Price Determination in Agricultural Commodity Markets: A Primer
CRS Report for Congress
Price Determination in Agricultural
Commodity Markets: A Primer
Updated January 6, 2006
Specialist in Agricultural Policy
Resources, Science, and Industry Division
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
Price Determination in Agricultural
Commodity Markets: A Primer
This report provides a general description of price determination in major U.S.
agricultural commodity markets for wheat, rice, corn, soybeans, and cotton.
Understanding the fundamentals of commodity market price formation is critical to
evaluating the potential effects of government policies and programs (existing or
proposed), as well as of trade agreements that may open U.S. borders to foreign
competitors. In addition, an understanding of the interplay of market forces over
time contributes to flexibility in making policy for what may be short-term market
phenomena. The general price level of an agricultural commodity, whether at a
major terminal, port, or commodity futures exchange, is influenced by a variety of
market forces that can alter the current or expected balance between supply and
demand. Many of these forces emanate from domestic food, feed, and industrial-use
markets and include consumer preferences and the changing needs of end users;
factors affecting the production processes (e.g., weather, input costs, pests, diseases,
etc.); relative prices of crops that can substitute in either production or consumption;
government policies; and factors affecting storage and transportation. International
market conditions are also important depending on the “openness” of a country’s
domestic market to international competition, and the degree to which a country
engages in international trade.
A distinguishing feature of U.S. commodity markets is the importance of futures
markets. Unlike cash markets which deal with the immediate transfer of goods, a
futures market is based on buying (or selling) commodity contracts at a fixed price
for potential physical delivery at some future date. A futures exchange provides the
facilities for buyers and sellers to trade commodity futures contracts openly, and
reports any market transactions to the public. As a result of this activity, futures
markets function as a central exchange for domestic and international market
information and as a primary mechanism for price discovery, particularly for storable
agricultural commodities with seasonal production patterns.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) plays a critical role in monitoring
and disseminating agricultural market information. Commodity markets rely heavily
on USDA reports for guidance on U.S. and international supply and demand
conditions. The release of USDA supply and demand estimates has the potential to
substantially alter market expectations about current and future commodity market
conditions and are, therefore, closely watched by market participants.
In general, certain characteristics of agricultural product markets set them apart
from most non-agricultural product markets and tend to make agricultural product
prices more volatile than are the prices of most nonfarm goods and services. Three
such noteworthy characteristics of agricultural crops include the seasonality of
production, the derived nature of their demand, and generally price-inelastic demand
and supply functions. In addition, wheat, rice, corn, soybeans, and cotton each have
certain unique structural characteristics that further differentiate the nature of market
price formation from each other. This report will be updated as conditions warrant.
In troduction ......................................................1
Agricultural Commodity Market Fundamentals..........................2
Market Structure and Prices......................................2
What’s Behind Market Price Differences...........................3
Local Supply and Demand Conditions.........................3
Key Role of Market Information..................................6
Agricultural Commodity Futures Markets.......................6
U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).......................6
Private News Services......................................6
Commodity Futures Markets.........................................7
The Price Basis...............................................8
Major Factors Influencing the Basis..........................10
Inter-Contract Price Spreads....................................10
Old-Crop/New-Crop Price Spreads...............................11
USDA Market Information.........................................11
In troduction .................................................11
Crop Production Reports.......................................12
Estimates, Forecasts, and Projections.........................13
Yield and Production Forecasts..............................14
Market Demand Information....................................15
U.S. Government Program Activity...............................18
Market Price Information.......................................19
Ending Stocks as a Summary of Market Conditions..................19
Overview of Commodity Markets....................................21
Macroeconomic Linkages to Commodity Markets...................21
Special Considerations for Agricultural Markets.....................21
Derived Nature of Many Agricultural Product Prices.............22
Price-Inelastic Demand and Supply...........................23
Key Market Factors.......................................26
Key Market Factors.......................................30
Key Market Factors.......................................30
The Oilseed Complex.........................................32
Key Market Factors.......................................33
List of Figures
Figure 1. Price Represents the Equilibrium of Supply and Demand..........2
Figure 2. Basis Convergence.........................................9
Figure 3. Season-Average Farm Price Received for All Wheat vs.
End-of-Year Stocks-to-Use Ratio................................20
Figure 4. Price Changes Due to a Supply Shift Are Larger than Quantity
Changes under Inelastic Demand Curves..........................24
List of Tables
Appendix Table 1. Major Agricultural Commodity Futures Exchanges......35
Appendix Table 2. Major Agricultural Commodity Futures Contracts,
Futures Exchanges, and Contract Months..........................36
Appendix Table 3. Annual Release Schedule for Key USDA Crop and
Market Information Reports.....................................37
Appendix Table 4. Major NASS Crop Production Reports................39
Price Determination in Agricultural
Commodity Markets: A Primer
This report focuses on the major factors affecting price formation for the five
largest U.S. program crops — wheat, rice, corn, soybeans, and cotton.1 According
to the U.S. Agricultural Census, these five crops accounted for 67% of harvested crop
land in the United States in 2002.2 Certain common characteristics make a general
description of market price formation relevant across this diverse set of commodities:
each of these crops is produced annually; under modest conditions they are all
storable for long periods of time (potentially spanning several years); they all move
from farm to market in bulk form; and they are all actively traded on at least one of
the major commodity futures exchanges which facilitates hedging and forward
contracting. In addition, frequently several or (in some cases) all of them compete
for the same crop land in production, thus, indirectly linking their prices across
This report begins by briefly introducing some economic fundamentals common
to most agricultural commodity markets. This is followed in the second section by
a discussion of the role of futures markets in price determination of storable
agricultural commodities with seasonal production patterns. The third section
reviews the important role provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)
in monitoring and disseminating agricultural market information. The release of
timely information facilitates price discovery and helps to level the playing field
between small market participants and the large multinational agri-businesses. The
fourth and final section highlights some of the differences unique to each of these
commodities that make price determination in each market somewhat different.
1 Other U.S. feed grain crops (primarily grain sorghum, barley, and oats) are briefly
mentioned in the discussion of corn as the principal U.S. feed grain crop. Other U.S.
oilseeds crops (primarily sunflowers, rapeseed, canola, peanuts, and cottonseed) are briefly
mentioned in the discussion of soybeans as the principal U.S. oilseed crop.
2 For more information see the “2002 Census of Agriculture United States” available at
Agricultural Commodity Market Fundamentals
Market Structure and Prices
Price (P*) represents the equilibrium point where buyers (i.e., demand) and
sellers (i.e., supply) meet in the marketplace (Figure 1). New market information
(e.g., crop failure in a foreign market, widespread animal disease outbreak, a major
revision to a previous crop production estimate, etc.) can alter the expectations of
market participants and lead to a new equilibrium price as sellers revise their offer
prices and buyers revise their purchase bids based on the new information.
An outward shift in demand from the market equilibrium (due, for example, to
news of a foreign crop failure raising expectations for increased U.S. exports) would
raise the price P* as Demand moves to the right along the Supply curve. Similarly,
an outward shift in supply from the market equilibrium (due, for example, to an
upward revision in the planted acreage estimate by USDA raising expectations for
higher production) would lead to lower price P* as Supply moves to the right along
the Demand curve. Both of these hypothetical price changes would only be short-
term. In the long-run, producers would alter their planting decisions in light of the
new price expectations.
