As farmers in the upper Midwest prepare for spring, a new survey predicts they will be planting a lot of corn.
According to the U.S. Agriculture Department, once Minnesota farmers are in the field, they will plant 3 percent more corn than last year. But just how much money they earn for the crop depends on unpredictable weather.
"It's really a very interesting situation this year," said Jerry Ploehn, who farms near the community of Alpha in southern Minnesota.
This spring, Ploehn said, there are probably more unknowns with bigger implications for farmers than usual. He said what happens with the drought will shape everything.
If a more favorable weather pattern develops, he said, farm profits could fall. That's because the USDA survey shows more corn will be planted not just in Minnesota, but across the nation.
If significant rain falls and the drought weakens, it's likely that farmers will harvest a big crop this fall. Ploehn said that large supply will drive down the price of corn.
"Yes, it's very possible," he said. "We don't know for sure where the pendulum is going to swing to. I tend to think that possibly lower prices might be coming."
If that occurs, corn prices can fall quickly and steeply. That was demonstrated Thursday when corn plummeted 40 cents a bushel, or nearly 6 percent, in one trading session.
"The shocker was in the quarterly stocks report," University of Minnesota grain marketing specialist Ed Usset said.
The report showed more corn stored on U.S. farms than expected. The large supply sank prices, Usset said, and demonstrated how jittery the market is over the nation's corn stock piles.
Usset said there could be more downward price shocks coming in the corn market if adequate rain falls across the Midwest. The late winter parade of storms that dropped snow and rain on the region might be a sign that will happen, he said.
"Maybe the weather patterns are changing," Usset said. "We might get a normal crop this year."
But it's unclear if the change will last. A year ago heavy spring rains caused flooding. But then the precipitation pattern reversed, and a summer drought took hold.
With favorable weather, Minnesota farmers should also harvest large soybean and wheat crops. The state's farmers plan to boost wheat acreage 1 percent.
However, the number of acres planted to soybeans will be down by about 4 percent compared to last year as farmers switch most of those acres to corn. The switch to corn is also gaining speed in North Dakota, where an estimated 14 percent more corn will be planted this year than last year.
"The corn belt is definitely expanding westward and northward," said Chris Wright, a postdoctoral fellow and landscape ecologist at South Dakota State University.
Wright, who has studied this phenomenon, said corn planting in North Dakota has nearly tripled in 10 years. He said much of that expansion has turned grasslands into corn fields, raising concerns over soil erosion and wildlife habitat.
"If you have high corn prices there's pressure to expand crop production," Wright said.
Whether those high prices continue will depend on how much rain falls over the next few months. Those prices will help determine how much corn is planted in the future in North Dakota, Minnesota, and the rest of the nation.