Farmers see uncertainty in future grain prices

Photos by Marlena Sloss/The Herald
Mill Creek Farms Co-owner Randy Mehringer harvests wheat in Jasper on Thursday. Co-owner Duane Hopf said COVID-19 poses another hurdle for farmers by creating more uncertainty in future market grain prices.

By ALLEN LAMAN
alaman@dcherald.com

Since COVID-19 hit the area in March, crop farmers in Dubois County have largely continued business as usual.

Kenny Eck, an educator at Dubois County Purdue Extension, explained that from what he’s seen on a local level, corn and soybean producers haven’t been hit as hard as some of their livestock counterparts.

Still, potential concerns exist in how the pandemic could further affect already depressed grain prices in the future.

“What is the grain price going to do?” Eck asked rhetorically in a Thursday phone interview. “Because if the grain price is low, that’s going to affect farm income and cause challenges in keeping some of the farms afloat.”

Farmers already purchased planting supplies like fertilizer and pesticides before the coronavirus began to spread, Eck said, adding that social distancing isn’t jeopardized when planting. Because of this, the production aspect of crop farmers’ jobs did not change.

Mill Creek Farms Co-owner Randy Mehringer, right, drives a combine while Co-owner Duane Hopf drives a tractor while harvesting wheat in a field in Jasper on Thursday.

But side effects of the coronavirus have seeped over into the work of those who were sitting on crops harvested in 2019. As the amount of gas purchased decreased during periods of travel restrictions and shutdowns, ethanol plants shut down, dropping the demand for corn.

When big Indiana packing plants and the hog industry went offline as well, the meat industry dropped “a little bit” in its usage of corn and soybeans — but not as much as could have been experienced if those closures continued, Eck said. He added that locally, county turkey producers didn’t shut down, “so there wasn’t a big concern with the poultry industry.”

Eck explained that the ethanol industry has not fully recovered but is “getting pretty close” as travel increases, and as customers return to stores to purchase meat, livestock production is following a more predictable direction.

“But again, we don’t know what the COVID is going to do,” Eck said of looming uncertainties.

Duane Hopf, co-owner of Mill Creek Farms, which is located north and west of Jasper, echoed Eck in saying that his day-to-day operations haven’t been affected much in recent months. Facing unknowns is just part of his job.

Mill Creek Farms Co-owner Randy Mehringer demonstrates how the thresher removes the grain from the stalks and husks in a field in Jasper on Thursday.

“We are living in a world of uncertainty almost all the time,” Hopf said. “We have variables that affect our operation constantly. Being the weather, and the markets. So, this health concern that’s been going through the nation and the world, really, has certainly affected us, but probably has more of our suppliers and accompanying agencies and industries that complement our work.”

The bulk of Hopf’s 3,500-acre operation centers on corn, soybeans and winter wheat. After being harvested, those products are sold at terminals on the Ohio River, as well as local feed sources and ethanol plants.

His farm “pretty much worked as if there was nothing different” during the planting season, he said, and Hopf said days would pass when he wouldn’t even think of the virus because he was so busy and tied into the process.

Prices “definitely came down” due to the pandemic, he said, as export markets reacted cautiously to worldwide nervousness. When that happened, the government responded by offering disaster relief payments, and like many farmers, Hopf tapped into those funds.

He is currently working with reduced-price prospects — a reality that he has come to expect in his 35 years of farming.

“It’s just kind of a business adjustment that you make,” he said of staying on his toes. “You curtail spending on capital projects and equipment the best you know how to kind of get through and live another year, if you will.”

Hopf began harvesting wheat on Wednesday. Crop farmers are still doing the best they can, as safely as they can, he said.




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