Figure 1. Price Represents the Equilibrium of
Supply and Demand
Dema nd S upp l y
Quan ti ty Q uanti ty
The speed and efficiency with which the various price adjustments occur
depend, in large part, on the market structure within which a commodity is being
traded. Common attributes of market structure include the following.
!The number of buyers and sellers — more market participants are
generally associated with increased price competitiveness.
!The commodity’s homogeneity in terms of type, variety, quality, and
end-use characteristics — greater product differentiation is generally
associated with greater price differences among products and
!The number of close substitutes — more close substitutes means
buyers have greater choice and are more price sensitive.
!The commodity’s storability — greater storability gives the seller
more options in terms of when and under what conditions to sell his
!The transparency of price formation, e.g., open auction versus
private contracts — greater transparency prevents price
!The ease of commodity transfer between buyers and sellers and
among markets — greater mobility limits spatial price differences.
!Artificial restrictions on the market processes, e.g., government
policies or market collusion from a major participant — more
artificial restrictions tend to prevent the price from reaching its
natural equilibrium level. Some restrictions (e.g., import barriers)
limit supply and keep prices high, while other types of restrictions
(e.g., market collusion by a few large buyers) may suppress market
What’s Behind Market Price Differences
The general price level of an agricultural commodity, whether at a major
terminal, port, or commodity futures exchange, is influenced by a variety of market
forces that can alter the current or expected balance between supply and demand.
Many of these forces emanate from domestic food, feed, and industrial-use markets
and include consumer preferences and the changing needs of end users; factors
affecting the production processes (e.g., weather, input costs, pests, diseases, etc.);
relative prices of crops that can substitute in either production or consumption;
government policies; and factors affecting storage and transportation. International
market conditions are also important depending on the “openness” of a country’s
domestic market to international competition, and the degree to which a country
engages in international trade.
Local Supply and Demand Conditions. Differences in grain and oilseed
prices throughout the world reflect differences in local supply and demand conditions
(as well as differences in local market structures). In general, grain and oilseed prices
are lower in the inland producing regions where they are in surplus, and higher in
grain and oilseed deficit, densely populated and port regions where demand exceeds
local production. Similarly for cotton, prices are lowest in the production zones, and
highest around processing centers and textile mills.
Product Characteristics. Today’s market participants tend to be very
sophisticated buyers who carefully compare the price of different agricultural
commodities in terms of their cost per unit of desired end-use characteristic. As a
result, supply and demand conditions in agricultural markets — whether it be markets
for export, feed rations, fresh products, food processing, or textile manufacturing —
may depend on a commodity’s particular variety, quality, or end-use characteristic
more than the overall supply of the generic commodity. For example, a flour
processor may base wheat purchase decisions primarily on the specific variety of
wheat and its particular milling and baking characteristics. A yarn or textile
manufacturer may select cotton based on its fiber color, strength, or length depending
on the intended processing outcome. A livestock or poultry operation strives for the
least-cost, balanced ration (depending on the type of animal) that includes sufficient
protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, and roughage. An ethanol plant may select
corn based on its starch content, while a food processor may prefer corn with an
above-average oil content.
Transfer Costs. Key components of the U.S. grain and oilseed handling
network include on-farm storage, trucks, railroads, barges, and grain elevators
(including county, sub-terminal, and export elevators). A complex web of local
supply and demand conditions determines how and when commodities move through
this network. Price changes at any point along the chain can result in shifts to
alternate transport modes or routes as grain marketers search for the lowest-cost
method of moving grain between buyer and seller.
For grains and oilseeds, prices at the local country elevator are derived from a
central market price less transportation and handling costs. Country elevator
managers watch the prices in several markets (whether a processing plant, feedlot,
export terminal, or futures exchange) to determine where the demand is the greatest,
then deduct transfer costs to the higher-priced market in determining the bids they
can offer local producers. In competitive markets, transfer costs — loading or
handling and transportation charges — are usually the most important factors in
determining spatial (i.e., location-based) price differentials. In the international
marketplace, transfer costs include barriers to trade such as tariffs and quotas. The
more it costs to transport a commodity to a buyer, the less the producer will receive
and vice versa. Price differentials between regions cannot exceed transfer costs for
very long as marketers will quickly move commodities from the low-priced markets
(raising prices there) and ship them to the higher-priced markets (lowering prices3
From the farm to the processing plant or export terminal, trucks, trains, and
barges compete and complement one another in moving grain to successively larger
elevators. Shipping distance often determines each mode’s particular role. Trucks
traditionally have an advantage in moving grain for shorter distances (less than 250
to 500 miles) and therefore function primarily as the short haul gatherers of grain
product. Railroads have a cost advantage in moving grain long distances, but barges4
have an even greater cost advantage where a waterway is available. Most
3 Stephen Amosson, Jim Mintert, William Tierney, and Mark Waller, Knowing and
Managing Grain Basis, RM2-3.0, 6-98, Texas Agricultural Extension Service.
4 For a discussion of agricultural transportation issues and the cost advantages of barge
versus truck or rail, see CRS Report RL32470, Upper Mississippi River-Illinois Waterway
economists and market analysts agree that inexpensive barge transportation helps
hold down rates charged by the rail and truck transportation industries.
Any disruption to the agricultural transportation network generally results in
higher transportation costs throughout the system as the demand for transportation
services shifts to alternate modes and routes in search of the next best means of
moving production to market. For example, a weather event that dramatically slows
or severely limits barge traffic on the Mississippi River will have the effect of raising
barge freight rates as the demand for barge services exceeds their supply. Higher
barge freight rates for grains will in turn shift these commodities to alternate uses
(feed, food, industrial, or storage), to alternate transport modes (rail or truck), or to
alternate trade routes (e.g., to the Atlantic via the St. Lawrence Seaway, or overland
to Canada, Mexico, or alternate ports along the Gulf coast or as far away as the
Pacific Northwest). Because truck and rail are significantly more costly than barge
transport, shifting bulk commodities to truck- or rail-based routes can substantially
raise the cost of moving grain and result in a widening basis and falling prices in
Government Policies. Several of the major field crops grown in the United
States (including wheat, corn, barley, sorghum, oats, rice, soybeans, peanuts, and5
cotton) receive support under different types of government programs. Annual
direct commodity payments have averaged over $18 billion in the United States6
during the eight-year period, 1998/1999 to 2005/2006. The intended function of
government programs vary from direct price support under commodity loan
provisions to conservation management. Because of their influence on per-acre
returns, government programs play an important role in the crop selection and
marketing decisions of agricultural producers.
The degree of influence of government programs varies greatly from commodity
to commodity. But, in general, government programs increase the incentives to
produce the crop receiving support. As a result, the supply of government-supported
crops available to the market tends to be larger than the supply actually demanded by
the market under the supply and demand conditions that would prevail in the absence
of government programs. The consequence of over-supply is lower price.
The United States is not alone in the support it provides through government7
programs to its agricultural sector. Most of the other major agricultural producing
Navigation Expansion: An Agricultural Transportation and Environmental Context,
coordinated by Randy Schnepf, pp. 27-34.
5 For a brief introduction to U.S. agricultural programs see CRS Report RS20848, Farm
Commodity Programs: A Short Primer, by Geoffrey S. Becker.
6 Fiscal year data; USDA, Farm Service Agency, Budget Table 35, “CCC Net Outlays by
Commodity and Function,” available at [http://www.fsa.usda.gov/dam/bud/bud1.htm].
