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10 U.S. Agricultural Sector Trends to Keep Your Eye On in 2015

by Garrett Baldwin

Each year, prognosticators put together trend forecasts for stakeholders in almost every industry. But one of the biggest pitfalls to such measurements is that few companies and individuals are altering their budgets and business strategies well into January. For this reason, monitoring trends in the month’s first year as they pertain to the concluding months of the previous year can provide a better expectation of the next 11 months on the calendar.

Here are ten major trends setting the tone for 2015.

1. Falling Incomes to Hit Farmers

Considering all of the major trends affecting the agricultural sector, farmers are expected to see a steep decline in net income in 2015. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported recently that farmers can expect a decline in net income of roughly 32% in 2015. Declining farm values and falling soy and corn prices are expected to carve into profitability.

This would be the second-straight year that incomes have fallen. The USDA said that net incomes slipped by 16% from 2013 to 2014. The agency predicts that land-owning farmers with low production costs will be able to turn a profit. However, farmers renting at higher levels will see difficulty this year. As a result, farmers will likely seek to cut costs in inputs including fertilizers. Falling incomes are also central to decisions by farmers on whether they will purchase equipment this year.

2. Energy Volatility is Back Front and Center

Oil price volatility has been one of the biggest stories of the financial markets over the last year. Since crude prices crashed to five-year lows in January, logistics professionals and investors have been keeping a keen eye, looking for a bottom. Given the U.S.’ reliance on gasoline for its massive logistics network, sustained low crude prices would be a boon for all companies along the value chain, although downstream firms and consumers stand to benefit the most.

While falling crude prices have filled the headlines, declining natural gas prices have also cratered. Prices per British-Thermal-Unit (BTU) slipped from roughly $4.50 to below $2.60 in just two months. Despite historic snow levels in the Northeastern portion of the country, prices remain subdued. Natural gas consumption is not very high in the agricultural sector. In California alone, for example, the agricultural sector represents just 0.8% of total natural gas consumed.

However, declining natural gas prices will have a pronounced effect in the cost of agricultural inputs such as ammonia. Procurement professionals at fertilizer and agrichemical producers are most likely to benefit. Purchasers of fertilizers, pesticides, and other agrichemicals are seeking benefits from falling energy prices as well.

3. Regulation Not Just a Challenge in Foresight

Regulatory compliance typically becomes a greater challenge for smaller organizations due to costs and complexity. But 2015 is already creating headaches for a wide number of professionals across various states. In fact, the head of the nation’s largest farm group lashed out at government over a rise of regulation at both the state and federal levels.

"As damaging as the weather or economic winds can be, farmers' and ranchers' biggest challenge these days seem to come from their government," Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, said in a January speech.

Stallman took specific aim at the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers over a proposed rule known today as the "Waters of the U.S." rule. The farm group is concerned that the EPA is aiming to expand the definition of "navigable waters" written in the Clean Water Act. The new definition could expand from rivers and lakes to ditches, stream beds and self-made ponds for water storage.

But while that rule is still under consideration, many engaged in the drought-stricken California farming community are grumbling about the need to implement the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. This massive, multi-agency rule went into effect on January 1. However, the state still requires up to two years to write new regulations, create new databases, and educate the farming community on how to manage water.

4. AgTech Investment is Absolutely Booming

The AgTech gold rush essentially took off after Monsanto purchased Climate Corp. for $1 billion. In response, John Deere, Syngenta, BASF and other companies established their own technology suites. Whether the buy or build model is a better business decision for the companies, time will tell. However, it is clear that Silicon Valley, venture capitalists, and private equity companies are poised to continue massive inflows in pursuit of the next big technology startup, although, the bulk of AgTech companies provide returns of 2 to 3.5x at best, according to bioeconomy executive Vonnie Estes.

That’s a stark change from yesteryear. Prior to 2012, little money flowed into AgTech. Investment hit roughly $150 million in 2012… but in 2014 the sector exploded to a whopping $1.8 billion. Money is increasingly flowing into new software programs, drone technologies, big data, IOT, mobility, and life sciences. As farmers attempt to deal with falling prices, the rise of analytics has been central to the maximization of yields. From sensors and improved irrigation management, to application equipment, farmers have boosted their ability to plan and improve the health of their crop.

The investor community continues to keep an eye on new data technologies used to help boost agricultural production and improve yields. As noted in a recent profile of University of California-Davis’ Sustainable AgTech Innovation Center (SATIC), the collaboration of academics, engineers, and investment professionals is providing a boost to new technologies and generating excitement about the industry’s abilities to address steep challenges in water conservation, production, spoilage, among others.

In fact, the school’s AgTech Innovation Fund is poised to raise $50 million in capital for technology startups.

But it’s not just California getting in on the action. For example, The Yield Lab, a new St. Louis-based ag-tech accelerator program, offered five $100,000 equity-investments to five startups in January. More than 100 companies applied for grants, signaling that entrepreneurs around the United States are focusing on the industry’s challenges.

