How will falling commodity prices impact the Midwest? All of the region’s major commodity crops — corn, wheat and soybeans — are going to be priced right around the cost of production for the next year, North Dakota State University agriculture economist Frayne Olson told lawmakers this summer at the Midwestern Legislative Conference Annual Meeting. And for the first time in many years, farmers will be losing money on their crops. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has predicted that net farm income will be down 36 percent from 2014 and reach its lowest level since 2002.
The causes of this hit to the farm economy range from a slowing global economy and a stronger U.S. dollar, to higher grain reserves and the weather. But what will be the broader effects of this fall in commodity prices on the region’s states?
The biggest impact will likely be felt in North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Nebraska, states where farm income provides more than 18 percent of gross domestic product and where one in four jobs are tied in some way to agriculture.
Through the summer of 2014, the news about rural employment was not good. While the U.S. economy as a whole was recovering from the recession, the number of people employed in rural areas remained weak, lagging more than 3 percent behind totals for 2007. And between the second quarters of 2010 and 2014, rural employment had grown only by 1.1 percent (compared to 5 percent in urban areas).
Though the number of people unemployed in rural areas was decreasing, that was due in part to factors such as outmigration and aging populations. Actual jobs had declined or stayed the same in the majority of non-metropolitan counties from 2000 through most of 2014.
But there has been a turnaround of late, especially in many of the Midwest’s rural counties. Over the past year, the rate of job gains in rural America, 1.2 percent, has come close to meeting those in urban counties, 1.8 percent.
In his home legislative district, Ohio Sen. Cliff Hite knows well the dilemma facing local agricultural producers: Their tax bills are skyrocketing (by an average of 62 percent this year), he says, while returns are declining and operational costs are rising.
But finding a legislative fix to the problem is much easier said than done.
“Discussion on use value could backfire on farmers,” says Hite, noting that Ohio, like most states, has “an increasingly urban electorate and legislature not understanding why farmers should get a tax reduction.”
In Ohio, and most other Midwestern states, farmland is appraised using a formula based on “current agricultural use value.” Based on factors such as commodity prices, soil productivity, rental rates, production expenses and interest rates, the state determines the income that a farmer can be expected to earn on his or her land.