Crop report may influence food pricesby Mark Steil, Minnesota Public Radio
A government report out today may influence the prices consumers pay for food in coming months. Grain prices have played a significant role in rising food costs this year. But those prices have dropped dramatically since last summer. Today's U.S. Agriculture Department estimate of the nation's grain harvest could send those prices back up again if it shows a smaller than expected crop.
Worthington, Minn. — The crop report could fuel even more gyrations, in a year which already has seen unprecedented swings in grain markets.
Farmers watched corn and soybeans climb to record levels in the early part of summer. Since then, farmers like Tom Mesner have watched those prices fall almost as fast as they had once gone up.
"It's a hard one to figure," Mesner said. "I don't know if it's all supply and demand. I mean it's anybody's guess. Hopefully we're not being taken advantage of."
There are a lot of people trying to figure out exactly what caused the downturn in grain prices. One reason was weather. The grain price peak came during the worst of the Midwest flooding, when it looked like too much rain would reduce the fall harvest. When the weather improved, grain prices began sinking.
A second cause, though, is tied to the broader financial markets. Darin Newsom, a senior analyst for DTN, an Omaha-based business information company, said speculators have reduced their investments in grain, accelerating the price declines.
"My theory has always been that this group really helps dictate the direction of the market," Newsom said.
Newsom said, by his calculation, speculative buying probably added as much as a $1.50 a bushel to the corn peak last summer, when prices reached nearly $8 a bushel. Now, he said, they're having an equally big impact on the drop in corn prices.
Financial investors are leaving the grain markets because they're worried an economic recession will prompt consumers to cut back spending. Newsom said that would cause reduced demand for the farm commodities they've invested in.
"Huge questions over what's going to happen to demand this year, not just in corn but in crude oil and sugar and wheat, and all of these other markets," Newsom said. "Again tied to the worldwide financial problems that we're seeing."
Newsom said speculators' exit from the corn market has been dramatic. Federal regulators track who buys what in the commodity markets. And Newsom said the data shows that since July, speculators have cut their spending on corn contracts nearly in half.
During that time, corn prices fell some 44 percent. The drop should be good news for other parts of the farm economy like hog producers, who lost money when high corn prices caused their feed costs to soar. But hog prices have also dropped recently, down 20 percent in a month, also because of recession worries.
The commodity price drops, though, will likely help consumers. The August Consumer Price Index, the most recent available, showed that the rate of food price inflation has slowed.
Today's crop production report could accelerate that trend, if it shows that the harvest will provide an abundant grain supply.
- Morning Edition, 10/10/2008, 6:50 a.m.