The 2023 Agricultural Year in Review
By: Brent Gloy and David Widmar
The Agriculture Headlines That Caught Our Attention This Year
For our final post of the calendar year, we are reflecting on the biggest agricultural stories of 2023. With minimal delays, our list:
In early March (while several of us were at Commodity Classic), regulators closed the Silicon Valley Bank. After the previous banking crisis, a bank stuffed with long-dated Treasuries going bankrupt caught many by surprise perhaps providing another lesson about risk management. And if you were wondering, SVB made ag loans (here and here). SVB wasn’t the only U.S. bank to fail (the FDIC counted five), and the most prominent bank failure was the Swiss bank Credit Suisse.
Mexico Allows GM Corn Imports for Feed
Perhaps the biggest near-miss for ag markets, Mexico clarified that corn imports used for feed won’t be included in the country’s 2024 GMO ban. A trade dispute will linger, but the worst-case outcomes are avoided.
First, was the drama about who would be the Speaker of the House. Then, came May’s debt-ceiling debates before the speakership drama returned. It’s hard to know if these issues were the cause, but there was no new farm bill. Once it became clear a new, five-year bill wasn’t even close, the 2018 Farm Bill got a one-year extension. Better luck next year?
The Fed Takes a Breather
The Fed’s last rate hike was in July, raising the Fed Funds rate by 200 basis points in 2023 (a total of 525 basis points since March 2022). However, the yield curve has been getting less inverted as long-term rates trended higher throughout the fall. In short, the “long, variable” lags of monetary policy are still in play (including efforts to shrink the balance sheet).
Global Drama Continues
Where to start? China tried to broker peace between Russia and Ukraine. Drones attacked the Kremlin. There was the Russian Coup turned stand down turned fatal airplane ‘accident.’ After a year of finger-pointing, it now looks like Ukraine was behind the Nord Stream pipeline explosion in 2022. Continued support for Ukraine will come down to the wire as Congress works on a deal to continue providing resources.
Conflict returned to Israel and Palestine 50 years after the Yom Kippur War of 1971. Conflict across the region has resulted in commercial ships being attacked, and U.S. Navy ships have been shooting down missiles and drones.
On the one hand, thankfully, none of these situations have spiraled into larger global conflicts. On the other hand, it’s been a bit of a surprise that oil prices – and other commodities – have been mostly lower given the chaos. However, it is unclear how long this will last following the announcement by BP that it will no longer ship through the Red Sea region. Oil prices started rising Monday based on the news. Several container companies – including MSC, Maersk, CMA CGM Group, and Hapag-Lloyd – previously announced they would no longer ship through the region.
Corn Yield Again Below Trend
At 174.9 bushels per acre, the USDA December estimate pegs the corn crop 6.7 bushels below the trend line, the 7th lowest corn yield in 35 years. It’s also the fifth consecutive below-trend yield. (2018 was 5.2 bushels above trend).
June Acreage Surprise
Perhaps the biggest story in the grain market was the June acreage report, which revealed that the low soybean/corn price ratio in late 2022 did its job and motivated producers to plant corn.
Corn Stocks Turn Burdensome
Despite below-trend yields, large corn acreage sent 2023/24 ending stocks close to 15%. Soybeans remain tight, but corn’s balance sheet will carry the burden into next year.
“It’s a bird, it’s a plane…”
UFOs again made headlines, including a congressional hearing, but this year’s flying object mention goes to the balloons. After drifting across the U.S., fighter jets shot down the Chinese spy contraption that carried a payload two or three school buses long. In total, four objects were shot down across North America. Already tense, U.S.–China relations floated even lower.
Panda Diplomacy is Dead – Long Live Panda Diplomacy
In November, the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., said goodbye to their pandas, making it impossible to deny that Panda Diplomacy was struggling. During a San Francisco meeting with President Joe Biden a few weeks later, Premier Xi said the pandas would return. While details have been limited, perhaps future readers will reflect on this list and conclude that the U.S. and China reached rock bottom this year.
China Hits Peak Population
As far as demographics go, China reached a worrisome milestone as many noted China’s population is now declining (here, here, or here). While ag exports will still benefit from rising Chinese incomes, India (formerly and perhaps soon-to-be known as Bharat) may soon become the most populated country.
Farmland Market Persists
The farmland market maintained its footing in 2023 despite rising interest rates. To be clear, values didn’t continue their double-digit pace but, instead, were unchanged to modestly higher. Randy Dickhut has kept us up-to-date with the various farmland value reports and reviewed the 2023 farmland market.
Fertilizer Prices Return to Earth
Throughout 2023, fertilizer prices have been significantly lower. In 2022, anhydrous ammonia prices peaked at over $1,600 per ton. This spring, prices averaged $1,100 per ton and have been around $850 per ton in recent weeks. From a budget perspective, corn fertilizer expenses were more than $270 per acre in 2022 and $202 for the 2023 planted crop, and they have fallen to $150 per acre this fall.
Move over crypto and NFTs, A.I. and ChatGPT captured the world’s attention this year. First, it was about the chatbot’s mind-blowing capacities, then about all the microchips the tech consumed, and finally, it was about all the boardroom drama. For A.I., 2023 is just the beginning as rules, regulations, and business models must be developed. For most of us in agriculture, A.I.’s popularity is confusing to many of us, given the original A.I.
By the way, many have noticed that ChatGPT has gotten lazier in recent weeks, prompting many to wonder if it’s picked up a case of the holiday blues (winter break, seasonal depression) from human behavior.
Lab-grown meat approved
Certain to prompt too many “taste like chicken’ jokes, the USDA approved the first lab-grown meat in the country.
Where’s the Beef (Cow)?
The USDA confirms the smallest U.S. beef cow herd, down 2.6% from 2022, in over five decades. The realities of this trend will likely affect supermarket prices and livestock markets for a few years.
Farm Income Remains Historically High
Countless headlines noted a significant year-over-year decline in net farm incomes, but that’s expected after 2022 set a new inflation-adjust high. To wrap up this list positively, farm incomes in 2023 remained historically high. This isn’t true for every commodity, geography, or producer, but it’s still good news.
Wrapping It Up
While lists like these are fun to read, you might have a different list of personal or business “top stories” for the year. (Check out our 2022 list here to see what changed, and what didn’t.) What were your biggest stories in 2023?
Wishing you a Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and success in 2024.