Growing Difficulties: Kansas farmers caught between good times and bad
Dan Daniels says there are few things he loves more than a challenge, and this year he’s getting just that. He stands to lose more than $100,000 on his farm near Topeka, Kansas. It’s a story that began a year ago, strangely, in one of the most profitable growing seasons farmers there had ever seen.
In 2008, soaring fuel prices and global demand for food drove the value of Dan’s crops sky high. Corn sold for more than seven dollars per bushel, an all-time record. The harvest on his approximately 2,000 acres made up for previous lean years and then some.
But many farmers will tell you that the good times are just a sure sign that the bad times are coming. Today, they’re paying the price for last year’s jackpot.
Those soaring commodity prices also drove up farmers’ “input costs,” the expense of putting the next year’s crop in the ground. This past spring, Dan paid big money for products like fertilizer and seed. All told, he figures every bushel of corn he harvests in the fall will have cost him nearly four dollars to produce. But that’s not necessarily a problem if he continues selling it for record prices.
Except that he won’t. Since the economic downturn began late last year, prices for farm products have plummeted. The corn Dan was selling for more than seven dollars per bushel is now selling for half that, well below his input cost. He’s on the wrong side of what he calls his “break-even line,” which is why he could lose as much as $100,000 on this year’s corn crop alone.
A loss that big would make a lot of people pretty worried, or at least disappointed. But even as Dan laid out the stark numbers for us, he had a spark in his eye and a hint of a grin on his lips. He knows he could have chosen another, easier line of work, one with less risk and more leisure. He’s not kidding when he says, “It takes a different type of person to do this… It takes somebody who loves a challenge.”
While years like 2008 may fill the bank accounts, it seems that for farmers like Dan, the tough years, like this one, fill the mind and soul. Just breaking even will require every bit of know-how, every trick they’ve learned in their decades on the land. A challenge, indeed. Dan may not yet know if he’ll eke out a profit or lose big this year, but a few things are certain: whatever the outcome, he’ll be back in the fields next spring, putting a new crop in the ground, another season smarter and ready for the challenge sure to come.