Agriculture and the Economy: A View from the Chicago Fed

written by: Paul Traub

On Thursday, May 12, 2016, members of the Detroit Association for Business Economics (DABE) attended a presentation entitled “Agriculture and the Economy: A View from the Chicago Fed” by David Oppedahl, senior business economist, Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. Oppedahl highlighted key trends in agriculture and their relationship to the broader economy. Farming and manufacturing of food and bioproducts comprise around 4% of the Seventh District’s economic activity in 2013. And this share has been growing in the past decade.

However, over the past century, agriculture has seen dramatic declines in terms of the number of farms and their workers. These trends have been mirrored more recently in the loss of manufacturing jobs. These changes have been difficult for the Midwest, which has a higher than average concentration in these sectors. Still, there also have been some economic advantages to the region as a result of booming productivity. For instance, corn and soybean yields per acre have about doubled in the past half century.

Productivity improvements have generated more than a doubling of agricultural output (given similar level inputs) since around 1950, meaning U.S. consumers have had to spend less and less on food—from 28% of spending in 1950 to 13% in 2015. At the same time, however, spending on health care has been rising, such that the total consumption of food and health care has remained fairly steady at roughly one-third of consumer spending. An argument can be made that as eating habits became less healthy in the second half of the twentieth century, there was a substitution into spending more on health care than food. So, today’s efforts to promote healthier eating in the U.S. and to grow farm income from local and organic foods in essence aim to turn back the clock on personal consumption patterns.

Another key aspect of agriculture is the role of exports as a vital boost to the income of U.S. producers. In 2015, 13% of the District states’ exports were of food and agricultural products (versus 8.5% for the nation). Until 2014, U.S. agricultural exports had been growing rapidly, in large part due to the expansion of markets in Asia. But in 2015 there was a decline in agricultural exports as the strength of the U.S. dollar and slower economic growth abroad contributed to a narrowing of the nation’s trade surplus in agricultural trade.

Not only has the slowdown in exports affected the profitability of agriculture, but there also has been a compression of profit margins as many prices for agricultural products have fallen more than input costs in the last two years. The USDA projects that net farm income for the sector will fall for a second consecutive year in 2016. This downturn has hit the Midwest hard, as seen in lower farmland values and cash rental rates (see latest issue of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago’s quarterly AgLetter). On November 29, 2016, the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago will hold a conference to examine the agricultural downturn in the Midwest and discuss future directions for farming. Additional information about the conference will be released in the coming months on chicagofed.org.

To view Oppedahl’s slides from his Detroit presentation, please click here.