During WW1, in 1917, the price of wheat went to a record $3.25 a bushel. Using an online CPI calculator(courtesy of the Bureau of Labor Statistics), that price in today's dollars would be $60.24. A far cry from the $5 and change wheat is trading today. Grains in general have had a long term decrease in price over the past couple hundred years. We owe this price decrease to improvements in technology. After all, in 1917 a farmer was lucky to get 14 bushels of wheat an acre while today a farmer can anticipate a yield of over 55 bushels per acre….and the cost of production in both time and labor has decreased substantially. One wonders what the yields will be like in another 100 years.

Brendan Turner writes: 

Gro Intelligence put out some interesting data points on fertilizer and pesticide use in the US.

From them:

"Sixty five years ago, harvested area of corn sat around 77 million acres, and average US corn yield was just 54 bushels per acre. Presently, corn acreage is at 82.7 million acres, and yield now sits at a median of over 170 bushels per acre. In the 1940s, soybean harvested area was at just 10.7 million acres. Today, there are around 89.5 million acres harvested, representing an increase of 736 percent. Soybean yield was less than 20 bushels per acre in the 1940s, but now averages 49 bushels per acre."

From me:

While the growth in US grain and oilseed production is no doubt impressive, the rise of other agricultural players in South America and the Black Sea have had the largest influence on keeping a lid on prices thanks to their explosive production.

Back home in Saskatchewan, every year, our family farms about 15,000 acres of pulse crops like lentils, peas, and chickpeas. The varieties for these crops were mainly developed by university and CDN government partnerships and the large majority of the harvest of these pulses have been shipped to India or the Middle East. However, for the last decade or so, these varieties have been exported to places like Kazakhstan and Russia and now, the Black Sea is replacing Canada as the staple exporter of pulses to these markets.

Simple equation: Lower costs of production by new players –> lower selling price points –> downtrend shift in margin for major producers –> potentially fewer acres planted by major producers (assuming demand isn't increasing proportionately to supply)

Of course, this thesis gets thrown out the window when there is a drought in a major producing country (or any commodity). However, In a drought situation, for markets like pulses where there is no futures market, speculation is a bit more suppressed. By this, I mean less volatility and thus, decreased opportunities to capture value within volatile markets like you might w/ corn or soybeans or wheat.

Stefan Jovanovich writes: 

$3.25 in 1917 is equal to today using the gold currency unit of account As the Watsurf notes, the BLS with its CPI calculation estimates today's nominal dollar price as 18.53 times the record 1917 price for wheat. If you use the 1917 dollar price as the gold currency unit of account (gold adjusted for the change in official price in 1933 and the changes in the open market price of the metal and the relative prices of the dollar against other major currencies since 1973), the change is even more dramatic. $3.25 becomes $133.90 - a multiple increase of 41.12. As always, the BLS CPI calculations fall far short of the actual price collapses of currencies against physical commodities.

For an average acre of land suitable for wheat growing the total yield in 1917 was $45.50 in gold currency units of account (gcus). At that time Kansas wheat acreage sold for roughly $200 (gcus). Today the same acreage produced produces a total yield of $6.67 (gcus) and sells for $50.87 gcus ($2100 in current nominal dollars).

So, based on P/Es measured in gcus, the prices for Kansas wheat acreage were a seeming bargain in 1917 (less than 5 times gross yield).

The difficulty is that P/Es do not seem to be very useful as predictors of what comes next. Kansas wheat land prices peaked at slightly less than $300 in gcus in the 1921; nearly a century later they are selling for less than 20% of that price using the same unit of account.

I defer to our expert and others for any speculations about what may happen to Kansas wheat land prices over the next century. The current P/E is - once again - a relative bargain: 7.6 times gross yield. 





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1 Comment so far

  1. Edward Lam on June 19, 2018 1:52 pm

    My favourite book on grain future and the farming trade which I think speclisters will enjoy:

    Satan’s Bushel, Garet Garett.

    Farming is a labour of love; a terrible business.


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