The vision of a farmer in overalls, a straw hat, carrying a pitchfork has changed in the past 30 years with the advent of technology.
For Larry Miller, Franklin County Farm Bureau Manager, the passion remains the same while the crop yield typically intensifies with advances in herbicide and seed.
Even with the technological advances, Mother Nature has the upper hand, particularly this year.
Miller, who tills the soil, said grain prices have finally increased enough to make it profitable to farm the land.
"The last drought was in 2002 but for me the drought of 1983 was the worst year I have ever had," he said. "Since then, we have had very good corn yields. Grain prices have been good. When you combine them, it makes for good profitability."
Miller said this year's corn yields are dismal at 30 bushels per acre, with farmers reporting 15-20 bushel per acre on soybeans.
He said that in 30 of his 41-year career corn prices remained between $1.50 and $2.50 per bushel. "Corn prices in Benton were $8.50 per bushel on Aug. 22," he said. "We try to lock in a profit if we can.
"Farmers who have contracted to deliver at $5.50 per bushel regardless of when they made the commitment are locked in to that price," he said. "Those contracts are binding. Even if the price is $8.50 per bushel when they go to the elevator, it’s still better than $2.50 per bushel."
Miller said it's a matter of supply versus demand. "According to the Illinois Farm Bureau, food prices are rising globally due to rapidly growing demand for food abroad, including China and India," he said. "Rising grain and oilseed prices will have little impact on most food items, due to the overwhelming costs of further processing, transportation, storage, marketing and overhead business costs.
"There are exceptions including some meat products," Miller said. "When the prices increase at the store, everyone looks to the farmer to blame. For processed food items, final pricing is based largely on costs incurred after the raw products leave the farm.
"With the exception of fresh milk, meat and produce, nearly all other food items including canned, boxed, wrapped and frozen foods that are purchased in grocery stores are highly processed, packaged and advertised," he said.
Miller said a discussion from a number of years ago applies today. "During a farm bill debate, one of the legislators brought in a loaf of bread to illustrate the point of how much farmers receive for their work," he said. "A single slice was pulled from the loaf to show just how much farmers earn."
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, farmers typically receive less than a 10 percent share of the price of most food items.
Page 2 of 3 - "Even the price of corn flakes has little to do with the farmer," Miller said. "According to the National Corn Growers Association, there is only six cents worth of corn in a box of corn flakes," he said. "Federal government reporting shows that prepared cereals, packaged bread and flour prices have repeatedly declined in years in which wheat and other grains increased in price."
Weather has also affected corn prices. Miller said many areas of the state saw a delay in planting the 2011 crop due to an extremely wet spring. "Last year's flooding in the upper Midwest and western corn belt, as well as continued drought conditions in the Southwest impacted crop and livestock prices at the farm level," he said.
"Drought conditions this year have pushed corn prices higher," Miller said.
He said ethanol production has little impact on the price of corn. "Consumers can say that ethanol use is driving up the price of corn but the fact is that ethanol production has little impact on the prices at the store," Miller said. "One third of the corn that goes into ethanol production is recycled into the food chain as a ready-made livestock feed.
"Without ethanol, gasoline would cost between 20 and 35 cents more per gallon, or between $6 and $10.50 to purchase 30 gallons a month, according to 2008 statistics from the U.S. Department of Energy," he said.
According to the Food Agriculture Policy Research Institute, food expenditures for the consumer would only drop by 0.3 percent if federal ethanol production were removed and acres used to grow corn for ethanol production were used for food production. The 2009 statistics indicate that a $400-per-month grocery bill would be reduced by $1.20.
Miller said corn is not the sole source of food for animals. "About 25 percent of swine feed and about 30 percent of cattle feed is comprised of soybean meal," he said. "Only about 40 percent of U.S. corn goes to animals, while 94 percent of U.S. soybeans are made into animal feed."
Miller said crop insurance began in 1980 as the government's way of protecting farmers from drought and adverse conditions. "There are several private businesses that sell crop insurance," he said. "The government subsidizes the payment and subsidizes the premium. But there has been a net gain to the government in the last 10 years of $4 billion in crop insurance premium.”
Miller said the majority of farmers have crop insurance adding the higher the amount of coverage, the higher the cost. "Crop insurance covers grain, not livestock," he said. "Crop insurance is also expanding to fruit and vegetable farmers."
Miller said consumers could expect to pay more for meat and poultry than vegetables and grains.
"Crop coverage is based on historic yields," he said. "In Franklin County, for example, the cost of crop insurance is higher than in Champaign County where they have the rich, black soil. In Franklin County, there is a higher risk ratio and our cost is higher.
Page 3 of 3 - “In February, the price of crop insurance is based on December futures,” Miller said. "A farmer has the option of buying at the harvest price based on February and October prices," he said. "We will have to wait till October before we know that price.
"Farmers also have the option of buying replant crop insurance," Miller said. "The government pays you to replant but there is additional cost for that coverage. About 80 percent of the land in Illinois has crop insurance."
He said 1983 was the worst year in his career, adding he anticipates this year to be even worse.
"Rain will help the soybeans but I think it's a 50 percent loss," Miller said. "There is an 80 to 90 percent loss in corn."
The government is struggling with a challenge. "One third of the world's population is underfed while another third is overfed," he said.
Miller said the cost to plant a crop also continues to increase. "We have spent more every year for the past 10 years," he said. "We spend $70 an acre for seed, $50 per acre in herbicide and $200 an acre in fertilizer. Those are out-of-pocket costs that a farmer has to pay."
Miller said agriculture is the number one industry in the state.