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Farmers in midst of economic ‘wonderland’

It’s kinda like an economic version of Alice in Wonderland — while U.S. financial empires are crumbling, public confidence in the economy is spiraling downward, ominous mutterings about recession and even depression are heard, and the Fed desperately attempts to shore up the banking system, most major agriculture sectors are enjoying unprecedented favor.

Not that long ago, one could hardly give wheat away; in February, futures prices flirted with $20. Other grains, long plagued by burdensome stocks, were mostly in a lethargic trading range year to year. Contrast that with recent months when soybean futures have reached stratospheric levels; corn prices have continued well above long-term norms; rice prices are soaring as the USDA predicts stocks dropping to the lowest level in over 40 years; and even cotton seems poised for a run upward as stocks move downward and plantings continue to decline.

Investors are showering money on commodity funds, into farm management groups, and in stocks of equipment companies and input suppliers.

New machinery dealers are in an unaccustomed position of having a backlog of orders. In 2007, new combine sales rose more than 15 percent; two wheel-drive tractor sales were up nearly 26 percent; and four wheel-drive tractors were up nearly 23 percent.

While urban real estate markets are in the toilet, farmland prices are hitting record levels in many areas, and the precipitous decline in the value of the dollar still makes it cheap to European and other foreign investors.

Ag companies like Monsanto, Deere, Agco, Terra Nitrogen, DuPont, and other major suppliers have seen significant runups in their stock prices, as have ag-related companies such as Cal Maine Foods, Del Monte, Sanderson Farms, and others.

The economy may be going to hell in a handbasket, but everyone’s wanting a piece of the boom in agriculture that USDA analysts are saying could push net cash farm income this year to a record $96.6 billion.

For those who’ve endured years of barely making ends meet in farming, it’s like, wow!, pinch me to be sure I’m not dreaming.

Granted, input costs haven’t exactly stagnated — anything nitrogen is through the roof, diesel and other energy costs seem to go up hourly, and seed, chemical, and equipment prices have escalated in concert.

Still, with the tremendous improvements in varieties and yields, and advances in technology, chemicals, and management options that have enabled farmers to push production per acre to ever higher levels, there’s money to be made in today’s high-flying markets. Not to mention a bit of lagniappe in sharply lower interest rates as a result of the subprime fiascos, the Bear Stearns meltdown, and other fiscal follies that have other sectors of the economy on the ropes.

Agriculture is nothing if not cyclical, veterans say, and markets that seem destined to rise forever can, in a horrifying instant, take a nosedive.

This time around, though, analysts say fundamentals are much different — that growing, more affluent populations in China, India, and Southeast Asia will help keep commodity prices strong well into the next decade.

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