Why I Do Grain Market Consulting by Roger Wright
It was an unusually cold, bone-chilling Saturday morning the second week in December 1964 as the first nasty winter storm was almost upon us. It had been a late and wet harvest, but a bountiful harvest. Nobody had ever heard of El Niño back then, but 1964 was a classic El Niño year with record large corn yields. My older brother, Ted, had just finished picking the last rows of corn as Dad and my younger brother, Paul, milked the cows while I fed the sows, baby calves, pitched silage and wheel barrowed it into the bunk for the cows.
By mid-morning, the north wind was howling between the silo and milk parlor. The silo was full, the bank barn was full of hay and straw, the corn crib was full, all the feed bins, flat bed and gravity wagons were full. And yet, we had two forage wagons heavily loaded with ear corn and only enough room for one of them under-roof. With harvest complete, we needed to do all those little tasks that do not get done during harvest on a dairy farm. Because a heavy snow storm was coming that afternoon, we were trying to do all those tasks in a matter of hours. It was getting to be late morning as my two brothers and I scurried as Dad barked orders as he out-worked all three of us combined. The temperature was dropping like a rock. Sleet blew for a few minutes and then the snowflakes came.
It was most certainly going to be a nasty storm with a lot of snow. I am sure my brothers were thinking like I was, “What are we going to do with that load of ear corn?” We knew it would get snow all through and between the ears if left outside. There was no way a tarp would keep the snow out. We would never be able to grind a full batch and feed it before it spoiled. That meant we would have to grind a little feed every day and use it before it got too hot. Worse yet, the wet ground ear corn could upset the rumen bacteria in the milk cows and that was always costly.
I just finished my most recently assigned task. I was shielding my face from the bitter wind when Dad snapped, “Roger! Get the AR, grab that Gehl wagon (load of corn) and take it to Shepard’s and get rid of it!”
I was stunned. I had never been with anyone when a load of grain was taken to the elevator. On our dairy hog farm, we fed everything we grew all my life. The thought of selling something we could feed was a totally foreign concept to me. We never had excess corn… until that day.
My mind started to whirl. I needed to get more clothes before I started the three-mile journey to the elevator. The AR was a 1950 John Deere two cylinder. It was fully warm from hauling manure and pulling wagons. I asked Dad, "What do I do when I get to Shepard’s?" He said, “Just pull on the scales and go into the office. Tell Bruce you want to sell the corn and he will tell you what needs to be done.”
On one hand, I was tickled to be able to pull that huge load of corn with our 1950 John Deere AR. That two cylinder pulling a big load in fifth or sixth gear on the three miles of modest hills was going to be something special! That AR under load was and still is truly the sweetest sound in the world!
When I arrived at the elevator, I was relieved there was no line at the scale house because I was so cold! I proudly guided that AR into the scale tunnel. I knew everyone in the elevator area was looking at my rig. In those days, the local elevator was the Tractor Supply, Quality Farm and Fleet, Rural King, hardware, grind and mix feed place and vet supply store. More than 30 people worked at Shepards and I knew all of them could not resist looking at a machine making such a beautiful sound! But I was nearly frozen frozen and very pleased to get in the very warm, but small office! That warm office remains one of my fondest memories, that is how cold I was.
Bruce Shepard, the owner, appeared to be annoyed. I figured it was because I arrived so close to closing time, which was noon on a Saturday.
Bruce went out in the cold, got his ladder to retrieve four ears of corn from four different locations at the top of the wagon. He came back inside, shelled two rows of kernels on each ear into a bucket and did a bunch of strange stuff I had never seen done before. He scribbled every minute or so on a piece of paper. He was taking forever, but that did not bother me because it was toasty warm in the office. I looked up and noticed the posted corn price on the east office wall was 66 cents. Bruce just sat there for several minutes not doing anything, just looking alternately out the window and the scribble on his paper. The secretary, Dorthy Bishop, was working at her desk in the back room. I had begun to sense this was not going to end well. Finally, Bruce began to talk.