7 For more information on the type and extent of foreign intervention in domestic
agricultural sectors see CRS Report RL30612, Agriculture in the WTO: Member Spending
countries provide some form of support, although in many cases it is in the form of
border protection (via tariffs, quotas, and other import restrictions), state-sanctioned
monopolies (e.g., the Canadian Wheat Board), rural infrastructure development, or
agricultural research rather than direct payments.
Key Role of Market Information
Commodity prices reflect the equilibrium between supply and demand at a
particular location for a given moment in time. However, the market equilibrium and
its associated price level are constantly changing as new information is received by
market participants. The tremendous breadth of relevant information spanning global
markets would appear to give an advantage to the large multi-national agricultural-
based companies such as Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, and Bunge that have
employees monitoring crop and market conditions in all of the major grain and
oilseed producing countries worldwide. However, there are three principal sources
of market information (described briefly below) that at least partially offset the
information advantage of the large multinational agri-corporations.
Agricultural Commodity Futures Markets. Commodity futures markets
function as a central exchange for domestic and international market information and
as a primary mechanism for price discovery. Because they reflect domestic and
international market conditions, futures contract price movements implicitly convey
information about international supply and demand conditions. This price-based
market information function is described in more detail below in the section
“Commodity Futures Markets.”
U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). USDA attempts to level the
“information” playing field for market participants by publishing timely U.S. and
international crop supply, demand, and price projections for major U.S. program
crops, as well as for several livestock production activities. USDA’s market
information reporting process is described in more detail below in the section
“USDA Market Information.”
Private News Services. In addition to USDA’s commodity market
information activities, a large network of private sector, fee-based agricultural market
news and information services (including weather information services and
commodity market reporting services) have developed since the early 1970s to
complement and enhance USDA’s commodity reporting.
on Domestic Support, by Randy Schnepf.
Commodity Futures Markets
A distinguishing feature of the U.S. and international commodity markets is the
importance of futures markets. Unlike cash markets which deal with the immediate
transfer of goods, a futures market is based on buying (or selling) commodity
contracts at a fixed price for potential physical delivery at some future date.8
Agricultural commodity futures contracts are traded on several commodity exchanges
in the United States and overseas (Appendix Tables 1 and 2).
Each exchange publishes information on the months for which futures contracts
are available, the contract size, deliverable grades, trading hours, contract period,
minimum price fluctuations, daily price limits, and margin information.9 A futures
contract specifies the grade, quality, amount, and conditions for product delivery
(including acceptable delivery locations), as well as the delivery month. In most
cases, various product grades are deliverable in lieu of the contract’s base grade or
type, but subject to price premiums and/or discounts. The contract specifications are
written to ensure that they closely mirror cash market conditions, and the months of
trading are usually selected because of their significance in the crop marketing year.10
A futures exchange provides the facilities for buyers and sellers to trade
commodity futures contracts openly, then reports any market transactions to the
public. Most futures exchanges publish daily information on the open, high, low, and
closing price of active futures contracts, as well as on their volume (reported as either
the number of contracts or the total of physical units such as bushels traded) and open
interest (the total number of futures contracts that have been entered into and not yet
liquidated by an offsetting transaction or fulfilled by delivery).11
As a result of this activity, futures markets function as a central exchange for
domestic and international market information and as a primary mechanism for price
discovery. The reliability of a futures market’s price discovery function is dependent
on the volume of daily transactions. Thinly traded markets, as indicated by low
volume, are more susceptible to price manipulation than are heavily traded ones. In
such situations, prices on the futures market may not accurately reflect either price
8 For information on U.S. futures exchanges and the rules and regulations for trading
commodity futures see the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) website at
[ h t t p : / / www.c f t c .gov/ ] .
9 See Appendix Table 1 for futures exchange websites where contract specifications and
other relevant information is posted.
10 Handbook of Futures Markets, “Chapter 26 — Wheat,” by Donna Nielsen Murphy,
Copyright ©1984 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc., p. 11.
11 For more information on futures market terminology see, “The CFTC Glossary,” CFTC,
available at [http://www.cftc.gov/opa/glossary/opaglossary_a.htm].
behavior in the cash market or expectations about the future.12 It is not unusual for
distant contracts — that is, futures contracts whose delivery date is a year or more in
the future — to experience very low volume.
Publicly announced futures prices also play a critical role in facilitating seasonal
market operations because they provide a forum for forward contracting and
hedging.13 Regional and local grain elevators rely on futures commodity exchanges
for hedging grain purchases and generally set their grain bid prices at a discount to
a nearby futures contract in areas of surplus production, (such as for corn in the Corn
Belt) or at a premium in deficit production areas (such as for corn in North Carolina).
As a result, cash prices and futures contract prices are strongly linked, i.e., both
prices contain much of the same information about market conditions.
Speculators — i.e., any person or entity that buys or sells futures contracts to
profit from anticipated commodity price changes in their favor — provide an
important function in futures markets by expanding both the trading volume and
liquidity of daily futures market transactions. Today speculators, including private
investment funds, comprise the majority of market participants. The presence of
many speculative buyers and sellers tends to dampen extreme price volatility and
allows hedgers to buy and sell in large volume with ease.14 As a result of speculation
and hedging, most futures contracts are settled without actual delivery of the
The Price Basis
A key price relationship between the local cash price and the price for the
nearby futures contract is called the basis. The basis is defined as the difference
between the cash price of a particular commodity at a specific location and the nearby
futures contract (i.e., closest contract month) for that commodity. For example, the
basis for soft red wheat in Peoria, Illinois, on a given day in June would be the
difference between the cash price in Peoria and the July futures contract price at the
Chicago Board of Trade (CBOT) as quoted on that same day.
Under normal supply and demand conditions, the basis for a storable commodity
is negative reflecting the transportation cost associated with moving the commodity
from the local market to the delivery point specified by the futures contract, and the
carrying charges (storage, interest and insurance costs) associated with holding the
12 Douglas Gordon, “Performance of Thin Futures Markets: Rice and Sunflower Seed
Futures,” Agricultural Economics Research, vol. 36, no. 4, fall 1984, pp. 1-27.
13 Forward contracting involves fixing the contract price for future delivery. Often such
forward contract prices are made relative to a specific futures contract price, e.g., a March
forward contract for the sale of wheat in July may set the eventual sale price at 5 cents under
the closing price of the July CBOT wheat contract. Hedging involves the purchase or sale
of a futures contract as a temporary substitute for a cash transaction that will occur later to
minimize the risk of financial loss from an adverse price change. For example, a producer
may sell a harvest-time futures contract at planting time as a hedge against the risk that
market prices will fall before the crop is ready for market.
14 Commodity Trading Manual, Board of Trade of the City of Chicago, 1985, pp. 113-124.
commodity during the time period separating the futures contract transaction date and
the delivery (or contract expiry) date. (See Figure 2.) As a futures contract expires
and the delivery month approaches, the carrying charges go to zero and the cash and
futures prices tend to converge. At the date of actual delivery, the basis represents
the pure transportation cost separating the local market from the futures market
Figure 2. Basis Convergence
Pr i c e
Source: Commodity Trading Manual, ©Chicago Board of Trade, 1985, p. 65.
In cases where local demand exceeds local supply, whether due to a crop
shortfall or a nearby processing plant, the basis may be less than the transport margin
or even exceed the futures market price. For example, local corn demand may be
bolstered by the existence of an ethanol plant or a major livestock feeding operation.