5. Curbing the Dairy Herd

After last year’s boom, dairy prices are on the decline as U.S. exports are crashing. Simply put, there is too much supply on the market right now. Investors can expect lower prices over the next six months until the glut is reduced. That isn’t a good sign for dairy farms, which will attempt to keep their heads above water.

According to Family First Dairy Cooperative in Madison, Wisc., milk prices are expected to fall to $13.50 per hundredweight in March. That’s a huge decline from peak 2014 levels of $25. Not only is there a lot of milk on the market, there is also a huge number of cows. The number of dairy cows in 23 major dairy states hit 8.59 million at the end of 2014. That is 93,000 more cows than in November 2013. Dairy producers may slaughter some stock like they did in 2009 to reduce feed costs.

Milk exports surged as farmers attempted to keep up with global demand. Now, the U.S. is awash in powdered milk thanks to China’s decision to stockpile supplies and Russian trade sanctions against the West.

6. Heavy Manufacturing Concerns

The heavy manufacturing sector is undergoing a significant number of changes. But producers of tractors and other machinery are dealing with a significant inventory of used vehicles on the markets. Large producers are concerned about farmer purchases in 2015, with a significant focus on mid- to large-scale operations.

However, growing popularity of leasing remains a concern for companies particularly at the regulatory level. With changes to the section 179 tax deduction of the tax code, decisions to purchase or lease are likely to weigh on farming operations. While Congress restored the expense deduction to $500,000 and the Accelerated First Year Depreciation (AFYD) to 50%, whether farming operations will revert to purchasing over the increasingly popular leasing alternative will be an important question in 2015.

7. How Low Can Corn Go?

It’s not just the dairy sector that is struggling in the wake of falling prices. Corn prices soared above $8 per bushel in 2012. Today, prices have fallen below $4.

Farmers have been hit especially hard by falling grain prices. In fact, farmland prices in the Corn Belt fell for the first time in 28 years, according to the Federal Reserve. Over 2014, corn prices slipped 14% thanks to a surge in production. Last year, American producers delivered 14.2 billion bushels.

But 2015 is going to be just as difficult for the sector. With prices below breakeven, farmers must wonder how they plan to sell corn at a profit when much of last year’s crop remains unsold. With a huge amount of stored corn on the market, farmers are likely wondering how they will be able to finance the 2016 crop.

With financial challenges on the horizon, some farms may not survive this ongoing price correction.

8. Worries in the Cattle Sector

Low prices in corn are positive for the beef industry, as feed prices are set for a decline.

In 2014, the U.S. cattle herd hit a 63-year low, fueling higher prices. However, high beef prices have a number of financial professionals concerned about who will be left holding the bag should a correction hit the market.

For some in the agricultural finance industry, it’s not a question of “if” but “when” prices will decline and affect lenders. Falling feed prices have a historical influence on rising herds. Agri-lenders anticipate a similar herd expansion from historic lows, which could affect their financing.

In early February, Purdue University agricultural economist Chris Hurt said that the combination of abundant feed and higher prices have led to the U.S. herd’s expansion for the first time in 2007. Prices may remain heightened in 2015, but a correction appears to be on the horizon and on the minds of the financial sector.

9. Bigger Farms Are Expected

For decades, farms have grown larger. The adoption of technology has been central to increased profits and more money to purchase land and expand operations. That trend isn’t expected to slow down in 2015. In fact, the USDA projects that the average farm will continue to increase in size this year, particularly at the mega-farm level. The agency notes that “most cropland is on farms with at least 1,100 acres, and many farms are 5 and 10 times that size.”

Economies of scale naturally provide greater advantages to larger farms, as they are able to maximize labor costs and capital allocations. But another major trend is likely to affect increased consolidation in the sector: farmer age.

With fewer farmers operating in the United States, and many of them growing older, the average age of an American farmer is 58 years old.

From 2007 to 2012, the number of farmers between the ages of 35 and 44 plunged by 24%. In that same period, farmers between 45 and 54 declined by 23%. The adoption of new technology has been critical to reducing labor needs, the need for income security in one’s retirement years has been an important factor in farm sales. With fewer younger American farmers, near-retirement farm owners are being forced to take the hard option of selling their acres.

10. Interest Rate Watch

Investors are naturally keeping a keen eye on interest rates. So too are financial lenders in the agricultural sector.

According to a recent survey of agricultural lenders conducted by Kansas State University’s Department of Agricultural Economics, lenders are anticipating higher interest rates in 2015. Naturally, this will depend on when the Federal Reserve decides to boost rates from the record-low levels that have been part of the its monetary policy since 2008.

The U.S. financial markets have already priced in an interest rate increase for October 2015. Following a recent jobs report, the markets also priced in a second increase by December 2016. Although investors are expected the increase this year, expectations are increasing for a jump in rates in either June or July.

Seasonality is naturally a driving factor in the loan industry; however, rising rate increases would naturally affect the sector at a time that grain prices are falling and concerns about high beef prices remain constant.

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