Female farmers get the inside scoop on ag markets

NDSU class aims to give women an edge on when to sell their crops

A man stands at the front of a classroom
Women involved in agriculture learn about buying and selling farm commodities during a training session at North Dakota State University in Fargo, N.D., on Friday.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Beth Didier farms with her husband and father-in-law near Spiritwood, about 80 miles west of Fargo, N.D. They grow several thousand acres of soybeans, corn and wheat. Didier works full time off the farm, but as her father-in-law moves into retirement, she's taking a larger role in the farming operation.

Understanding when to sell crops is critical, she said.

"Especially in a year like this when prices aren't great, yields aren't great, and so you have to sell it at the best price you can so that you can actually pay the bills," said Didier.

Didier and 16 other women who farm or work in agriculture attended a unique, one-day class last week at North Dakota State University to learn about the ins and outs of farm commodities. As more women around the country are getting involved in the day-to-day business of managing farms, they’ll need these skills to help decide when to sell crops for the optimum return.

At the university’s commodity trading lab, the setting is designed to feel like the real thing. An electronic stock market ticker dominates one wall, massive screens on another wall show up-to-the-minute grain market action, and there are dozens of computer screens for traders.

"It was the first and [is] still the largest commodity trading lab in the U.S. that's dedicated towards teaching people how to use and and trade agricultural commodities," said NDSU ag economist and marketing specialist Frayne Olson.

But while the trades made in this room are based on minute-by-minute changes in the grain markets, the actual sales and purchases never leave the room. They happen through a computer algorithm that responds to real-time market activity.

"So don't worry, you don't have to write out any checks at the end, and fortunately I don't have to write out any checks if you guys made some profits," Olson jokes.

The class learns about the futures market, where traders buy and sell contracts to deliver corn or soybeans in the future. The actual grain never changes hands. But the prices set on the futures market directly affect the cash price, what farmers get when they haul grain to the elevator.

"I tease farmers market and say, 'Hey, marketing is really simple; buy low, sell high, what else you need to know,'" Olson tells the class.

But of course, he says, it's much more complicated.

Markets are increasingly complex as the global economy and international competition influence U.S. markets.

"But we're trying to take the mystery away. We're trying to kind of look behind the curtain at what's going on behind the scenes and how the markets actually function," said Olson.

And while these women may never trade futures directly on the Chicago Board of Trade or the Minneapolis Grain Exchange, understanding how those markets work can give them an edge in deciding when to sell corn, soybeans or wheat.

"The market is sending signals to say, this is what we expect to happen, and here are the market signals on whether you should store your grain longer or whether you should try and sell today,” said Olson. “So if you understand what those signals are and how to interpret them, you can do a much better job of marketing."

This class is only grain marketing 101, but North Dakota State University extension agent Alicia Harstad said it's designed to provide a knowledge base that women need to be equal partners on the farm. Harstad helped organize the training.

"Driving equipment, doing the books, preparing meals, or whatever, it takes a team in order to really farm, and so we wanted to empower women to feel like they can be more involved with those [marketing] conversations," said Harstad.

After several hours of discussion about the difference between futures and cash markets, contracts, hedging and the basics of using a computer to make trades in the grain market, Beth Didier was a bit overwhelmed.

"It's pretty intense, there's a lot to learn,” she said as the class took a break. “It's fascinating, there's so much more to it than I ever dreamed of. I had no idea about half of this stuff."

But she will leave this daylong session more confident about planning to sell crops and eager to dig in and develop a deeper knowledge of the markets.

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