Geographic basis distributions demonstrate that local corn prices in the southern
plains states (with large cattle feeding operations) and eastern seaboard states (with
widespread dairy and poultry feeding operations) routinely exceed the price of the
nearby CBOT corn futures contract (i.e., an inverted basis) by as much as 10 to 20
cents per bushel due to strong local demand from livestock and poultry feeding
operations; whereas local corn prices in the primary corn growing regions of the
northern and western Corn Belt average 30 to 40 cents below CBOT corn futures
pri ces. 15
15 For a geographic mapping of corn, soybean, and wheat basis distributions see “January
Agricultural Marketing Policy Center, Montana State University, February 2004 at
[ ht t p: / / www.ampc.mont ana.edu/ publ i cat i ons/ AMPCpubl i cat i ons.ht ml ] .
Full carrying charges are rarely ever achieved in actual market behavior, except
in periods of substantial oversupply or excess stocks. However, the generally
repetitive patterns of the basis movements for storable agricultural commodities
make the basis more predictable from year to year than the movement of either cash
or futures prices.16 As a result, the basis enables producers and users to estimate an
expected cash price from the currently reported value of a futures contract. This
predictability greatly reduces the risk of using the futures market to hedge or forward
Major Factors Influencing the Basis. Factors affecting the local basis for
grains, oilseeds, and cotton are similar to the factors affecting both cash and futures
prices and include 1) the overall supply and demand for each commodity by variety
or type; 2) the supply and demand of other commodities that compete for either the
same land in production or the same dollar of consumer expenditure; 3) geographical
disparities in supply and demand; 4) transportation and transportation problems; 5)
transportation pricing structure; 6) available storage space; 7) quality factors; and 8)17
Inter-Contract Price Spreads
The price relationships that exist between differing futures contract months for
the same commodity are called inter-contract (or intra-market) price spreads. Under
normal supply and demand conditions, more deferred futures contracts have a
premium over nearby contracts that reflects the carrying charges of holding the
commodity until the deferred contract dates. For example, suppose that the
hypothetical cost of carrying a $4.00 bushel of wheat for one month is 3 cents
(calculated as: 6% annual interest charges for one month which equals 2 cents; plus18
insurance and other fees of 1 cent per bushel per month). Then the premium (based
strictly on carrying costs) between the September contract of the current year and
next year’s March contract would be 18 cents per bushel (calculated as: six months
at 3 cents per month per bushel, equal to 18 cents).
However, “normal” conditions rarely persist and the market is always altering
its expectations of future events as new market information becomes available. As
a result, price differences between futures contracts rarely equate to simple carrying
charges. During periods of supply shortage, cash prices tend to rise relative to futures
contract prices, and nearby futures contract prices tend to rise relative to more distant
contract months. As a result, both the basis and the price spreads between nearby and
deferred contracts will narrow. If a severe scarcity develops, the carrying charges
may disappear or actually become negative — a situation called an inverted market.
Scarcity causes high prices in the cash and nearby futures contracts because the
market gives priority to the present and discounts the future.
16 Commodity Trading Manual, ©Board of Trade of the City of Chicago, 1985, pp. 68-70.
17 Ibid., p. 64.
18 Actual carrying charges will vary with the commodity price level, the interest rate, and
the fees associated with insurance and other time-related charges.
Old-Crop/New-Crop Price Spreads
While inverted markets resulting from severe scarcity are rare, a period of
normal inversion (i.e., cash or nearby futures contract prices above more distant
futures contract prices) frequently occurs between the last futures delivery month of
one crop year (when marketable supplies are at their lowest point) and the first
delivery month of the next crop year (when supplies are expected to be relatively
abundant due to the new harvest).19 This type of inversion is often referred to as the
old-crop/new-crop inversion. For wheat, the old-crop/new-crop price spread is
represented by the price difference between the May and July futures contracts;
September and December contracts for corn; August and September contracts for
soybeans; and July and October contracts for cotton.
As an example of how these price spread relationships may vary, consider the
old-crop/new-crop price spreads at the three major U.S. wheat exchanges in the
spring of 2004. On March 1, 2004, the May (04)-July (04) price spread for Hard Red
Spring (HRS) wheat at the Minneapolis Grain Exchange settled at +4 cents per
bushel indicating a relatively tight supply situation for high-protein spring wheat. In
contrast, the May (04)-July (04) price spread for Hard Red Winter (HRW) wheat
settled at -2 cents at the Kansas City Board of Trade (KCBOT), and at -2.5 cents for
Soft Red Winter (SRW) wheat at the Chicago Board of Trade (CBOT). If carrying
charges were the sole determinant then the May-June price spread would be about
-5 to -6 cents per bushel. Instead, the KCBOT and CBOT old-crop/new-crop prices
spreads of -2 and -2.5 cents were less than the full carrying charges for the
two-month time period separating the May and July contracts suggesting relatively
tight supply conditions. However, the market conditions for HRW and SRW wheat
appeared to be significantly less tight than for HRS which had an inverted basis of
+4 cents. This example demonstrates how protein premiums plus differences in old-
crop/new-crop supplies can cause market prices to vary across both time and
location. Local elevator price bids based off of futures market contracts can be
expected to follow a similar pattern of price differentials.
USDA Market Information
USDA routinely releases a series of commodity market information reports to
the public including U.S. and international crop and livestock production and
commodity marketing activity for historical, current, and future time periods. USDA
reports are released on a predetermined and publically announced schedule.20 (See
19 A crop’s marketing year is the 12-month period starting from the first harvest month in
the crop’s primary growing region.
20 The release schedule for USDA’s 2006 reports is available at
[http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/inforeg/pei_calendar2006.pdf]. For more information on
NASS operations and data collection methods see Scope and Methods of the Statistical
Appendix Table 3.) Commodity markets rely heavily on USDA reports for
guidance on supply and demand conditions. Most private sector market news
services design their own reports and activities around USDA data releases, and
market watchers routinely offer their own “guesstimates” in advance of major USDA
The crop estimates, projected supply and demand conditions, and farm price
projections contained in USDA reports are used as benchmarks in the marketplace
because of their comprehensive nature, objectivity, and timeliness. The release of
USDA supply and demand estimates has the potential to substantially alter market
expectations about current and future commodity market conditions and are,
therefore, closely watched by market participants. On occasion, when USDA
estimates represent a substantial deviation from market expectations concerning the
supply and demand conditions for a particular commodity, significant price
An annual calendar is prepared in December of each year showing the date and
hour of the coming year’s data releases. The reports are released electronically from
USDA headquarters in Washington, D.C. State statistical offices further facilitate
transmission of the reports through local news releases and reports.
USDA relies on a formal structure for assembling and disseminating market21
information from across its various internal agencies. The cornerstone of this
process is USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) which collects
and publishes reports on an array of data on U.S. agricultural activities including crop
area, yield, production, and growing conditions; livestock, poultry, and dairy
production activities; input prices paid; farm prices received; and other agricultural
data covering most agricultural activities undertaken in the United States.22
Crop Production Reports
For grains, oilseeds, and cotton grown in the United States, NASS publishes a
number of reports which estimate the production of each commodity based on data23
collected from farm operations and field observations (see Appendix Table 4).
Monthly NASS Crop Production reports include estimates (for the nation and by
major producing state) of harvested acreage, yield, and production. Crops included
Reporting Service, USDA, NASS, Misc. Publication, No. 1308, Revised Sept. 1983.
21 For a brief description of the USDA agencies involved, the types of data used, and the
structure used to prepare market forecasts, see USDA’s Economic Research Service(ERS),
Outlook Reports: USDA Outlook Process at [http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/outlook/
22 For more information, visit NASS online at [http://www.nass.usda.gov]. NASS reports
may be accessed at [http://www.usda.gov/nass/pubs/estindx.htm].
