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Farmers Like the Looks of the Future, Survey Shows

Farm financials still worse than a year ago.

U.S. farmers polled have an improved outlook for the future of their sector’s economy. However, the survey still shows that current farm financials are worse now than they were a year ago.

In its December reading of 132 index points, the Purdue/CME Group Ag Economy Barometer marked the second month in a row that the index increased, rising to its highest level since data collection began in October 2015. The December reading is 16 points above November’s and 40 points higher than in October. The barometer is based on a monthly survey of 400 agricultural producers from across the country.

Optimism about both current and future economic conditions helped drive the barometer higher during December. Although both of the Ag Economy Barometer’s subcomponents, the Index of Current Conditions and Index of Future Expectations, increased during December, the biggest improvement was in producers’ expectations about future economic conditions.

The Index of Future Expectations rose to 146 in December, 51 points higher than during October and the highest reading in 15 months of data collection. The Index of Current Conditions has been trending higher since September, but the improvements were quite modest until December. At a value of 102 in December, the measure of current economic conditions was 15 points above the November reading and 22 points above its August low of 80.

Interestingly, the improvement in producer sentiment over the last two months does not appear to be motivated primarily by changes in corn and soybean prices. For example, March 2017 CBOT corn futures prices were actually slightly weaker when survey responses were gathered in November and December than during the October survey period. In the soybean complex, January 2017 CBOT soybean futures prices during the November survey period were virtually unchanged, and in December were only slightly stronger, compared with prices observed during the October survey collection period.

The Election Effect?

The improvement in producer sentiment extends beyond agriculture. In both October and December producers were asked about their expectations regarding the broad U.S. economy. The contrast in sentiment from the October survey, three weeks prior to the U.S. elections, and the December survey, five weeks following the elections, is remarkable. When asked about the U.S. economy over the next 12 months on the October survey, just 13% of respondents expected the U.S. economy to expand and 23% thought a contraction in the U.S. economy was likely. When the same question was posed in the December survey, fully half of the respondents expected the economy to expand and just 13% expected the economy to contract during the upcoming year.

The improvement in sentiment regarding the U.S. economy was not limited to just the next 12 months. When asked about their perspective regarding the U.S. economy over the next five years, the change in sentiment from October to December was equally dramatic.

In October, 35% of respondents indicated they expect “widespread good times” for the U.S. economy over the next five years. In December, the share of respondents expecting widespread good times more than doubled to 71%. The improvement in optimism regarding the U.S. economy among agricultural producers appears to parallel that of U.S consumers. For instance, the University of Michigan’s Index of Consumer Sentiment rose from a reading of 87 in October to a 12-year high of 98 in December.

12-Month Outlook

Confidence in prospects for the U.S. economy appeared to spill over into an improvement in producers’ outlook for the agricultural economy and their own farming operations.

When asked about their outlook for the U.S. ag economy over the next 12 months, 36% of respondents in December expected “good times.” Although this indicates that less than half of the survey respondents expect good times in the next year, it is the most positive response to this question by survey respondents in the 15 months of data collection.

Similarly, when asked about their outlook for the next five years, a survey-high of 45% expect overall “good times” in the ag economy. Both of these measures were markedly stronger than just a year ago when only 13% of respondents expected good times over the next 12 months and 25% expected good times over the next five years.

Farm Financials

Producers also showed signs of becoming more optimistic about their own operations’ financial situation a year from now. In December, 32% of respondents reported they expect their farm to be financially “better off” a year from now. This was the highest observation over the past 15 months and was nearly double the percentage of respondents expecting to be better off when surveyed in October.

The increase in optimism toward the future showed up when survey respondents were queried about both crops and livestock. Specifically, when asked if “good times” or “bad times” were more likely over the next five years, a survey-high reporting “good times” was recorded for both livestock (49%) and crops (45%).

Although agricultural producer sentiment has improved markedly the last two months, survey responses still indicate that producers are facing challenging times. When asked about the current financial conditions of their farming operations in December, nearly two-thirds of producers still reported their operation is financially “worse off” today when compared with a year ago.

Although this is an improvement compared to last summer when over 80% of respondents reported being “worse off” than a year earlier, it still indicates that producers are generally facing more financial stress than in fall 2015.

The Long Run

Working with colleagues from the Purdue Initiative for Family Firms (PIFF), the December producer survey included questions focused on prospects for a new generation of producers to join a family farming operation. These questions provide additional insight into producers’ confidence as the decision to bring a new generation into a family farming operation is an alternative long-run measure of confidence in the agricultural economy.

Respondents were evenly split on their thoughts about the current agricultural climate when asked if now was a good time to bring a new generation into the family farming operation. When asked about conditions being better in the future, a majority (62%) thought conditions would be more favorable in five years to transition a new generation into a family farming operation.


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