Once harvest is completed in any given year, farm operators and non-farm landowners begin the tenuous task of negotiating annual land rental rates for the next crop year. Approximately 60-70 percent of the crop land in the Upper Midwest is under a land rental agreement, and most rental agreements are negotiated on an annual basis. There are some two- or three-year leases in existence, which are more common in rental agreements among family members. Arriving at equitable land rental rates for the 2020 crop year is even more of a challenge, given the variable crop yields in 2019 and continued low grain market prices, as well as uncertainty surrounding trade negotiations.
In the past, many land rental arrangements have been between farm operators and landlords whoj usually have known each other quite well, sometimes being neighbors or family members. However, in recent years, more and more land ownership has been transferred to family members or family trusts outside of the local area where the land is located. Some landowners are hiring the services of a land management company to represent them in land rental negotiations. Many times, farm operators have had very limited previous working relationships with the newer landlords or those representing landowners. This can lead to more challenges when negotiating annual land rental rates, especially during more difficult economic times in crop farming, such as we are now experiencing.
Crop producers in the Upper Midwest are indicating mixed crop production results in 2019. Some producers reporting near average corn and soybean yields, while producers in other areas had some of their lowest crop yields in the past two decades, many for the second year in a row. Many farm operators in portions of southern Minnesota and northern Iowa had corn yields that were 10-20 percent above their 10-year crop insurance actual production history (APH) yields in 2016 and 2017, before having corn yields that were 10-20 percent or more below long-term average yields in 2018 and 2019. This points out why it is best to use the updated 10-year APH yields, or other verifiable historical yield data, to make yield projections for cash rental rate estimates for the coming year.
Corn and soybean prices
Cash corn prices have remained fairly low for nearly over four years (2016-2019), though recently there have been some signs of slight improvement, due to the poor crop yields in 2019. Soybean prices have remained fairly low following the Chinese tariffs on U.S. soybean imports in mid-year of 2018, which continue to be in effect at this time. U.S. soybean export levels to China in 2019 have been only a fraction of what they were prior to the ongoing trade war. Up until 2018, China had been importing approximately one-third of the U.S. soybean production on an annual basis. The estimated U.S. soybean carryover at the end of the 2018-19 marketing year on Aug. 31, 2019, was over 900 million bushels, which was at the highest level ever recorded.
USDA is currently projecting the national average farm-level soybean market price for the 2019-20 marketing year at an average of $9 per bushel, compared to final national average price of $8.48 per bushel for 2018-19. USDA is estimating the national average corn price for the 2019-20 marketing year at an average of $3.85 per bushel, compared to $3.61 per bushel for 2018-19. Even though there is some current strength in local grain markets, forward price bids for fall 2020 are currently much lower. Southern Minnesota prices for fall 2020 are near $3.30-3.40 per bushel for corn and $8.30-8.40 per bushel for soybeans, with even lower prices in western Minnesota and the Dakotas. It is probably not realistic to base 2020 cash rental rates on projected prices of near $4 per bushel for corn and $9 per bushel for soybeans, given the current fundamentals in the grain markets.
Most farm operators have received some market facilitation program (MFP) payments in 2019 to compensate for some of the financial loss from the depressed market prices that have resulted from the ongoing trade war. However, these MFP payments did not totally account for the financial loss incurred by many crop producers in 2019, especially in areas with reduced crop yields. USDA has indicated that farmers should not plan on MFP payments for 2020, so they should not be factored into 2020 cash rental agreements.
Average crop input expenses for crop production in Southern Minnesota, excluding land costs declined somewhat in 2017 and 2018; however, expense estimates were a bit higher for 2019, especially for fertilizer, fuel, repairs and harvest costs. Most farm operators will likely have similar operating expenses for 2020. Costs for operating interest in 2020 could be slightly lower compared to previous years, due to declining interest rates; however, this may be offset by increasing levels of farm operating debt. Production costs are highly variable from farm to farm, depending on fertility level, availability of livestock manure and farm operator efficiency.
The tight cash flow margins in crop production for the 2020 crop year are causing concern for farm operators, as they negotiate land rental rates for the next year. The very tight, or even negative profit margins for next year’s crop, are also a concern for ag lenders, as they begin to refinance crop producers for the 2020 crop year. Some farm operators will need to do some serious evaluation before agreeing to pay higher land rental rates for 2020, which could potentially lead to some large financial losses for their farm operation.
Lower rent rates?
In many cases, landlords have lowered land rental rates in the past few years, due to the lower commodity prices and tighter cash flow margins. Now landlords are wondering if they need to make further adjustments in land rental rates; however, this can be a difficult decision, considering that real estate taxes on farm land are quite high in some areas. Demand for rented farm land has remained very strong in some areas; however, that demand has started temper a bit for rented land at higher land rental rates, due to the continued low commodity prices. Serious and honest negotiation between farm operators and landlords will be required to arrive at equitable rental rates for 2020 and beyond.
An alternative for farm operators and landlords to consider for 2020 may be to enter into a flexible cash rent agreement, which sets a reasonable base rental rate that is based on average crop yields, typical production costs and projected 2020 prices. A flexible lease would have provisions to increase the final annual rental rate in the event of exceptional crop yields and/or higher-than-anticipated crop prices in 2020. These final cash rent adjustments should be based on actual crop yields and/or crop market prices in fall of 2020, with any rental rate adjustments occurring on the final land rental payment for the year. If the base rental rate is set higher than realistic breakeven levels for the farm operator, the flexible lease will not be very effective to address the added financial risk.
Kent Thiesse, farm management analyst, has prepared an updated information sheet: Flexible Lease Agreements for 2020. To receive a free copy of this sheet and other land rental information, contact him at: email@example.com
Iowa State University has some very good resources on flexible cash leases and written cash rental lease contracts, including sample cash rental contracts, which are available on their Ag Decision Maker website.