Harvesting sugarbeets in Frankenmuth, Michigan (left). Ripening wheat (inset).
Photos: USDA
Harvesting sugarbeets in Frankenmuth, Michigan (left). Ripening wheat (inset).
Photos: USDA
farming vehicles
Ripening wheat growing
North American farms are essential but a global pandemic means they are sowing caution alongside soybeans, wheat and corn
BY Corinna Petry
dirt and grass

here seem to be but three ways for a nation to acquire wealth. The first is by war, as the Romans did, in plundering their conquered neighbors. This is robbery. The second by commerce, which is generally cheating. The third by agriculture, the only honest way, wherein man receives a real increase of the seed thrown into the ground, in a kind of continual miracle.”

Painting of Benjamin Franklin
So said Benjamin Franklin in a 1769 paper titled, “Positions to be Examined, Concerning National Wealth.”

Farmer sentiment improved slightly in May after falling sharply in both March and April. The Purdue University-CME Group Ag Economy Barometer reading in May was 103, up 7 points from April’s 96. The barometer’s small improvement left the gauge of farmer sentiment nearly 40 percent below its February peak of 168. The barometer is based on a monthly survey of 400 U.S. agricultural producers.

Improved sentiment regarding current conditions means farmers are more inclined, month over month, to think now is a good time to make large investments in their farming operations. The Farm Capital Investment Index rose to a reading of 50 in May compared to 38 in April. However, that leaves the May index 30 percent below its February reading of 72, indicating farmers are still much more reluctant to make new investments in things like farm machinery and buildings than they were prior to the onset of COVID-19.

farmers are taking a wait-and-see approach on any anticipation of an uptick in exports.
cory reed, deere
U.S. retail sales of tractors year to date through May increased but combine sales fell; in Canada, tractor sales declined by over 9 percent and combine sales dropped 41 percent year to date, the Association of Equipment Manufacturers reports (see table, Page 17).
Intensive use
Because agricultural production was deemed an essential industry, “the work of our farmers has not slowed down and farm equipment is being used intensively,” says Martin Richenhagen, chairman, president and CEO of Agco Corp. “Demand for agricultural equipment will be influenced by farm income, which is a function of commodity prices, crop yields and government support.” That includes the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP), unveiled in mid-May.
Pugh Farms’ cotton operation, Halls, Tennessee. The company raises cotton sold to Wrangler to make its Rooted Collection brand jeans.

Photo: USDA

“North America equipment demand is being heavily driven by an aging fleet balanced against increasing concerns about falling commodity prices and a weak dairy and livestock complex,” Richenhagen told investors during a May 5 earnings call.

Agco’s North America facilities have remained open throughout the crisis, with some plants on reduced hours due to workforce constraints, COO Eric Hansotia told shareholders.

“Our visibility into future disruptions in our supply chain or future COVID-19 related impacts to our workforce is limited and may cause us to close plants again,” Hansotia warned. Agco’s order book at the end of April continued to exhibit a healthy backlog.

ouR visibility into future disruptions in our supply chain is limited.
eric hansotia, AGCO
Agco’s chief financial officer, Andy Beck, suggested that “increased US-China trade would be supportive of crop prices and demand for more elevator storage capacity.”
Forecasting difficulty
Equipment makers have trouble making predictions because of the patchwork quilt of COVID-19 management across various administrations globally, Richenhagen noted, “which are not coordinated and, in some countries, it even varies by state.”

Demand has not wavered for food, he says. However, “we have various bottlenecks all over the world. The whole thing is logistics and how to bring the food to the people who need it, and therefore, manual production varies a little bit and prices vary. In the long run, I’m a little optimistic that [commodity] prices will stabilize.”

yellow farming vehicle
green farming vehicle
None of the major farm machinery makers indicate there will be any slowdown in rolling out new products or technology upgrades during a pandemic year.
Chart of Retail Sales (Units)
red farming vehicle
A few Deere & Co. factories experienced temporary production stoppages due to supply-based disruptions, says Cory Reed, president of the Ag & Turf Division of Deere. Nevertheless, leaders at Deere & Co. reported that all its agricultural equipment factories remained open during the second quarter.

“We forecast we will recover any delayed shipments throughout the balance of the year,” Reed says. “For our large [farm equipment] business, the remainder of our 2020 production schedule is largely backed by customer orders through either our early order programs or rolling order books,” Reed told shareholders during a May 22 earnings call. “Order programs for combines and crop cares are completed, while large-tractor order books extend into the fourth quarter, roughly 90 percent full.”

Like Beck at Agco, Reed cited trade as a factor. “The impact of the Phase 1 agreement with China remains an unknown variable at this time, since most agricultural exports to China from North America tend to occur around the harvest season. As a result, farmers are taking a wait-and-see approach on any anticipation of an uptick in exports.”

Deere forecast that industrywide sales of farm and turf equipment in the U.S. and Canada this year will fall 20 percent from 2019.

Looking further into the future, Reed says, “demand has yet to be determined going into 2021, because there are a lot of interruptions.” However, government insurance programs have given customers “a level of certainty as to where their incomes will be. As we look to 2021, we’ll look to the general economy and how trade continues.”

At CNH Industrial N.V., North American tractor and combine demand fell 9 percent and 22 percent, respectively, during the first quarter, compared with a year earlier. Suzanne Heywood, chair and acting CEO, told shareholders during a May 6 earnings call that second-quarter farm equipment sales are expected to fall by as much as 20 percent but “we expect the ag industry to begin to recover” during the second half of the year.

In bringing production back online, she says, “We deliberately prioritized agriculture and powertrain manufacturing as they both serve essential industries in which the market demand for our products is greatest.”

New products, technology
None of the major farm machinery makers indicated there would be any slowdown in rolling out new products or technology upgrades during a pandemic year.
blue farming vehicle
For example, CNH Industrial’s Case IH division launched a new line of articulated 4-wheel-drive tractors with its advanced farming system (AFS) Connect series. AFS lets farmers remotely monitor and manage their crops, fleet and data, enabling them to optimize performance, productivity and flexibility. AFS links equipment functions to computers, tablets or smartphones. The new line will include 14 models in total, covering the 420-hp to 620-hp power range, with several upgrades such as a completely redesigned cab.

“We have a fleet [in service] as old as it’s been in probably a decade or a decade and a half,” Deere’s chairman and CEO, John May, says. This leads to customers considering how the technology available today gives customers an opportunity to lower their cost structure.

“In an environment where overall demand is the question, the thing that customers can do is invest to make sure they have the lowest cost of production of anyone in the market,” he says. “So, we see technology being driven across those acres. If you look at total acres planted, we’ll continue to grow [digital] technologies. We have the ability to change the cost structure on each acre.

“And if you take an aging fleet and you can change the cost structure,” May says, “you have the ability to generate [new] sales.”