26 posts categorized "Agriculture"

Ninth District Beige Book: Signs of moderate economic growth in spring

Since early April, some key sectors in the Ninth District economy have varied, but overall growth has been moderate. Home sales and prices increased at a strong rate, although residential construction remained flat. Energy and mining activity continued to decline, contributing to a slowdown in spending and employment in the energy-producing region of western North Dakota and eastern Montana. While prices were relatively stable and wage increases remained mild, some signs of increased wage pressures appeared.

Residential real estate and consumer spending grew

Residential real estate activity showed strong increases in many parts of the Ninth District during April compared with a year earlier. For example, in western Wisconsin, home sales increased 25 percent and the median sales price rose 12 percent, while in Minnesota, home sales were up 20 percent with the median sales price up 12 percent. Home sales were buoyed in part by a relatively mild spring in many parts of the district. Meanwhile, residential construction was flat overall.

Retail and tourism spending also contributed to positive economic growth. According to a recent survey of district business leaders conducted by the Minneapolis Fed, 40 percent of respondents noted that retail spending increased over the past three months, while 12 percent reported that sales had decreased. An auto dealers association expects Minnesota vehicle sales in 2015 to exceed last year’s levels. Tourism activity was solid in many parts of the district in part due to seasonably warm weather. A travel agency in Minnesota noted that leisure travel bookings for March and April were up over 10 percent.

Meanwhile, manufacturing activity was level overall in April and May. The impact of the recent increase in the exchange value of the dollar likely had an effect on district manufacturers, as 29 percent of manufacturer respondents to the district business-leader survey reported that the dollar’s rise had decreased sales, though most reported that sales had not changed. “Increased value of the dollar has hurt our bottom line because of lower revenue from outside the U.S. on same volume,” commented a respondent. An index of manufacturing activity by Creighton University increased in April from the previous month in Minnesota and South Dakota; the index fell in North Dakota, but was at levels consistent with slight growth in all three states.

Natural resources sectors were slow

Natural resources sectors, including agriculture, energy and mining, had a depressing effect on the district economy. While progress in crop planting was well ahead of its five-year average and drought conditions were relieved by recent rains in several areas, the Minneapolis Fed’s first-quarter (April) survey of agricultural credit conditions showed that 79 percent of respondents said farm incomes fell in the previous three months, with a similar outlook for the second quarter. The avian flu has impacted a number of poultry producers and is expected to cost Minnesota turkey producers more than $300 million.

In the energy-producing area of the district, the drilling rig count dropped to 79 in mid-May, all in North Dakota (no rigs were active in Montana), down from almost 200 in September 2014. The continued decline in drilling activity led to layoffs of oilfield workers and reduced demand for support services. Nevertheless, oil production levels and transportation remained relatively high, albeit down from record levels set in December. The slowdown in oil drilling made its way to Wisconsin and Minnesota, where output at mines producing sand for hydraulic fracturing was expected to decline this year and one facility was idled. However, the overall economic impact of the reduction in oil and gas drilling has remained relatively contained to the energy-producing area.

Some tightening in labor markets and signs of wage pressures

As the district continued to show signs of moderate economic growth, hiring increased on balance and labor markets tightened further. According to a recent ad hoc survey by the Minneapolis Fed, 40 percent of respondents said their ability to retain employees has become harder over the past 12 months, while just 3 percent said it has become easier. “We are seeing a lot of employee turnover, as most see this as the best way to impact salary and opportunity,” noted a respondent to the professional business services survey. A Minnesota manufacturers survey found that hiring plans for the upcoming year are similar to a year ago. However, labor markets softened in the energy-producing area of the district; online job openings were down 23 percent in April compared with a year earlier in the North Dakota oil patch (see Chart 1).

Prices were relatively stable, except for a recent increase in gasoline prices. Wage increases remained mild in April and May, with some instances of increased wage pressures. For example, about a quarter of respondents to the aforementioned ad hoc survey were raising starting pay for most job categories to attract new hires (see Chart 2). Three health care systems in Minnesota have agreed to a minimum wage of $15 per hour under recent contract agreements.

Beige Book June 2015 -- 6-12-15

A bumper crop of storage

A bumper 2014 harvest combined with low prices has piled up crops at grain elevators and on farms in the district.

Last fall, growers in five district states (excluding Michigan’s Upper Peninsula) harvested about 4.4 billion bushels of corn, soybeans and wheat, according to government statistics. That was 3 percent more than the previous year and the largest harvest of those major district crops in the last five years. A decline in crop prices since 2013 induced many farmers to store their crops over the winter rather than ship them to market via rail or river barge.

