Kub's Den

"What will your life look like one year from today?"

A friend asked me this question recently, and it stopped me in my tracks. I have absolutely no idea how to answer that. The question is a powerful demonstration of how our collective psyche has changed in the age of COVID-19. Businesses can't plan for the future and individuals can barely envision their future lives. Stasis is the most likely outcome -- a person's life one year from now might look essentially the same as it does today -- but it's never a guarantee. We might be attending the concerts of our favorite bands, buying school supplies or celebrating fresh highs in the stock market -- or we could be living in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, trading hoarded toilet paper rolls for bushels of corn.

Honestly, anything seems possible.

Flip the question around and the futility of making plans becomes even clearer. How would you have answered that question one year ago? Where were you on Aug. 12, 2019 ... what were you doing? On that date, how would you have envisioned your life on Aug. 12, 2020?

Because farming tasks occur with fairly predictable seasonality, some of those 2019 answers might have turned out to be correct -- for example, a North Dakota farmer who predicted he would be harvesting wheat on Aug. 12, 2020. Some 2019 guesses would have missed reality: for example, anyone in Iowa who planned to be fitting a steer for this year's state fair instead of picking up storm damage and smashed grain bins.

Actually, this could be a useful time of year for benchmarking some grain marketing goals. In mid-August of this year or any recent year or any foreseeable future year, do you 1) regret the grain sales you made in the February, March, April, May and June timeframe? Or 2) wish you had sold a lot more grain? How does it feel in August when the potential for a typical huge crop is confidently anticipated by the market? If we could bottle that feeling, write it down, take a snapshot and review it next spring, how would that exercise change our behavior in upcoming marketing seasons?

Particularly in recent years, there has been a fairly understandable pattern in the new crop December corn futures contract: sliding downward from early July, when there are production uncertainties, toward a low in September, when the uncertainties have disappeared and been replaced by confidence in high yields. August is therefore a uniquely grim time to be thinking about pricing new crop grain. It's better, perhaps, to take advantage of this rare window in the farming calendar to just go fishing instead.

Back in January, I wrote a Kub's Den column looking forward (naively) to a new decade we might once again call "Welcome to the Roaring '20s" (https://www.dtnpf.com/…). Obviously, I didn't anticipate a global pandemic restraining commodity demand for some unknown length of time. We can't easily predict what life will be like through the next few months, let alone a year or a full decade.

However, for people who value predictability, there is great comfort in the world of agriculture. It has features that will never change: the seasons, the satisfaction of producing high-quality food, the constant human success of crafting better technologies and growing bigger crops, the perpetual tension between an urban population that desires low prices for food and a farming population that wants high prices for commodities. Editorial cartoons from 100 years ago read almost exactly like farmers' gripes and boasts today: speculators dragging down the grain markets, farmers struggling to hire workers or farmers celebrating the "greatest crops in history" when 1920 U.S. nationwide average corn yields hit 29.9 bushels per acre. News headlines have changed slightly, from women getting the vote on August 26, 1920, to a woman being nominated for the vice presidency in August 2020.

What will life look like 100 years from now? I would not dare to predict most things about the next century, but I do hope someone will be harvesting wheat in August 2120, someone will be showing a steer and the world's farmers will once again be celebrating "the greatest crops in history."

Elaine Kub is the author of "Mastering the Grain Markets: How Profits Are Really Made" and can be reached at masteringthegrainmarkets@gmail.com or on Twitter @elainekub

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