23 For information on NASS crop production surveys and reports see Understanding USDA
Crop Forecasts, USDA, NASS, Miscellaneous Publication, No. 1554, March 1999,
available at [http://www.usda.gov/nass/nassinfo/pub1554.htm].
in each month’s Crop Production report vary based on each crops seasonality of
production.24 Other crop-related NASS reports are released in accordance with each
crops production cycle as described below and in Appendix Tables 3 and 4.
Estimates, Forecasts, and Projections. USDA’s crop reporting schedule
encompasses forecasts made during the growing season and estimates made after
harvest. Forecasts and estimates represent two distinct concepts. Estimates generally
refer to an accomplished fact, such as crop yields after the crop is harvested. In
contrast, forecasts relate to an expected future occurrence (but generally within the
crop year as supporting data is becoming available), such as crop yields expected
prior to actual harvest of the crop based on available information such as current
growing condition, measurements of fertilizer usage, etc. Projections are an
extension of forecasts, but made further into the future — e.g., for the next crop year
(T+1) — where no objective supporting information is available.25 Instead,
projections are based on extending historical supply and demand relationships, trade
and demand patterns, and government policies into the future. Examples of
projections include USDA’s 10-year baseline projections which project commodity
supply-and-use balances starting in the year T+1 and extending for an additional nine
years into the future.
Crop Area. NASS conducts three major acreage surveys in any given year (T).
The prospective plantings survey in March provides early indications of what farmers
intend to plant; the midyear acreage survey, conducted in early June, is used to
estimate spring-planted acreages and acreages for harvest; and the end-of-year
acreage and production survey is conducted after most of the field crops have been
Prospective Plantings. Field crop planted-acreage intentions are based
primarily on a survey — conducted during the first two weeks of March — of the
current crop planting intentions for about 55,000 randomly-selected farm operators
from across the United States. These estimates are published in the Prospective
Plantings report scheduled for release at the end of each March (in accordance with
a pre-announced schedule). The acreage estimates are intended to reflect grower
planting intentions as of the survey period and give the first indication of potential
plantings for the year. Actual plantings may vary from intentions in accordance with
changes in weather or market conditions.
Acreage. Mid-year estimates for planted acreage are made based on surveys
conducted in early June when field crop acreages have been established or planting
intentions are firm. These estimates are published in the Acreage report scheduled
for release at the end of each June. Winter wheat is an exception since seeding
generally occurs during September-November of the preceding calendar year (T-1).
The first forecast of winter wheat and rye planted area is released in January (T) in
the Winter Wheat and Rye Seedings report. Any changes in winter wheat planted
24 NASS Crop Production reports are available at [http://usda.mannlib.cornell.edu/reports/
25 For discussion purposes, T represents the current year; T-1 represents the preceding year;
and T+1 represents the following year, often referred to as the outyear.
acreage estimates in the Prospective Plantings and Acreage reports are considered
Mid-year estimates of harvested acreage are based on reported acres for harvest
for the earliest harvested crops, such as the small grains. The first forecast of the
harvested acreage of winter wheat is published in the May release of the Crop
Production report. The winter wheat planted and harvested acreage is subject to
revisions in the June Acreage report. The first forecasts of harvested acreage for
spring wheat is published in the July Crop Production report.
For the crops harvested later in the year, such as corn and soybeans, initial
estimates make normal allowances for abandonment and acres used for other
purposes. Estimates of acreage for harvest are subject to monthly revision, although
they usually remain unchanged through the season. Current monthly acreage
indications are obtained from the objective yield measurement program for corn,
cotton, wheat, and soybeans and for other crops from special surveys conducted when
unusual weather or economic conditions could affect the acreage to be harvested. For
rice, cotton, oilseeds, and coarse grains, harvested acreage is first forecast in the
August Crop Production report.
Yield and Production Forecasts. The first forecasts of yield and
production are published in the May Crop Production report for fall-planted winter
wheat (with monthly updates through October); in July for barley, oats, rye, durum,
and spring wheat; and in August for the remaining field crops — corn, cotton, hay,
oilseeds, peanuts, rice, sorghum, sugar cane, and sugar beets — with monthly updates
through November. Cotton yield estimates are updated again in the December Crop
Objective yield surveys are conducted during the principal growing season for
cotton, corn, rice, sorghum, soybeans, and wheat in each commodities’ major
producing states. A forecast of prospective yield or production on a given date
assumes that weather conditions and damage from insects, diseases, or other causes
will be about normal (or the same as the average of previous years) during the
remainder of the growing season. If any of these variables change, the final estimate
may differ significantly from the earlier forecast.
Growing Conditions. In addition to the monthly Crop Production reports,
NASS also publishes a weekly Crop Progress report during the principal growing
season (April to November) including growing condition indexes for the major crops
as well as pasture and forage conditions.26 USDA, through its Joint Agricultural
Weather Facility (JAWF), also publishes weekly information on U.S. and
international weather in its Weekly Weather and Crop Bulletin.27 These weekly
reports on crop progress and conditions, as well as weather, provide a basis for
evaluating crop yield prospects across the various global production zones for each
26 Crop Progress reports are available at [http://usda.mannlib.cornell.edu/reports/nassr/field/
27 Weekly Weather and Crop Bulletin are available at [http://www.usda.gov/oce/waob/jawf/
commodity. As a result, they are closely watched and reported on by other secondary
market information sources.
Year-End Estimates. Year-end estimates of acreage, yield, and production
for barley, durum, oats, rye, and wheat are published in the Small Grains Annual
Summary, released at the end of September (T). For all remaining field crops, year-
end estimates of acreage, yield, and production are published in the Crop Production
Annual Summary report the following January (T+1).
Market Demand Information
Demand for agricultural products originates from a broad range of sources
including the livestock sector, food and industrial processors, and foreign markets.
USDA informs agricultural markets about commodity demand conditions by
publishing various reports on domestic use, trade, stocks, and prices for major
agricultural commodities. The cornerstone of USDA market demand reports is the
monthly World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates (WASDE) report —
published by USDA’s World Agricultural Outlook Board (WAOB) in collaboration
with other USDA agencies.28 The WASDE report is released simultaneously with the
Crop Production report each month in order to incorporate new NASS production
forecasts into the commodity supply and demand estimates. These estimates also
combine and synthesize U.S. and foreign market information and government
program information assembled by the various USDA agencies.
In the WASDE report, data are assembled into brief supply and demand
balances, complete with projections of the national average U.S. farm price received,
for each of the major U.S. program crops (feed grains — corn, barley, sorghum, and
oats; wheat by class; rice by grain length; soybeans and its products; sugar; and
cotton) for both the United States and the world with breakouts by major foreign
producer, consumer, or competitor as the case may be for each commodity. The
WASDE report is supplemented by monthly commodity situation and outlook reports
and annual data yearbooks for wheat, feed grains, rice, soybeans, and cotton —
published by USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) — which provide market29
analysis and more detailed supply and demand tables for these same crops.
Domestic Use. Based on the particular commodity being monitored,
domestic use may be broken into various sub-categories such as feed use, seed use,
and food and industrial use. Market information for this diversity of potential
demand sources is less survey-based and less systematic than the information
provided by USDA’s many crop-production related reports.
Stocks. The Grain Stocks report — published quarterly in January, March,
June, and September by NASS is based on surveys of farmers and elevator operators.
