The corn price was the hot topic, and while they were enjoying riding the tide of an average $6.91-per-bushel wave that year, they both said they expected it to ebb within a year.

This led to a broader discussion about the agricultural economy and its many ups and downs. I predicted we’d never see corn below $4 a bushel again, which spurred a debate, and eventually, a friendly wager scribbled out on a napkin — how all good bets are done, right? At stake was a high-priced, top-of-the-line steak dinner. If the price of corn dropped below $4 in the next year, I’d be buying a couple of steak dinners; but if not, I would be treated.

It didn’t happen in the next year or even the year after. I won the bet, and I felt all the better for it because farmers also won for a blissful window in time.

But, then comes 2014, and the low price for corn was $3.20, with an average price of $4.16 for the year. In 2016, the average price was $3.16, the lowest in the previous 10 years.

Here I am writing this today in early June, and the price of corn is $3.32, improving slightly from $3.13 in late April. To bring that into perspective, the average price of corn in 1974 was $3.20.

With the country beginning to turn on the neon “open” sign, paired with rising oil prices and a falling dollar, there is hope — if trade is favorable — to push above that $4 mark in the next year.

Beyond control

In most business environments, profitability is controlled by streamlining, cutting expenses and increasing production. So, some might say, “Farmers, get out there and do a better job, scout and protect your crop, manage your resources and cut expenses.” Problem is, this multiyear plummet in profitability has most already operating at bare-bones levels, and even with top-notch management, reward is uncertain and certainly not promised.

Weather is like farming’s pandemic — it can provide some soft blows or bring you to your knees. It is rarely asymptomatic, however. It can prevent planting, spraying and harvesting. It’s a reality farmers are well aware of, but it’s a new experience for the general public with the introduction of the pandemic — overwhelmingly, helplessness.

Sound familiar?

Thankfully, there was help. Americans happily marched to the bank to cash stimulus checks. After all, they were harmed beyond their control.

Uncertainty is worst of coronavirus

I was reading a local newspaper story about the impacts of the coronavirus closures on their businesses. One restaurant owner was quoted saying, “The uncertainty is the hardest part. It’s like you can have a lot of plans and put everything in place and due to no fault of your own, everything can shift in a different direction. … It’s hard coming to grips with that.”

While this pandemic created unpreceded hardship, this possibility looms for farmers every year.

Another owner said, “You have to have a lot of money to weather this storm. You’ve got to have deep pockets. You really do. I don’t have deep pockets. I can’t wave my wand and come up with that kind of money.”

Sound familiar?

Each year, as seeds are sowed into the soil — manicured for years to fit crop needs while protecting the environment — the risk remains real. In any other industry, some might call it foolish to continue.

Bright spots

But the outlook isn't uniformly grim.

Agriculture is cyclical. So, not to say farming in America is always miserable. There are a few good years, and years that are just enough. Farmers want to farm and would just as soon have government stay out of their business, but sometimes it’s essential for mere survival.

Being we all need to eat, and farming is an essential job, it’s my hope the general public — which has now felt the pain firsthand of uncontrollable vulnerability —  won’t be as critical of a stimulus for growers as they try to endure another challenging year.

Several years passed before I found that napkin tucked deeply in my wallet. I never collected on my steak dinner. It just didn’t seem right.  

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