U.S. farmers eye another record year but face a variety of challenges
Strong demand points to acreage reshuffle and higher output amid uncertainties.
The outlook for U.S. agriculture remains mildly positive in 2022. While global economic growth began to feel the weight of rising inflation, U.S. row crop producers are benefiting from attractive margins due to high crop prices. Gradually reopening from the pandemic, U.S. consumers increased spending on food-related products in 2021, with inflation-adjusted food-at-home and food-away-from-home expenditures increasing 14% from the prior year, signaling strong demand for U.S. farm goods.1 International trade also registered a record year in 2021 and is poised for another strong year in 2022. Overall, elevated crop prices due to higher demand and increased economic activity coming out of COVID together with supply impacts caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will continue to fuel increased U.S. agricultural production. Lingering issues remain due to global geopolitical uncertainty, inflation-induced economic slowdowns, and weather- and climate-related challenges.
Crop acreage in the United States is forecast to reshuffle
Positive market outlooks are forecast to support planting at similar levels to a year ago. According to the USDA’s World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates (WASDE) projections on May 12, the combined acreage of total U.S. row crops is expected to expand by 200,000 acres in market year (MY) 2022/23 to 317.4 million acres, relative to 317.2 million acres in the prior year (a 0.1% increase). For key crops, due to increasing input costs and projected relative profitability, acreage is expected to reshuffle. Corn acreage is expected to decline by 3.9 million acres (–4.1%), while soybeans are expected to increase by 3.8 million acres (4.3%). Cotton and wheat are also projecting added acreage, as farmers seek to capture historic high cotton and wheat prices. Cotton acreage is expected to increase by 1 million acres (9%) from MY 2021/22, while wheat is expected to add 650,000 acres in MY 2022/23. The overall change in row crop-planted acres largely reflects the continued global high demand for agricultural products since the new year and demonstrates the adaptability of U.S. farmers as they adjust their production under evolving market conditions.
Planting progress is among the slowest for U.S. corn and soybeans
The USDA’s Crop Progress report released on May 16 shows that plantings of major row crops have been affected by weather conditions as of mid-May 2022. Corn and soybean planting progress significantly lags both the prior year and the average for the period 2017 to 2021, due to wet and cold conditions that characterized the first half of this year in major growing states. Corn planting in the 18 top states (92% of U.S. corn acres) was 49% complete as of May 12, which is well below the average completion rate (67%) over the same period during 2017 to 2021 and significantly lower than the completion rate (78%) in the same week of 2021. Soybeans were also behind their five-year average pace, with planting progress in the 18 top states (96% of U.S. soybean acres) only 30% completed on May 12. This is below an average of 39% for the prior five-year period and is at only half of the previous year’s 58% completion rate at the same point in the growing year. Other row crops have experienced mixed planting seasons: Rice planting was at 80% complete on May 12, slightly above the five-year average of 79%. Cotton planting is on par with the past five-year average completion rate, at 37%. Winter wheat planting is slightly challenged, with planting progress at 48% completion in the 18 states that are responsible for 89% of U.S. winter wheat acreage. This is slightly below both the five-year average rate of 53% and the 51% reached in 2021. Late planting bears the risk of delayed pollination occurring during the hotter summer season, which limits yield and in turn casts further uncertainty around final production estimates for MY 2022/23.
Row crop acreage reshuffles in MY 2022/23
U.S. row crop planted acres (million acres)
Source: USDA WASDE, May 12, 2022. Years reflect marketing years: 2021/22 estimated (E), 2022/23 projected (P).
Row crop prices expect continued positive momentum into MY 2022/23
Farmers make their planting decisions based on the profitability of the previous crop and market expectations for the upcoming crop year. Looking ahead to MY 2022/23, most major row crop prices are projected to post marked increases from the previous MY. Corn, soybeans, and wheat, the top three U.S. crops by production size, anticipate continued price increases following a strong 2021. Cotton price is projected to be the exception, down 2% in 2022 from 2021, yet still recording the second-highest price in history.