The Grain Stocks report covers all wheat, durum wheat, corn, sorghum, oats, barley,
soybeans, flaxseed, canola, rapeseed, rye, sunflower, safflower, and mustard seed.
28 The WASDE report and information on the WAOB are available at [http://www.usda.gov/
29 ERS commodity outlook reports are at [http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/outlook/].
A separate Rice Stocks report is issued in January, March, August, and October.
These reports are closely watched by market observers as an important first indicator
of U.S. domestic demand. Although the stocks report is intended to estimate the
amount of grain stored on and off farms at different points during the marketing year,
quarterly usage may be approximated as the difference between the current quarter’s
stocks and the previous quarter’s stocks.
Feed Use. No survey of feed use is undertaken by USDA; however, several
USDA reports provide information about the potential for feed demand as well as the
prices and availability of substitute feeds. Three specific NASS reports — the
monthly Cattle on Feed report, the quarterly Hogs and Pigs report, and the monthly
Poultry Slaughter report — provide information about the location and sizes of
animal populations during certain periods of the year. These reports are
supplemented by the monthly Livestock, Dairy, and Poultry Outlook report published
by ERS that presents detailed economic analysis of the implications of NASS
livestock reports. The NASS Weekly Weather and Crop Bulletin, with its index on
the quality of pastures, provides an indication of grazing availability — an important
offset to feedlot use and feed demand.
Seed Use. Seed demand is directly related to plantings and will, therefore,
move up or down with changes in the projections for crop area planted. However,
seed use traditionally represents such a small portion of total disappearance that any
changes to expected seed demand rarely, in and of themselves, elicit a market
response. Both the WASDE report and ERS commodity outlook reports provide data
on seed use for various (but not all) crops.
Food and Industrial Use. Projections of food and industrial use tend to be
fairly stable and, therefore, more predictable than feed use or export demand. In
most cases a simple trend line is used to predict future food and industrial demand
levels. This results, in large part, because primary agricultural products usually
represent only a very small portion of the final cost of most processed products,
whether it be a food product such as a loaf of bread, a box of breakfast cereal, or a
jar of baby food; or an industrial product such as soap or paint. As a result, changes
in this demand category are rarely unexpected, and rarely produce unexpected market
Basic data for industrial use comes from the Census Bureau’s survey of
manufacturing industries which is issued every five years. Industry reports such as
the Milling and Baking News provide information on demand for wheat and other
cereals by food processing sector. Similarly, specific agricultural processor’s
associations, such as the National Oilseed Processors Association (NOPA), provide
information on processing capacity and use. In recent years, federal support for
ethanol production has promoted industrial use of corn and some sorghum.30
However, this new demand is largely recognized by the marketplace (with
30 For more information on national and state programs that support corn-based ethanol
production, see CRS Report RL32712 Agriculture-Based Renewable Energy Production,
by Randy Schnepf.
announcements of financing and construction of new processing plants) well before
it plays a role in boosting demand, thus mitigating its short-term price impact.
Export Demand. Since the market events of 1972, most market observers
consider exports to be the great uncertainty underlying commodity supply, demand,
and price forecasts.31 In 1972, the Soviet Union made unexpected purchases of large
amounts of U.S. grain. Prices for corn, wheat, and soybeans climbed to record-levels
in 1973, then to still higher levels in 1974. Congress responded by mandating export32
sales reporting by USDA beginning in 1973.
Today, there are three primary data sources which monitor the U.S. trade
situation and underlie USDA projections of U.S. agricultural trade.
!The weekly Export Sales report published by USDA’s Foreign
Agricultural Service (FAS). The Export Sales report indicates the
amounts of major U.S. agricultural commodities that have been
exported, as well as outstanding sales which have been contracted
for but not delivered, during the current marketing year compared33
with the same period from the previous marketing year.
!The weekly Grains Inspected for Export report issued by USDA’s
Agricultural Marketing Service and based on inspections undertaken
by the Federal Grain Inspection Service of USDA’s Grain
Inspection, Packers, and Stockyards Administration.34
!The Census Bureau (Department of Commerce) which issues a
monthly export report that indicates not only grain exports, but also
product exports including soybean meal and oil, and wheat flour.35
At the end of each commodity’s marketing year, the Census Bureau
export data become the official USDA export estimate.
The Census Bureau data are released with a nearly two-month lag; for example,
export data for the month of January is not released until mid-March. As a result,
both the Export Sales and the Grains Inspected for Export reports are closely
watched for clues about the likelihood of meeting current USDA export forecasts —
shortfalls or excesses reflect unexpected changes in commodity supplies and their
related price forecasts. Many market information services routinely publish their
own forecasts of weekly grain sales and inspections ahead of the release of the
31 For a review of market events during 1972-1974 see, USDA, ERS, “Global Grain Markets
in 1996: Shares of 1972-74?”by Pete Riley, Agricultural Outlook, Sept. 1996, pp. 2-6.
32 More information on FAS’ Export Sales Reporting Program is available at
[ ht t p: / / www.f a s.usda.gov/ i nf o/ e sr br ochur e04/ esr br ochur e04.ht m] .
33 The Export Sales report is available at [http://www.fas.usda.gov/export-sales/esrd1.asp].
34 The weekly grain and oilseed inspection report is available at
[ h t t p : / / www.ams.usda.gov/ l s mnpubs/ gr a i nn.ht m] .
35 For more information see U.S. Census Bureau, Foreign Trade Statistics,”available at
[ h t t p : / / www.c e n s u s . go v/ f o r e i gn-t r a d e / www/ ] .
official reports. Market prices have been known to react to significant differences
between the average of expected weekly exports by private forecasters and the actual
weekly export announced in the official USDA reports.
In addition to monitoring U.S. agricultural trade, FAS routinely monitors and
reports on international commodity market conditions through an international
network of agricultural attaches. Although their data are not considered official, FAS
attache reports — which provide detailed country- and commodity-specific market
information for major foreign countries — are regularly published and made
available to the public.36 In addition, FAS’s Production Estimates and Crop
Assessment Division (PECAD) provides regular reports on foreign and world crop
area, yield, and production estimates.37 Various commodity divisions within FAS
also produce monthly circulars on international market conditions for grains,
oilseeds, cotton, and other commodities.38
U.S. Government Program Activity
In addition to crop production and marketing demand information, government
program activity can have a significant influence on market prices. Several USDA
agencies monitor and report on market-relevant government program activity.
USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) provides information on government price and
income supports, government stock-holding activity, and participation in the
Conservation Reserve Program.39 The Risk Management Agency (RMA) of USDA
oversees and reports on the implementation of government-subsidized crop
i n surance. 40
The various crop-specific subsidies and price and income supports provided
under these government programs play an important role in producer planting
decisions by altering the relative profitability of different crops in different regions.
The Conservation Reserve Program also has an important effect on agricultural
production because it removes large tracts of cultivable land from production for
extended periods of time.41 USDA’s FAS monitors and reports on U.S. food aid
programs, as well as on government programs that promote or assist U.S. agricultural
36 FAS attache reports are available at [http://www.fas.usda.gov/scriptsw/attacherep/
37 PECAD reports on international crop area, yield, and production estimates are available
38 A listing of FAS commodity divisions and their monthly circulars are available at
39 FSA commodity program outlay data are available at [http://www.fsa.usda.gov/
dam/bud/bud1.htm]. FSA data on commodity price support activity is available at
[ h t t p : / / www.f s a .us da .gov/ d a f p/ ps d/ r e por t s .ht m] .
