Tightfisted and Broke, Farmers Are Squeezing Monsanto

April 5, 2016, 8:03 AM UTC
Corn, Soybeans Decline As Favorable Weather May Boost U.S. Crops
Farmers Matt Wiggeim, right, and Cody Gibson mix Monsanto Co.'s Roundup herbicide near a corn field in Kasbeer, Illinois, U.S., on Monday, June 13, 2011. Corn fell to a one-month low and soybeans declined on speculation that favorable weather will boost yields in the U.S., the world's biggest grower and exporter. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Photograph by Daniel Acker — Bloomberg via Getty Images

North Dakota farmer Randy Thompson plans to apply 30% less nitrogen fertilizer to his corn this year to save money in the face of crashing crop prices.

In Minnesota, Andy Pulk is trucking crop nutrients to his farm from 350 miles away because he found a better price than his local cooperative could offer. He has also halted purchases of machinery.

“We’re on a complete spending hold across the farm,” Pulk said.

With more acres than ever before likely to be planted with soybeans and corn in the U.S. Midwest this year, companies including seed maker Monsanto (MON) and fertilizer seller CF Industries Holdings (CF) might have expected a windfall for earnings.

But with grain prices near five-year lows and farm incomes at their lowest levels since 2002, growers are tightening their belts by reducing spending on everything from fertilizer to seeds to chemicals.

Monsanto, the biggest U.S. seed maker, will give investors a glimpse into the impact of the cost cutting on Wednesday, when the agribusiness sector kicks off quarterly earnings reports.

Last month, the company cut its full-year earnings forecast, citing pricing pressure in seeds and farm chemicals, and lowered its guidance for second-quarter earnings from ongoing operations to $2.35 to $2.45 per share. That was down from $2.90 in the same quarter in 2015.

Analysts, on average, expect Monsanto to report an 8.5% drop in revenue to $4.756 billion and a 16% decline in per-share profit to $2.436, according to Thomson Reuters Starmine.

Earnings potential has suffered as farmers have become less willing to pay up for seeds and chemicals, Goldman Sachs said in a note last month.


Seed Pricing War

Seed discounts by Monsanto and its rivals, including DuPont Pioneer, have been the steepest in at least six years, Monsanto executives have said.

Monsanto cut prices to preserve its customer base after Pioneer, in particular, “came out with offers like free seed and other pretty significant discounts,” Michael Frank, Monsanto’s chief commercial officer, said in a telephone interview last month.

Together, the companies’ products blanket some 70% of all corn and soybean acres in the United States.

DuPont (DD), in a statement, said it prices its products competitively. It is due to report earnings on April 26.

Some seed dealers said more and more farmers were foregoing new varieties to save money.

Nathan Kizer, seed manager at South Dakota Wheat Growers, a 5,000 member cooperative with locations in North and South Dakota, said farmers have been moving away from costlier seeds that are “stacked” with three or more biotech traits. Instead, they have been buying varieties that have been on the market three to five years.

“We’re not planting a bunch of the old dogs but we are using a lot of the middle-of-the-pack stuff,” Kizer said.

Some farmers said they were giving up the practice of applying excess fertilizer to their fields to boost yields.

Yet, Bert Frost, senior vice president of sales, distribution and market development for CF Industries, said farmers will not reduce nitrogen use because that could hurt yields. CF Industries is set to report quarterly earnings in early May.

“The one variable that you can count on to pick up maximum yield is nitrogen,” Frost said.

Savings are crucial for farmers as the U.S. Department of Agriculture forecasts net incomes will fall 3% this year after a 38% slump in 2015 and a 27% drop in 2014.

“You’ve got to be really efficient to make money now,” said Thompson, the North Dakota farmer who plans to use less fertilizer.

“Unless the markets come back, it’s going to be really ugly for a lot of guys.”

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