Prices are projected to soar for most major row crops in MY 2022/23
USDA MY 2022 crop price projections
Source: USDA WASDE, May 12, 2022. MY refers to marketing years: 2021/22 estimated (E), 2022/23 projected (P). Cwt refers to hundredweight. Dollars are shown in U.S. dollars.
The USDA estimates corn to increase 14% from US$4.53 per bushel in MY 2021/22 to a projected US$5.90 per bushel for MY 2022/23, reaching its highest level since 2013. This marks the third consecutive year of strengthening corn prices, as global demand remains strong while production is projected to decline. On the demand side, U.S. domestic demand for corn for ethanol production is projected to remain unchanged from the prior year. This represents a significant improvement from levels attained in 2019 and 2020, when most projections pessimistically anticipated lower corn demand for ethanol production due to flattening requirements for ethanol and reduced energy use during the pandemic. Increasing gas prices and the relaxation of ethanol blending limits are major factors contributing to the rebounded ethanol demand for corn. On the supply side, the 4% decline in planted acreage for corn in the United States (–3.9 million acres) fell significantly more than previous forecasts (–1.4 million acres), partially due to significantly higher input costs. In addition, the Russia-Ukraine conflict dealt significant shocks throughout the global supply network for corn. Ukraine was the fourth-largest corn exporter, behind the United States, Brazil, and Argentina, accounting for 12% of global corn exports in 2021.2 Projected exports from Ukraine are expected to fall 61% (14 million metric tons) in MY 2022/23, significantly reducing global availability. Overall, given growing demand and a challenged outlook for global supply, the U.S. corn stock-to-use ratio is forecast to retreat for the fourth consecutive year, driving up price expectations.
Soybean prices are projected to continue strengthening to a projected US$14.4 per bushel (9% increase) in MY 2022/23 by the USDA, following a 23% increase in MY 2021/22. On the demand side, U.S. soybean exports are forecast to remain above two billion bushels in MY 2022/23, as China continues to rebuild its feed stockpiles. Domestic crushing demand is expected to post consecutive years of gains, up 2% in MY 2022/23 (10 million bushels). On the supply side, soybeans led other crops by added planting acreage for the second year in a row with 3.8 million more acres, beating the previous estimate of an 0.8 million acreage expansion. In addition to anticipating high market prices, producers have also shifted to soybeans from corn due to their lower fertilizer requirements. Expanded production in the United States is expected to provide partial relief to current tight market supply conditions, with the U.S. soybean stock-to-use ratio projected to rebound to 7% in MY 2022/23.
Soybean stock-to-use ratio is up in MY 2022/23, while corn inventory level is drawn further down
Corn and soybean stock to use (%)
Source: USDA oil crops and feed grains yearbooks, 2021; USDA WASDE, May 12, 2022. MY refers to marketing years: 2021 estimated (E), 2022 projected (P).
In MY 2022/23, U.S. wheat price is expected to soar 40% to reach US$10.75 per bushel according to the USDA WASDE’s first estimate of the year. The primary driver of higher prices is international supply uncertainty due to the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Russia is the world’s leading wheat exporter, accounting for 17% of global exports in 2021, while Ukraine, a top ten wheat exporter, accounts for another 10% of global exports. The military conflict between the two countries has seen Ukrainian exports through Black Sea ports come to a halt, which has significantly affected the country’s production and exporting infrastructure, lowering its wheat output by 35% and exports by 47% in MY 2022. In terms of U.S. wheat demand for MY 2022/23, U.S. export volumes of wheat are forecast to trend lower due to limited availability, while domestic wheat use is projected to see no major change from the prior year. On the production side, U.S. wheat planting increases lag previous forecasts by 50% (0.6 million added acres relative to the 1.3 million acres projected in early 2022), due to competing alternative crops. The less-than-expected acreage expansion results in a 33% projected stock-to-use ratio, the lowest in a decade, providing additional support for continued elevated wheat prices in the current market year.
