From boom to uncertainty, a volatile decade for Illinois farmers

Uncertainty about trade agreements and a slowdown in farm consolidation also came into play. (Photo courtesy: Blake Haas/WJBC)

By Illinois Radio Network

SPRINGFIELD – Looking back over the last decade in Illinois agriculture, Illinois Farm Bureau Senior Economist and Policy Analyst Michael Doherty said it started with a bang but has since deflated.

Although the state’s farming industry is still in good shape, he said predicting its immediate future would be like looking into “a murky crystal ball.”

“There was a tremendous increase in demand every year,” Doherty said, referring from 2000 to 2014.

As populations overseas, especially in China, became larger and more affluent, people began wanting to eat more meat, creating major markets for soybeans, the state’s biggest crop, and even for pork. In addition, increased interest in biofuels fed demand for corn, Illinois’ second-largest agricultural product.

During this period, farmers also invested heavily in new technologies and in storage.

But the increased efficiency in production and storage meant a glut of products when, mid-decade, demand growth leveled off.

A viral epidemic infected half of China’s hog herd, which had been the world’s largest, and at the same time countries such as Brazil were rapidly increasing their production and transportation abilities, creating competition for farmers in the state. Prices dropped while debt remained, creating financial stress for many farmers that Doherty says remains today.

“If nothing else, it looks like the Brazilians figured out how to grow a big corn crop,” Doherty said. “I was in meetings in Washington in which consultants told us that they were going to greatly expand their corn production, and I think that they dispelled any doubts about their ability to do that.”

At the beginning of this new decade, Doherty says, Illinois farms are not in dire straits by any means, but it’s not the boom times of 10 years ago, either.

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