What have we learned this year?

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Flooded field
A flooded field near Fredericktown, Ohio.

Former Late Show host Craig Ferguson used to sometimes end his show with a “what did we learn tonight?” segment.

The bit was probably started to use up time at the end of the show when they ran a little long, but it was usually a funny look back at the parts of the show that worked and frequently a critical look at what didn’t quite succeed.

A night-time talk show is by definition a high wire act without a net. No one ever knows quite what will happen or what will be said, especially after some libations in the green room.

I remember the night Jo Ann Pflug told Johnny Carson that she had been saved, and baptized in Pat Boone’s swimming pool. The show abruptly went to commercial, and when they came back, she was not there.

She was gone from the next four years of her “Fall Guy” TV series, also. My strongest memory was the night Willie Nelson told Johnny a story of his first marriage. He said he had treated his wife badly, having been an abusive drunk. (Johnny looked like he was waiting for the punch line.)

Passed out

Nelson said one night he came home and passed out on the bed, drunk. (Johnny is still waiting.) Nelson said that while he was passed out his wife packed her bags and sewed him into a sheet. (Johnny is still waiting.)

Nelson said that when he came to, his wife beat him severely with a baseball bat, and left. (Johnny is trying to decide if he should laugh.) Nelson looks at the camera.

“I had it coming,” he said. They went to commercial. This week is Thanksgiving.

One of our traditions is to go around the table at the family dinner and have each person say what they are thankful for this year. You never know what comes out of a kid’s mouth during this process. Some of the adult answers are common: my job, my family, a nice house to live in, this wonderful meal. If you are at the in-laws, it might be a good time to say you are thankful for the wonderful spouse the Lord gave you (maybe the only time my mother-in-law thought her daughter might have chosen wisely).

Lessons learned

This week I am thinking of the agricultural version of “what did we learn tonight?” What did we learn this year, and why I should give thanks for it? Some issues are obvious, and others we are still wondering about, but we want to be thankful.

I am thankful that we have now had five consecutive years of grain production in this country that are above trend-line yields. Yes, one result is that we are burdened with the supply, and prices are weak as a result.

As farmers we are hurting from the prices, but we are smiling from the production. We are in the crop-raising business, and we come out ahead with great crops and poor prices rather than poor crops and great prices.

Plus, it is a great blessing for all Americans that we are able to produce abundantly and regularly. I am thankful for a harvest that, in Northeast Ohio at least, was the earliest and driest I have ever seen.

Yes, we still have corn and beans out here and there. Yes, the weather has been bad for the last two weeks. Yes, the combines will still be unwashed in some sheds at Thanksgiving. There are farmers praying for clear, cold weather for a frozen finish to harvest.

Thankful for the fight

But still, it was so good for so long. And, I am grateful that President Donald Trump has chosen to fight an ugly tariff battle with many nations, even though it has hurt grain prices this year. This one is a little harder to be thankful for if you are selling soybeans for a price that starts with a seven, but I have hope that the long-term ramifications are beneficial for those farmers who survive the struggle.

At this point, it looks like the soybean guys will be compensated $1.65 a bushel in lost revenue. It can get very ugly for farmers when they are involuntarily plunged into paying for foreign policy.

I did not survive the Russian grain embargo, and I am still bitter about the naivete of the politicians who pursued it. If you were not a farmer or an Olympic athlete, you missed the privilege of sacrifice in this particular dark period of American history.

This summer our President decided to use threats of tariffs to re-write trade agreements and eliminate decades-old tariff structures that frequently left us at a huge disadvantage in current trade. Tariff structures that in some cases went back to post World War II, attempts to help war-torn nations rebuild, have lasted into an era when we were being suckers instead of trade partners.

More to come

Critics complained that tariffs did not work, and missed the part where they were the stick part of the carrot and the stick. It remains to be seen if the approach works with China as well as it has with Mexico and Canada.

In the meantime, soybean prices have declined more than two dollars a bushel, although part of that is caused by high production. Soybeans exports to China have disappeared, and they were a huge support to the market.

We put tariffs on other trade good, and China retaliated with soybean tariffs because that is our biggest export and the hurt is put on President Trump’s loyal Midwest supporters. Some of the recent Republican House losses may be a result of disappointment in that loyal sector.

Observers outside agriculture miss the point that a 25 percent drop in price is a 100 percent drop in net margin. Will Rogers, whom even I am too young to actually remember, is famous for saying that everybody talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it.

The economy

In this case, until recently, everybody talks about the economy, but nobody does anything about it. I have heard all my life about balance of trade problems with other countries, but the context was that we just had to live with it.

Our current administration is committed to improving it. If they succeed, we are in their debt. If they fail, they will be responsible for another failed generation of farmers.

All three major commodities have been range-bound for a while. This week corn moved higher, then closed near the low. Soybeans traded opposite to the corn, with a rally to the high of the recent range at the end of the week.

Thursday, we touched 8.971⁄2. This Monday morning, Nov. 19, we are taking a bath, with the market down a dime at 8.82. Chicago December wheat futures have been in a range between $5 and $5.25. Several days we were below the 5, but that has been fairly consistent support.

The end of the week we were as low as 5.023⁄4. We are trading 5.03 this morning.

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