The result was a cornucopia of stored crops; the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that December stocks of corn, soybeans and wheat increased 7 percent over 2013, pushing up crop storage (see Chart 1). Almost 3.5 billion bushels of crops—equal to about 80 percent of the 2014 harvest—was held at grain elevators, other commercial storage facilities or on the farm. (That amount included unprocessed crops left over from the 2013 harvest.)

Storage on farms -- 4-6-15 CH1-2

About 40 percent of crops were stored in Minnesota (see Chart 2), the top producer among district states of corn, the region’s biggest cash crop. And in every district state, a large share of crops was stored on farms in silos or bins. Over the past 15 years, farmers have invested substantially in on-farm storage to avoid paying for off-farm storage.

“Given the low prices, every square inch of on-farm storage was utilized this year,”’ said Bob Zelenka, executive director of the Minnesota Grain and Feed Association, which represents rural elevators and feed mills.

Regardless of crop prices, farmers are expected to ship large quantities of stored crops to market by the summer. This has raised concerns about renewed congestion on freight railroads, which transport the bulk of agricultural commodities in the district.

Railroad capacity in the district last year was strained by severe weather and rising freight volumes, including increased shipments of crude oil. For much more on railroad capacity in the district, see the upcoming April issue of the fedgazette.

Ninth District economy grew in January and February

Oil has dominated the headlines, but the Ninth District economy continued to expand in January and February, with many indicators exhibiting strength and labor markets appearing to have tightened. Several sectors, particularly energy and other commodities, are dealing with low prices. But counteractive, positive conditions for consumers and others helped limit the negative effects. Mild winter weather has had similarly mixed effects.

A wide swath of sectors saw growth. For example, a manufacturing index increased, indicating expansion in the Dakotas and Minnesota. A manufacturer of capital equipment reported that demand in January was stronger than expected. In the services sector, a merger and acquisition services firm noted increased consulting activity and a web design and programming firm noted increased interest from newer firms. In addition, railroads plan to invest more in capital equipment in 2015, and several retailers noted sales increases.

Labor markets continued to tighten, as unemployment rates dropped in many areas of the district. Business owners in South Dakota and western Montana noted difficulty finding workers to fill open positions. A Minnesota staffing firm reported that finding workers was difficult and that competition for those workers increased recently.

As labor markets have tightened, wage pressures appear to have increased in some areas. While data suggest that overall wage increases have been moderate, there were more frequent reports of wage increases above 3 percent during the past couple of months. A recent ad hoc survey by the Minneapolis Fed also found that more employers planned to increase starting pay. Nevertheless, overall wage increases generally remained moderate. Lower energy and other commodities prices affected different regions of the Ninth District.

Lower oil prices affected producers as they cut back on new development in North Dakota and Montana by nearly 30 percent from the beginning of the year, leading to reduced hours and layoffs of oilfield workers (see chart). The number of job postings in the region has also decreased, but several companies in various sectors are still looking for employees. Wage pressures and apartment rental prices have eased somewhat in the energy-producing region.

Beige book blog 3-10-15

Among other commodities, the evidence is mixed. For example, lower metal prices caused a Montana copper-silver mine to shut down. Even though iron ore prices have been dropping, an iron ore analyst expects production to increase slightly in 2015. Low crop prices have hampered farmers, but benefited animal producers due to lower feed costs.

While some sectors have suffered from lower commodity prices, district consumers have benefited. For example, Minnesota gasoline prices in mid-February were over a dollar per gallon lower than a year ago. This may have helped boost consumer spending, as district retailers noted growth in retail sales. For example, a North Dakota mall noted that sales were up in January compared with a year ago, and a bar and restaurant chain in Minnesota reported strong sales during January compared with last year. Recent light truck and car sales were relatively solid in Montana, according to a representative of an auto dealers association.

The increasing value of the dollar has made U.S. products more expensive for foreigners. For example, the stronger U.S. dollar and Canadian exchange rate dampened demand from Canadian tourists and shoppers as border crossings and related sales decreased in district states.

The winter has been relatively warm and dry, which aided commercial construction firms that were able to build more and required less heating. Ranchers benefited from less winter stress on their animals. However, not all benefited from mild weather. Several auto body shops complained they had less demand due to better driving conditions that reduced accidents. Some apparel stores had difficulty selling winter clothing due to relatively mild weather conditions during December and January. In addition, a lack of snow slowed winter tourism activity in several areas.