In MY 2022/23, rice prices are forecast to continue their upward trajectory, gaining 13% to reach US$17.8 per hundredweight (cwt) in MY 2022, marking their fifth consecutive year of price increases. Strengthened rice prices are based on the continued drawdown of stock levels and shrinking acreage according to May USDA WASDE estimates. The area planted to rice in the United States is estimated to decline again in MY 2022/23, dropping 3.2% year over year, with lower production forecasts expected to push inventory levels down further. With no major changes anticipated to demand factors and lower production, stock-to-use ratio is expected to decline in MY 2022/23 to 15%, the lowest point in five years.
While planted acres are estimated to increase by 1 million acres in MY 2022/23 in the first acreage rebound in five years, U.S. cotton production is expected to decline 6% from the prior year, due to unfavorable growing and harvest conditions. Over the previous four years, U.S. cotton acreage had shrunk 15% due to declining demand for cotton used in apparel and textile industries as well as increasing international export competition. The drawdown in cotton inventories is due to recovering demand from domestic markets and exports in MY 2020 and 21, and ending inventories through 2021’s crop are projected to dip below 3 million bales. This results in an overall stock-to-use ratio for U.S. cotton in MY 2022/23 of 17%, the second-lowest level since 2013. This tightening in market conditions for cotton should support higher prices, translating into an estimated US$0.90 per pound for MY 2022/23.
Inventory levels are expected to draw down further for wheat, rice, and cotton
U.S. wheat, rice, and cotton stock-to-use ratios (%)
Source: USDA wheat, rice, and cotton yearbooks, USDA WASDE, May 12, 2022. Years reflect marketing years: 2021 estimated (E), 2022 projected (P).
While not planted each year, bearing acreage (the acreage mature enough to produce crops) available for major permanent crops is a key supply indicator. The two largest U.S. permanent crops by acreage and production value, almonds and wine grapes, are expected to see increases in bearing acreage amid challenging weather and climate conditions.
Almond-bearing acre expansion is expected to continue in 2022 as development acres mature
U.S. almond-bearing acres and yield
Source: USDA NASS, as of May 20, 2022; USDA 2021 California almond subjective forecast, May 12, 2022.
Permanent crop-bearing acreage is expected to increase again in MY 2021 for almonds, pistachios, and walnuts, reflecting positive margins in recent marketing years. Almond production in California was estimated to reach 2.8 billion pounds in MY 2022, posting a second year of lower production due to lower yields despite an increase in bearing acres. Bearing acreage is forecast to increase by another 50,000 acres, while the expansion pace is decelerating at 4% year over year, the lowest since MY 2017. Water scarcity issues and the increasingly severe drought conditions in California continue to weigh on production as yields remain challenged. Both lower production and slowing expansion are expected to reduce high almond inventory levels, which are a result of challenging export conditions. Wine grape-bearing acres are expected to hold steady or move lower in 2022 as the market continues to rebalance. Weak market conditions for wine grapes have already resulted in the removal of less productive vineyards and 100,000 fewer bearing acres (2018–2021 average of 467,000 acres) relative to the previous four-year average of 561,000 acres (2014–2017). Wine grape prices have already started to show improvements on lower production and recovering demand. Continued production adaptation will be needed for wine grape markets to regain positive momentum.
Wine grape acreage moves lower to help the market regain balance
California wine grape-bearing acres and annual % change
Source: USDA NASS, May 2021; USDA 2020 grape acreage report, April 2021.
A positive outlook amid geopolitical, inflationary, and climate-related challenges
The agricultural market outlook in the near term is expected to be positive, with solid market demand fundamentals and expected improvements to the global supply chain. Projected higher crop prices in the United States are expected to generate higher revenue for the industry, reflecting positive sentiment among the agricultural sector for MY 2022/23. On the flip side, uncertainty remains around growing conditions for the current crop year as crop progress lags the average pace for most producing regions, posing threats to crop yields and undercutting total volumes. In addition, as inflationary pressure builds up, the costs associated with farm inputs and international freight rates are anticipated to cut into margins and dampen overall profitability. Nevertheless, for the current market year, crop prices are expected to offset input cost increases and provide farmers with another record year. Looking forward, as U.S. farmers continue to adapt to different challenges in production and distribution, the market fundamentals for U.S. agriculture remain upbeat.