40 RMA’s “National Summary of Business” reports for crop insurance are available at
[ ht t p: / / www.r ma.usda.gov/ dat a/ sob.ht ml ] .
41 For more information, see the CRS Report RS21613, Conservation Reserve Program:
Status and Current Issues, by Barbara Johnson.
exports.42 Government-assisted exports draw from U.S. agricultural supplies and
tend to support market prices. An unexpectedly large shift in program exports can
alter market expectations and prices.
Market Price Information
USDA projects the season-average farm price (SAFP) for all major program
crops contained in the WASDE report except for cotton.43 The SAFP projection is
usually presented as a range of high and low values that is tightened with each
succeeding month until a single point estimate is reported near the end of each
commodity’s marketing year. Market observers and the various private market
information services tend to use the mid-point of the USDA projected SAFP range
as a reference point from which all comparisons are made (such as “too high” or “too
In support of the SAFP estimates reported in the WASDE report, NASS releases
a monthly Agricultural Prices report that contains monthly and marketing year
average prices received (weighted by the monthly share of annual marketings) for
most major crops at both the national and state level for major producing states.
USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) provides a portal to price and
market information for a range of agricultural commodities.44 The Livestock and
Grain Market News Branch of AMS monitors and reports on: cash, barge, rail, and
truck bids for grains and oilseeds at major terminal and export markets, including
barge loading positions on the Mississippi, Ohio, and Illinois Rivers and at Central
Illinois (Decatur) corn and soybean processing location; nearby futures contract
prices and cash-to-futures basis; and recent export sales by grain type with details on
tonnage and delivery dates in the Daily Grain Review, Export Grain Bids, Daily
National Grain Market Summary and Weekly National Grain Market Summary
Ending Stocks as a Summary of Market Conditions
USDA projects season-ending stocks for all major program crops contained in the
monthly WASDE report. Ending stocks are calculated as the difference between total
supplies (beginning stocks plus production plus imports) and total disappearance (all
domestic uses plus exports). As such, season-ending stocks of an annually produced
commodity summarize the effects of both supply and demand factors during the
42 FAS information on U.S. food aid is available at [http://www.fas.usda.gov/food-aid.asp].
Information on U.S. agricultural export credit program and other export assistance programs
is posted at [http://www.fas.usda.gov/export.html].
43 USDA is prohibited by law from publishing cotton price projections [12 U.S.C.
44 AMS’s market news website is located at [http://www.ams.usda.gov/marketnews.htm].
45 For these and other market reports visit [http://www.ams.usda.gov/lsmnpubs/grainn.htm].
In the early months of the marketing year, when most components of the supply
and demand balance sheet are being forecast rather than estimated, expected ending
stocks — expressed as a ratio over expected total use — are frequently used as an
indicator of a commodity’s expected price outcome by USDA and other market
observers.46 For most seasonal commodities, annual prices tend to have a strong
negative correlation with their ending stocks-to-use ratio. (See Figure 2 for an
example.) As a result, expectations for high stocks relative to use typically result in
lower prices, while expectations for low stocks relative to use tend to raise prices.
Figure 3. Season-Average Farm Price Received for All Wheat
vs. End-of-Year Stocks-to-Use Ratio
1970 1980 1990 2000
Source: USDA, ERS, Wheat Situation and OutlookYearbook
A certain amount of stocks at the end of the marketing year are necessary to
provide a continuous flow of grain to processors and exporters before the new crop
is harvested. These stocks are referred to as pipeline supplies. Although there is no
hard and fast rule on what volume of stocks represents pipeline levels for the major
46 For empirical evidence, see USDA, ERS, Price Determination for Corn and Wheat, TB-
1878, Paul Westcott and Linwood Hoffman, July 1999; USDA, ERS, “Factors Affecting the
U.S. Farm Price of Upland Cotton,” Leslie Meyer, Cotton and Wool Situation and Outlook,
CWS-1998, November 1998; and USDA, ERS, How Does Structural Change in the Global
Soybean Market Affect the U.S. Price?, OCS 04D-01, Gerald Plato and William Chambers,
April 2004; and Barry Goodwin, Randy Schnepf and Erik Dohlman, “Modelling soybean
prices in a changing policy environment,” Applied Economics, 2005, 37, pp. 253-263.
grain and oilseed crops, whenever stocks approach historically low levels market
analysts speculate about what pipeline-stock levels might be. For wheat, pipeline
stocks are thought to be in a range of 350 to 400 million bushels; for corn, 400 to 500
million bushels; and for soybeans, about 150 to 200 million bushels. Whenever
USDA ending stock projections approach these levels, market prices become very
sensitive to unexpected market news and prices tend to be more volatile than during
periods of abundant stocks.
Overview of Commodity Markets
Macroeconomic Linkages to Commodity Markets
Long-run commodity demand is driven, in large part, by population and income
dynamics. A country’s demographic make-up by age and ethnicity may play a large
role in determining food needs and preferences. However, demographic changes
generally occur slowly and in accordance with well-know behavioral patterns.
Similarly, per-capita income growth usually trends upward or downward gradually
and predictably with the national economy. As a result, short-term price movements
are rarely driven by either of these phenomena. However, an important exception is
the 1997 Asian financial crisis which dramatically and quite suddenly curtailed
commodity import demand in several major agricultural importing countries of East
and Southeast Asia.47 The 1997 Asian crisis contributed significantly to the price
declines in most international commodity markets of the late 1990s.
Changes in currency exchange rates between trading nations can occur more
suddenly and can have significant effects on international trade and prices. For an
exporting country, a devaluation of its currency against other exporting countries has
the same effect as a lowering of its export price against those competitor nations,
thereby making its product more competitive. In contrast, for an importing country,
a devaluation of its currency against the currency of exporting nations will make
products from those exporters more expensive, thereby lowering its import demand.
Currency appreciation will have the opposite effect. Currency exchange rate
fluctuations and their economic implications are not unique to agricultural
commodities, but affect all goods and services traded between nations.48
Special Considerations for Agricultural Markets
In general, agricultural commodity prices respond rapidly to actual and
anticipated changes in supply and demand conditions. However, certain
characteristics of agricultural product markets set them apart from most non-
agricultural products and tend to make agricultural product prices more volatile than
47 For more information, see International Financial Crises and Agriculture, International
Agriculture and Trade Reports, WRS-99-3, USDA, ERS, March 2000.
48 For more information on currency exchange rates and their potential market effects see
CRS Report RL31204, Fixed Exchange Rates, Floating Exchange Rates, and Currency
Boards: What Have We Learned?, by Marc Labonte.
are the prices of most nonfarm goods and services.49 Three such noteworthy
characteristics of agricultural crops include the seasonality of production, the derived
nature of their demand, and generally price-inelastic demand and supply functions.
Seasonality. Most agricultural crops grown in temperate-zone countries like
the United States where freezing winters limit crop production to a 6- to 9-month
period (the growing period is shorter at higher latitudes) have strong seasonal
production patterns. As a result, the biological nature of crop production plays an
important role in agricultural product price behavior.
In particular, the production of spring-planted crops has a lag in its response to
market signals. Producers must make their planting decisions by early spring in order
to purchase the seed and other inputs needed for production. However, producers do
not receive a price for their production until after the harvest when ownership of the50
physical commodity is transferred. As a result, growers’ planting decisions are
based partly on their expectations about future yields, prices (of both outputs and the
inputs needed to produce those outputs), and government program support rates for
alternative production activities. Also, expectations concerning international market
conditions and the possibility for unexpected changes in the trade outlook are often
relevant for most major U.S. field crops.
