Enough About Bushels per Acre — Let’s Focus on Profit per Acre

We see it after every harvest: Seed and chemical companies, as well as commodity trade organizations like the Soybean Association, hold big dinners where they give out awards to farmers who produce the highest yield based on bushels per acre. Winners receive a plaque and a photo op commending their success in pushing yield limits. Winning that “bin buster” award is fine and dandy, but this focus on yields has distracted us from talking about profitability for farmers — and that’s by design. Wouldn’t it be better to win a “bank buster” award that centers the conversation on profitability for farmers?

Trade Organizations Have Redefined Farming

Simple paradigm shifts — like referring to pig farmers as pork producers, or asking farmers how many bushels per acre they’ve harvested instead of dollars made per acre — have the effect of disconnecting farmers from their land and animals. Ultimately, these shifts undermine a farmer’s understanding of their product’s true market value. By methodically centering the public conversation around yields instead of profits, commodity checkoff groups and seed, fertilizer, and chemical companies can deceive farmers into operating against their own best interests.

Higher Yields Come at a Cost (to Farmers)

More bushels may mean more profit — but not necessarily for farmers. In order to get the highest yield, farmers apply extra rounds of chemicals or fertilizer, degrading their land and emptying their pockets on input costs. When fertilizer prices are suspiciously sky-high and chemical companies are illegally conducting pay-to-block schemes (in which they pay distributors a little extra cash to stop farmers from buying cheaper, off-brand pesticides and herbicides), those extra input costs are nothing to sneeze at. All the while, the chemical companies rake in farmers’ dollars, checkoff groups make more money the more corn and soybeans farmers produce, and meatpackers benefit from cheap government-subsidized livestock feed

Do farmers get a reasonable return on that last pound of fertilizer or spray? It’s hard to say, but one thing is certain: Big Ag’s pocket just got fatter, and they don’t care if farmers got a return or not.

It’s Time to Change the Conversation

We need to shift the conversation to focus on profitability for farmers so their interests come before Big Ag’s. Contrary to what Big Ag wants farmers to believe, it is possible to have a more profitable season without pushing yield limits and sacrificing the long-term sustainability of farmed land.

Take Farm Action Local Leader Kevin Fulton for example: He’s working to change the conversation by prioritizing profit over yield. Despite a chorus of voices telling him it was impossible, his farm nets a profit every year thanks to the regenerative methods he deploys.

The key to Kevin’s success is reducing some inputs and completely eliminating others, then adding further value by marketing organic grains which earn a premium. Some years he exceeds his goal of $1,000 per acre of net profit: This year, he’s projecting his soybeans will net $1,200 – $1,400 per acre. Kevin acknowledges that if he added more fertilizer to his crops they would yield more, but that wouldn’t generate more profit once you figure in fertilizer costs. 

“We deserve to make money out here,” Kevin says. “Not just me, everybody. This is hard work, [and] what we do is important.” We couldn’t agree more! Enough with the bushels per acre awards — it’s time for farmers’ profits to take center stage.

Written by Jessica Cusworth and Dee Laninga; concept developed by Joe Maxwell and Angela Huffman