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Unsettling story leads outlook for 2018 crop prices

The best farmers across the Southeast had outstanding production and yields with several records set in 2017. They still lost money or didn’t make any profits.

(Editor's note: This story was updated 11 a.m. Feb. 9 on the latest information about new seed cotton program.)

Before delivering a row crop economic outlook for 2018, Don Shurley gave an alarming anecdote.

“If you’d have come to me and asked me, ‘Don, who is the most successful farmer you know?’ one name would immediately come to my mind. If I mentioned his name, many of you would know who I’m talking about. I found out this week when he tells me, ‘I almost broke even (last year),” Shurley said. “I can tell you that this farmer has the production skills and is an excellent manager in the field and on paper with records and on marketing. He is the most complete package that I know. … That tells me that the economic conditions in agriculture are not good and are probably worse than most of us think.”

Shurley, a professor emeritus of cotton economics with University of Georgia, was speaking at the annual Georgia Ag Forecast Feb. 5.

Farmers, including Georgia farmers, know they have faced a string of tough economic years. And 2017 hammered the point home. Many farmers across the Southeast had outstanding production and yields with several records set. But much like the farmer in Shurley’s story, they still lost money or didn’t make any profit in 2017 with repeated years of low crop prices and high debt loads weighing the farm economy down. 2018 doesn’t promise to bring a much-better economic outlook for row crop farmers in the Southeast, but there might be some bright spots.

Other than Shurley’s disquieting story, here are a few takeaways from the Georgia Ag Forecast meeting in Macon Feb. 5 and from the 2018 Georgia Ag Forecast ‘Situation and Outlook Reports’ presented to those who attended.

Takeaway No. 1

U.S. gross cash receipts for crops decreased almost 2 percent compared to 2016. However, net cash income increased 2.7 percent in 2017, reflecting a stabilization of crop prices in 2017. But cash receipts and net income are still well below 2014 levels.

Takeaway No. 2

Though 2017 balances sheets may not be bleeding as heavily as in previous years for some farmers, the average debt-to-asset ratio increased in 2017 for the sixth straight year, says Brady Brewer, UGA economist, adding that lenders report a deterioration of working capital with farmers they lend to, and farmers face cash flow issues heading into 2018 with tighter restrictions on loans.

In 2017, farmers’ overall debt load increased almost 3 percent from 2016. Machinery inventory on farms decreased by 2.1 percent from 2016, highlighting that farmers have less cash in-hand to replace older equipment, Brewer says.

Takeaway No. 3 - Cotton

The global cotton situation has changed compared to a few years ago, and a better economic outlook appears to have good footing to stand on — but that doesn’t mean a return to 80-cent cotton any time soon or that 60-cent cotton might not come back, said Shurley.

World cotton demand has increased and the balance with supply has improved. That’s why fall 2018 cotton prices were trading in the mid-70s as 2018 began. Basis remains strong, and farmers should be able to price part of their production at between 72 cents and 75 cents. Shurley expects a 2018 price range of between 67 cents and 73 cents per pound.

Shurley doesn’t expect cotton acreage to change much from 2017 in Georgia, and cotton productions costs will continue to be a concern, especially if the silverleaf whitefly becomes again the major problem it was for Southeast cotton growers in 2017. Cost to growers to control the pest ranged between $30 and $60 per acre with some reports as high as $100 per acre.

Cottonseed prices have dropped dramatically, and, depending on yields, that adds $25 to $45 per acre to the cost of production.

Takeaway No. 4 - Corn

UGA economist Adam Rabinowitz predicts corn prices for Georgia’s 2018 harvest will have positive basis and be between $4.06 and $4.23 a bushel.

Takeaway No. 5 - Soybeans

For soybeans, Rabinowitz forecasts prices to be up to $10.25 per bushel by midsummer. With a slight negative basis, prices in Georgia for 2018 harvest time look to be between $9.52 and $9.61 per bushel.

Takeaway No. 6 – Farm Bill

As the ag forecast closed Feb. 5 in Macon, there was some question as to what would happen to generic (old cotton) base.

(Updated 11 a.m. Feb. 9) - The Senate’s two-year budget passed the House and was signed into law early Feb. 9 and it includes funding to create a seed cotton program, one that combines lint and seed into one covered commodity eligible for Price Loss Coverage and Agriculture Risk Coverage with a reference price of 36.7 cents per pound. The proposal would give farmers and landowners options to convert old temporary cotton/generic base into permanent base acres for the new cotton program.

The Georgia Ag Forecast is an annual seminar series presented by the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences in partnership with the Georgia Department of Agriculture and the Georgia Center of Innovation for Agribusiness. It was given at six locations across the state during a weeklong period.

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