Beige Book recap: Modest growth in Ninth District

Over the past two months, the Ninth District economy has seen modest growth, according to the latest Beige Book information released by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. Increased activity was noted in consumer spending, professional services, manufacturing and non-energy mining. Activity was level in tourism and mixed in commercial construction, commercial real estate and agriculture. Energy, residential real estate and residential construction were down. Labor markets continued to tighten since the previous report. While overall wage increases remained modest, there were examples of steeper increases in some regions and industries.

Consumer spending and tourism: Consumer spending increased moderately. Mall and retail representatives across district states reported solid traffic and sales. Overall tourism was about level with a year ago, according to a variety of sources. Construction and real estate: Construction activity was mixed in the district’s larger cities. In Sioux Falls, S.D., the value of November commercial permits increased from a year ago, but fell in Billings, Mont.

Residential construction: Activity was mostly lower. In the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, the value of December residential permits decreased 9 percent from a year earlier and also dropped in the Bismarck, N.D. area (November data). Residential activity was stronger in Billings and Sioux Falls, however. Home sales were generally lower from a year earlier (in November). In the Sioux Falls area, home sales were down 12 percent, inventory increased 1 percent and the median sales price increased 6 percent relative to a year earlier. Sales were also down in northwestern Wisconsin, and the median sales price was 6 percent lower. Minnesota home sales were down 13 percent, inventories of homes for sale increased 5 percent and the median sales price rose 3 percent. Home sales in the Bismarck area were about level with last year.

Manufacturing: Activity increased slightly. A manufacturing index increased in December from the previous month in Minnesota and South Dakota, but fell slightly in North Dakota. However, the index pointed to continued expansion in all three states. Through October, manufactured exports in district states were up 1 percent compared with the same period a year earlier.

Energy and mining: The energy sector slowed slightly in response to lower output prices. Oil and gas exploration activity decreased in late December compared with a month earlier in Montana and North Dakota. Mining activity increased slightly. District iron ore mines were operating at or near capacity, with November production slightly higher than a year earlier.

Agriculture: Conditions remained mixed, with livestock and dairy producers faring better than crop farmers. A Minneapolis Fed third-quarter survey found that a majority of farm incomes had fallen from a year earlier and that capital spending also decreased. The fourth quarter outlook was also weaker, according to the survey. Prices received by farmers in December decreased from a year earlier for corn, soybeans, wheat, hay and milk; prices increased for cattle, hogs, eggs and poultry.

Employment and wages: Labor markets continued to tighten since the previous report. Overall wage increases remained modest, but there were examples of steeper increases in some regions and industries. Some construction firms in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area noted that labor costs have increased recently. In addition, some managers at Minneapolis-St. Paul area restaurants indicated that they were increasing wages to attract employees.

See the full Beige Book report for more details on the national and Ninth District performance.

A summer of steady growth in the Ninth District

The Ninth District economy continued to show signs of steady growth through the summer months, characterized by job growth, decreases in unemployment rates and gains in home building.

As of August, nonfarm employment in district states was up 1.8 percent relative to a year ago, posting a net increase of about 122,000 jobs. North Dakota reported the strongest employment growth among district states, accounting for about one in every six jobs added in the Ninth District over the past 12 months despite the state’s workforce comprising only 7 percent of the district total. Employment growth in other district states was largely in line with the national trend (up 1.8 percent), except in South Dakota, where nonfarm employment growth was 0.7 percent.

The district unemployment rate dropped to 4.7 percent over the same period, down 0.8 percentage points from a year ago. The spread in unemployment rates among district states has narrowed over the past 12 months. Regions with relatively high unemployment rates, such as the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Wisconsin and Montana, posted larger year-over-year declines than Minnesota and the Dakotas, where unemployment rates started out much lower last year.

Manufacturing wage growth in the district slowed to 1.4 percent during the three-month period ending in August, compared with a growth rate of 2.5 percent during the same period a year earlier. With the exception of North Dakota and Wisconsin, growth in manufacturing wages in district states was below the national average of 1.6 percent. Montana’s manufacturing workers reported the lowest year-over-year growth rate in hourly earnings among district states, which barely reversed the flat or declining trend in manufacturing wages in the state for much of 2013 and early 2014.

