A Bitter Wind at a Shaky Time, and Iowa Is Left Reeling

Source: By Will Wright, New York Times • Posted: Sunday, August 16, 2020

Devastating windstorms just before harvest were the last thing that Iowa farmers needed.

Damaged grain bins at the Heartland Co-Op grain elevator in Luther, Iowa.
Daniel Acker/Getty Images

The past few years have been tough ones for many farmers in Iowa and elsewhere in the Midwest.

Beginning in about 2013, a number of factors, including a leveling out of the ethanol industry, caused demand growth for corn and soy to slow down even as production increased, said Chad Hart, an economist at Iowa State University who specializes in the crop market.

That led to a decline in prices, made even more difficult by ongoing trade disputes between the Trump administration and China, one of the main foreign purchasers of American crops.

“The short story is 2019 was the year from hell and we were glad when it was over,” said Jim Greif, a corn and soybean farmer in Prairieburg, about 60 miles north of Iowa City. “Now 2020, I don’t know what you’d call it, but it’s worse than last year.”

Adding to the setbacks, Covid-19 pulled prices even further downward.

“Farmers have basically been treading water financially for the past three to four years,” Prof. Hart said. “That was the mix that we were in coming into this disaster.”

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In Iowa, corn and soybeans are harvested in late September and early October, and this year was set to be one of the largest harvests in years.

New trade agreements between the Trump administration and Japan and China also provided some optimism at the start of 2020. But the impact from Covid-19, and now the storm, have dampened spirits.

“It’s a tough go right now,” said Mike Naig, the Iowa secretary of agriculture. “To go from what was expected to be a great yield, a great year potentially, to collecting a crop insurance payment, that’s tough.”

Rod Pierce, who grows mostly corn on 1,800 acres in Woodward, came out of his basement to a chilling scene.

Trees were uprooted. Six of his grain bins were destroyed — one had flown on top of his barn and across a road, snapped a light pole, then finally came to rest about a quarter-mile away.