“You know the price of corn is pretty low. You know your corn is pretty wet. You know we charge ten cents a bushel to shell it…” The silence became deafening…
Bruce asked me, “What do you want to do with this corn?”
“Dad said, ‘Get rid of it!’ So sell it!”
Bruce said, “Your dad is not going to be happy if you sell it…”
“I know that!" I don't know if I said this or not, but my thoughts were, "Yea, I see the price on the wall there and, yea, I know you are going to dock us for everything you just said. So, what does that mean? Are you only going to pay 20 or 30 cents a bushel for it?”
Bruce took a long look out the window where the snow was flying now. Then he turned back toward me, but would not look me in the eye. “Your dad is going to owe us 22 cents a bushel if you sell this corn…”
Sure, I was shocked, but my biggest concern was what would Dad do to me if I brought that wagon load of corn home after he told me to “Get rid of it!” versus what he would do to me if I told him he owed Shepard Grain Company 22 cents a bushel! I had never crossed my dad before. It was the most difficult decision of my young life to date. Talk about stress!
I headed home with the load of corn. Even if we had to dump it in the field, it was worth at least a little as organic matter. All the way home, I was trying to figure out how I could get to Dad before he knew I brought the corn home. That AR would be barkin’ loud going up the very modest grade of the lane. Everybody on the farm, cows and sows included, would know before I passed the house I was bringing the corn home.
I really don’t remember what Dad said, but I do remember he was not angry at me!
The previous spring, Dad and I had gone into the house for our noon meal. Of course, AM radio 700 WLW’s Farm broadcaster, Bob Miller, was giving the weather and markets, when, out-of-the-blue, Dad asked me what Bob was talking about when he gave prices for July corn, September corn and December corn?
Of course, I did not know, but what a terrible shock for me to find-out Dad, my dad, did not know everything there was to know about farming. Dad asked me, a kid, for crying out loud! What a disappointment for me! I have since learned dairy farmers are the worst grain marketers!
I was very fortunate to have Cliff Baughman as a vo-ag teacher for four years. Cliff decided farm kids needed to be taught grain and livestock marketing; the futures market and the cash markets. Cliff was one who always thought a teacher of anything should have first hand experience. So he told us he was going to open a futures trading account. Each day, he explained what was done. We discussed the process of selecting a broker, what the forms stated he had to sign, how he had to deposit margin money, etc. He discussed the ins and outs of deciding what position to take, how to place the order, and what was the best that could happen and what was the worst that could happen.
For about two weeks, he had a one 5,000 bu corn contract position. Each day he shared the news about the corn market, how much money he had lost and how much money he was ahead. The day came when he liquidated the position with a profit. He told us then and he would tell you now, that $252.50 was the hardest $252.50 he ever made! Cliff became a very successful cash grain marketer and hedger. His operation survived with his farm intact after the 1980’s farm land crash and 21½% interest rates. Decades later, I asked him how he did it. He said, "I hustled."
When I left the military in 1975, corn was 4 times, hogs were 6 times and interest rates were 12 times higher than they were when I left the farm. Consequently, my dream to farm was out of reach.
I have been working to learn more about grain marketing ever since Cliff educated us about grain and livestock marketing. He always reminded us, “There is just as much money to be made through better marketing as there is through more efficient production.” I will add that better marketing takes very little investment compared to improving production efficiency.
I have learned a lot about marketing and I want to share it with you so you can make more profit through better marketing. Grain marketing is really quite simple once you understand how the futures and cash markets work.
I have made a living teaching farmers how to put extra money in their pocket, which takes money out of the merchandisers’ pockets. For that reason, I am the most hated man in America by the grain industry.
All eight of us at Wright on the Market appreciate your business. We are working everyday to keep the business going for another 42 years.
Happy New Year!
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