During second quarter 2014, personal income growth (adjusted for inflation) across district states was positive, posting a 2.2 percent overall increase relative to a year ago for the district. Except for North Dakota, all district states posted lower personal income growth rates relative to the national average of 2.4 percent, while South Dakota’s state ranking in growth was near the bottom.

New housing authorizations for the three-month period ending in August were up 8.2 percent in district states; however, rates varied widely among district states. Montana and South Dakota posted year-over-year declines of over 20 percent in new housing authorizations, while North Dakota showed a 42 percent increase over the same period. Housing authorizations in Minnesota and Wisconsin were up 5 percent and 10 percent, respectively, closer to the national average of 7.7 percent.

Home prices continued to show increases in several district cities. During the second quarter of 2014, home prices were 7.4 percent higher than a year ago in Bismarck, N.D., 6.7 percent higher in Minneapolis-St. Paul, 3.2 percent higher in Fargo, N.D., and 2.6 percent higher in Sioux Falls, S.D. Nationally, home prices increased by 4.4 percent during the same period.

For current and historical data on the economic indicators referenced here, see the “Monthly Summary” spreadsheet, along with other Ninth District data that are updated regularly.

Farmland sales down in Ninth District

After several years of big increases, there are mounting indications that farmland prices have started to moderate. The change in the quantity of farmland bought and sold can offer added insight into what’s going on in that market.

The volume of farmland sales is harder to verify because no central agency tracks land sales nationally. Further, there are relatively few transactions, and individual pieces of land don’t change hands very frequently, often less than once a generation. For instance, in Minnesota, one of the only states for which a detailed record of land transactions is available, just under 120,000 acres were sold in 2013, out of 26 million farm acres in the state.

For this reason, the Minneapolis Fed’s second quarter (July) Survey of Agricultural Credit Conditions asked lenders a special question on land sales: “How does the volume of farmland sales this year compare to last year in your area?” As the chart shows, most respondents reported that the number of sales was down.

Farmland sales -- 9-24-14

A Minnesota lender said that the “land market is really a big guess, as very little [is] selling,” adding that the expectation was for “prices to decline as grain prices fall.”

These findings suggest that falling crop prices are helping to lower demand among farmland buyers, causing farmland values to level off (as economic theory would imply). Fewer farmland sales also imply that rather than selling into a plateauing market, farmers appear to be holding tight to their land at the moment.

Farmland values still soaring? Not so fast

In early August, the USDA released its annual estimates of farmland values, showing an increase of 7.6 percent for U.S. cropland in 2014 over a year earlier. Values in the district were up even more; South Dakota saw the biggest increase in the country at 20.8 percent (see table). This was something of a surprise, given results from the Minneapolis Fed’s second-quarter survey of agricultural credit conditions, which indicate that farmland price growth has slowed and even decreased in some cases.

USDA table -- 8-28-14

One reason for the discrepancy is obvious—the numbers come from different surveys. The Fed survey covers lenders, while the USDA’s covers landowners themselves and is also much larger and more thorough. But another reason USDA land values showed a bigger jump this year goes back to June, when earlier USDA estimates of 2009-13 land values were revised. In most states, earlier values were revised down, which makes the increase in 2014 look bigger than it otherwise would have.

For example, the USDA estimated that Minnesota cropland sold for $4,850 an acre when it released its summary in August 2013. Last June, it revised that estimate down to $4,050 an acre, 9.5 percent less than the earlier estimate. The newly released 2014 Minnesota estimate of $4,870 is nearly unchanged from the earlier 2013 number, so much of the apparent jump this year reflects a downward revision of last year’s statistics (see chart).

Given the larger sample size and rigorous methodology, the USDA survey is a better indicator than the Fed’s. But the revisions suggest that land prices may not have grown as much in 2013 and earlier years as initially thought.

USDA farmland chart -- 8-28-14

Russia’s retaliatory sanctions have little effect on district exports

The direct economic effect of Russia’s retaliatory sanctions banning certain food and agricultural product imports from the United States is likely to be minimal for the Ninth District.

The list of products covered by these sanctions effective Aug. 7 includes all categories of (slaughtered) beef, pork, poultry and fish; most categories of milk and milk-based products, including cheeses and curds as well as a number of categories of fresh fruits, nuts and vegetables.

• Based on 2013 data, Russian sanctions would cover about $750 million of U.S. exports, representing 7 percent of U.S. exports to Russia and 0.05 percent of total U.S. exports.

• In the same year, Ninth District states exported $9 million worth of food and agricultural products to Russia now subject to sanctions, which account for 3 percent of district exports to Russia and 0.02 percent of total exports from the district (see chart).

