Corn and Soybeans
From the Farmer's Tractor
September 24, 2013
Earl Bahler, 73, grew up on his family-run Bahler Farms in Central Illinois. Earl’s brother Carlos currently runs the farm, which grows corn and soybeans on 680 acres of farmland. Earl returns to the farm annually for planting and harvesting with his extended family.
How did you get into farming?
I’m not farming right now and currently live in New York. But I grew up in a little town in Central Illinois on my family farm, and so until I left the Midwest, I was continuously on the farm, and I continue to go back.
The farm that I grew up on was a typical family farm – and what that means is that in the 1950s and the 60s, the family farm was typically 160 acres (we had 240), and it was diversified. Everybody in the family was involved and there were chickens, pigs, cows, beef cattle, corn soybeans, oats, hay, silage and so on. Since then, it’s evolved to where things are highly specialized, so the farm today has no animals.
I got involved because I was born on farm. These days it’s very hard for people who are not from a farm to become farmers. The price of entry just to buy the machinery, the land, and the seeds and crops – it’s very costly.
There were five kids in my family. I am the oldest and my brother Carlos is the youngest. Carlos started farming first with my father, and now Carlos runs the farm on his own. He’s been farming it with a helper, and I go out to help every year.
How have your farming practices changed over the last 10 years?
Farming for us hasn’t changed that much in the last 10 years but over the last 20 or 25 years, it’s changed in two important ways. One is that farms have become specialized. Beef cattle, for example, are not raised in the Midwest anymore, and they are instead raised in the grasslands where they are born. Farms that used to have cattle now do corn and soybeans. Everything has gotten specialized. For miles around where our family farm is located, everybody raises two things: corn and soybeans. That’s it. A few farms near us raise dairy cows and provide the milk locally and regionally.
The second thing is that there has been a massive consolidation of farmland. When I was growing up, having 160 or 240 acres of farmland was typical. Now, these guys that raise corn and soybeans have put together all these little farms, so that the typical farmer instead has 1500 to 3000 acres of land. One farmer farms with giant machines and huge acreage. Our farm is a little smaller than the average, so we are a relatively small farm. If my brother decided to stop farming, I’m sure someone farming on a bigger operation would rent the land.
How will farming evolve in the next five years?
I think the trend to consolidate is going to continue at least in the part of the country that I’m familiar with. The reason is that farm prices – prices for corn and soybeans – have tripled in the last dozen years. Revenue per acre is WAY up. The main reason is that these crops are the basis for beef grain, they are used to feed animals. And in many countries around the world their standards of living are going up, like in India and China, and their diets are changing. There is a huge increase in demand in the grain to feed these animals so these people can eat more meat.
Also, about a quarter of all the corn production in our country now goes toward making fuel – ethanol. Between ethanol and global demand for feed, the price has been driven up per bushel and the industry has become very lucrative. As a result, the price of farmland has just skyrocketed. It really has to do with economics.
What is your greatest challenge as a farmer?
There are two main challenges that we deal with on our farm. One is weather and the other is market prices. These are two things that no farmer can control. There can be drastic differences in rain and sun, for example. This year it was hot and dry during the month of August, which will therefore lower yields. There is crop insurance that the government subsidizes, and most farmers can collect about 60% of what they would’ve gotten had there not been a problem like a drought. But there is still huge risk. Price-wise, farmers sell their grains throughout the year – some of it in advance and some after it’s been harvested and stored. It’s a huge challenge to get a good price and sell at the right time. Each farmer does their own marketing.
How does a farmer know what commodity crops will be needed from year to year in the market?
Farmers in my part of the country don’t really take the “market” into consideration. Their land and the climate there are ideal for raising corn and soybeans, and 98% of them raise the same thing. The only thing that varies would be how the fields are planted. With corn and soybeans, the crops usually rotate, two fields side by side. Although there are some farmers – not a majority – who, if they find a bigger demand for corn, will raise corn year after year on the same land, and that is damaging to the soil.
The market prices for corn and soybeans are really influenced by the international market too. When Brazil and Argentina have a good year with good rains, the market supply goes way up and it drives down prices. The whole thing is interconnected globally.
What steps are you taking toward conservation on the farm?
We rotate the crops and work on soil conservation and water conservation. If the land is rolling and they have erosion, they plant grass to keep it from eroding. Farmers are somewhat conscious of not leaving the soil bare as well because the wind will blow the topsoil away. However, in this part of the country, I haven’t seen a really active conservation movement. Maybe that will change.
Do you sell any corn or soybeans locally?
We do sell some grain locally. Almost all the corn goes to a grain dealer called Zimmerman’s within 10 miles from our farm. They are a grain milling operation that makes feed for chickens and pigs. They provide the trucking and come pick up the crop.
What kinds of reactions do you get from consumers when they meet you in person?
In the advertising agency world where I worked for many years, they always thought it was so hilarious when they found out that I came from a farming family. A farmer on Madison Avenue?! No one had heard of such a thing. I always get a curious yet positive reaction, and people really have a romantic view of what it means to be a farmer. Or, they think of farmers as backwater hicks. It doesn’t matter to me how they think of us, though.
It’s interesting. When I was growing up, I wanted more than anything to escape farming and go out into the “big world” but now I feel very nostalgic for the farm and have a great respect for it. I hold it in much higher regard than I did 50 years ago. Our land is a very important asset.