• One of the reasons for the small impact is that sanctions notably do not cover sales of live animals, which accounted for 40 percent of the district’s agricultural exports to Russia last year. The list also excludes cereals and grains, as well as fruits, nuts and vegetables if prepared or preserved.

• Among Ninth District states, Wisconsin is most affected, particularly its concentrated or sweetened milk producers, exporters of frozen fruits and nuts, and kidney bean and white pea bean farmers, for whom the Russian market accounted for 17, 12 and 11 percent of total exports, respectively.

Exports also make up only a portion of total farm receipts, further dampening any potential impact. According to 2012 USDA data, for example, Wisconsin’s export revenues accounted for about 27 percent of total farm receipts and about 14 percent of total receipts from dairy products, its top agricultural commodity.

Russian food sanctions -- 8-26-14

One more call for ethanol

Ethanol’s popularity has swung dramatically over the past decade. It went from being touted as the answer to oil dependency and a savior for rural economies to getting derided as a waste of corn that drove up the price of food while providing questionable environmental benefits. One criticism directed at ethanol was that it wouldn’t be as competitive an energy source if it didn’t benefit from hefty government subsidies.

The latter criticism got put to the test beginning in 2012. That was when the federal blenders’ tax credit, the primary subsidy to ethanol production, was discontinued after Congress opted not to renew it. And indeed, national production of ethanol peaked in late-2011 and went into decline after the credit expired (see Chart 1).

Ethanol CH1 -- 7-24-14

However, production has been on the increase during the last year, nearly returning to the pre-expiration peak over the three months from December 2013 through February 2014 (the USDA tracks quarterly ethanol production by marketing year, which goes from September through August).

The likely reason for this rebound is that, in spite of the end of the tax credit, other market conditions have turned favorable for ethanol producers. In particular, the price of corn used to produce ethanol has dropped sharply from its late-2012 peak (see Chart 2). The price of the fuel itself hasn’t dropped nearly as much as this input cost, pushing up profit margins for distillers, while the price of gas—a substitute—has remained elevated over the same period.

This all adds up to happy news for distillers, and the good times are likely to continue; the USDA forecasts corn prices to stay down this year and also projects that more corn will be used to produce ethanol than in any previous year.

Ethanol CH2 -- 7-24-14

 

More big farms, but not everywhere

The United States has been losing farms for the better part of 90 years, the result of slow, steady consolidation of farms into bigger operations thanks to increased mechanization and other productivity enhancements that bring increasing returns to scale. The most recent agricultural census shows that this consolidation is still ongoing, but comes with some interesting caveats.

The census, done every five years and most recently in 2012 (with data just now coming available), shows that the overall number of farms declined by almost 5 percent nationwide, or about 95,000 farms, since 2007. However, total farm acreage dropped by less than 1 percent.

The drop in farm numbers was even more accelerated in Minnesota and Wisconsin, where farms declined by about 9 percent and 13 percent, respectively. The two states also lost a combined 3.5 percent of farmland acreage. Farms were lost in virtually all categories of size, from very small to quite large. However, there is growth among the very largest farms—those over 2,000 acres—both in the United States and in Minnesota and Wisconsin (see Chart 1).

The Dakotas and Montana, on the other hand, are seeing very different farm trends; overall loss of farms is much smaller, ranging from 5.4 percent in Montana to a 3.3 percent drop in North Dakota. South Dakota actually saw total farms increase by 2.6 percent. Total farm acreage in these states dropped by 1.6 percent—more than the national average, but less than half the rate in Minnesota and Wisconsin. The Dakotas and Montana are also seeing growth in very small farms—those under 100 acres—and a decline in large farms (with a small exception of South Dakota’s largest farms; see Chart 2).

Farms by size & revenue Ch1-2 -- 6-20-14

It’s difficult to say exactly what’s behind this trend. While organic and other small-farm operations are growing, this is also likely a function of more small hobby-farm residences, as well as an increase in hunting properties being bought with growing income in the region, but kept (and rented out) as farm property.

While the number of small farms grew in Montana and the Dakotas, all three states are nonetheless dominated by large-revenue farms, where between 32 percent (Montana) and 42 percent (South Dakota) of farms have revenues exceeding $1 million. That compares with about 20 percent nationwide, and just 18 percent in Wisconsin and 29 percent in Minnesota (see Chart 3).

Farms by size & revenue Ch3 -- 6-20-14