A region’s agronomic conditions, such as weather and soil types, may influence
the viability of producing a particular crop or undertaking a livestock activity;
however, expectations of market conditions such as harvest-time output prices
influence the final choices. As a result, changes in the expected supply and demand
of crops or other activities that compete for land, or of other food sources that
compete for demand can ripple through the various agricultural markets, thus altering
prices. Furthermore, since the end result of a planting-time production decision does
not materialize until several months later at harvest time, it is possible that market
conditions will have changed substantially or that a producer’s actual production may
be very different from the planned production due to unexpected variations in
weather, pests, diseases, or other circumstances.
Derived Nature of Many Agricultural Product Prices. Demand for
agricultural products originates with consumers who use the various food and
industrial products that are produced from “raw” or unprocessed farm commodities
such as grains, oilseeds, and fiber. At the consumer level, such final demand is
referred to as primary demand. The term “derived demand” refers to demand for
inputs that are used to produce the final products.51 For example, corn and other
feedstuffs are important inputs in the livestock industry; wheat is used to make
various bakery products; and cotton is used in the production of textiles. Thus, the
demand for corn, wheat, and cotton is derived from the demand for their various end
49 William G. Tomek and Kenneth L. Robinson, Agricultural Product Prices, 4th Ed.,
Cornell University Press; 2003©Cornell University, p. 2.
50 Forward contracting can be used to lock in a price prior to harvest, but the money transfer
from the buyer generally occurs after the harvest when the physical goods are delivered.
51 Tomek and Robinson, Agricultural Product Prices, 4th Ed., Cornell University Press;
products. Similarly, the demand for soybeans is derived from the demand for
soybean meal and soybean oil — the major products obtained from crushing
A diner at a restaurant may be seeking a particular flavor or texture in her steak
which resonates back through the supply chain to the feeding decisions made at the
ranch or feedlot where cattle are fattened and readied for market. As a result, the
potential buyers of raw agricultural commodities are generally seeking a particular
end-use characteristic. For example, a livestock feeder is generally trying to obtain
the least-cost set of feed ingredients that yield a particular balance of protein, energy,
fiber, and other nutrient components. A baker or miller might be looking for
particular baking or milling qualities in their wheat purchases.
It is possible for the overall supply of a generic commodity to be in abundant
supply, while a specific variety of that commodity possessing the desired end-use
traits may be in short supply. As a result, substantial price premiums and discounts
may develop based on the commodities’ end-use characteristics. This occurs
frequently in the wheat market where the different wheat varieties have very unique
baking and milling characteristics. But it is also not uncommon in other grain and
oilseed markets, e.g., rice (based on grain length), corn (based on color, and oil or
starch content), soybean (based on protein or oil content), barley (based on malting
Price-Inelastic Demand and Supply. In general, the demand and supply
of farm products, particularly basic grains and oilseeds, are relatively price-inelastic
(i.e., quantities demanded and supplied change proportionally less than prices). This
implies that even small changes in supply can result in large price movements. As
a result, unexpected market news can produce potentially large swings in farm prices
and incomes. This price dynamic has long been a characteristic of the agricultural
sector and a farm policy concern.
The supply elasticity of an agricultural commodity reflects the speed with which
new supplies become available (or supplies available in the marketplace decline) in
response to a price rise (fall) in a particular market. Since most grains are limited to
a single annual harvest, new supply flows to market in response to a post-harvest
price change must come from either domestic stocks or international sources. As a
result, short-term supply response to a price rise can be very limited during periods
of low stock holdings, but in the longer run expanded acreage and more intensive
cultivation practices can work to increase supplies.
On the other hand, when prices fall producers might be inclined to withhold
their commodity from the market. The cost of storage, the length of time before any
expected price rebound, the anticipated strength of a price rebound, and a producer’s
current cash-flow situation combine to determine if storage is a viable alternative.
If a return to higher prices is not expected in the near future, storage may not be
viable and continued marketings may add to downward price pressure.
Similarly, demand elasticity reflects a consumer’s ability and/or willingness to
alter consumption when prices for the desired commodity rises or falls. Consumers
consider both own-price and cross-price movements of complementary and substitute
products in making their expenditure decisions. Willingness to substitute another
commodity when prices rise depends on several factors, including the number and
availability of substitutes, the importance of the commodity as measured by its share
of consumers’ budgetary expenditures, and the strength of consumers’ tastes and
preferences. Since the farm cost of basic grains generally amounts to a very small
share of the retail cost of consumer food products, changes in grain prices generally
have little impact on retail food prices and therefore little impact on consumer
behavior and corresponding farm-level demand. For example, grain is estimated to
account for only a 5% share of the retail price of a one-pound loaf of bread.52 A 20%
rise in wheat prices would translate into only about a 1% rise in the price of a loaf of
bread. Few consumers would notice a 2-cent increase in the price of a $2 loaf of
Figure 4. Price Changes Due to a Supply Shift Are
Larger than Quantity Changes under Inelastic Demand
Figure 4 displays examples of both inelastic and elastic supply and demand
curves. The diagram on the left-hand side of Figure 4 shows fairly price-
unresponsive (i.e., inelastic) demand and supply curves — typical of those associated
with most seasonal agricultural markets. A sudden outward shift (i.e., expansion) in
demand from D1 to D2 moves the market equilibrium outward along the supply curve
S. This change in market equilibrium results in only a modest percentage change in
the quantity supplied to the market, ∆Q/Q, compared with a much larger percentage
increase in prices, ∆P/P. A similar large price change is obtained from a sudden
shortfall in supplies represented by a leftward movement of the supply curve. In
52 For this and other farm to retail commodity price comparisons, see the USDA, ERS
briefing room Food Marketing and Price Spreads, Farm-to-Retail Price Spreads at
[ ht t p: / / www.er s.usda.gov/ Br i ef i ng/ FoodPr i ceSpr eads/ spr e ads/ t a bl e1a.ht m] .
contrast, greater than expected supply (represented by a rightward shift of the supply
curve S) would lead to a large drop in the market price (ignoring the effects of
The diagram on the right-hand side of Figure 4 displays more responsive (i.e.,
more elastic) demand and supply curves — typical of those associated with many
higher-valued, non-agricultural markets. For comparative purposes, assume the same
sudden outward shift in demand from D1 to D2 moves the market equilibrium
outward along the supply curve S. Here, however, the change in market equilibrium
results in a much larger percentage change in the quantity supplied to the market,
∆Q/Q, compared with a smaller percentage increase in prices, ∆P/P.
Increasing demand for grains and oilseeds by the industrial processing sector,
whether from food or biofuels processing industries or from expanding industrial hog
and poultry operations, further reinforces the general price inelasticity of demand for
many agricultural commodities. Industrial use of grains is generally less sensitive to
price change since, as with retail food prices, the price of the agricultural commodity
usually represents only a small share of overall production costs of the finished
product. Furthermore, industrial users have generally made tremendous investments
in plant equipment and machinery, and must continue to operate at some minimal
level of capacity year-round as a return on that investment.
In contrast, feed demand for grain and protein meals, particularly for cattle
feeding in the Southern and Central Plains States, is far more sensitive to relative
feed grain prices, since similar feed energy values may be obtained from a variety of
grains. Cattle feeders in these regions have considerable leeway to vary the shares
of different grains in their feed rations as relative prices change.
In general, inelastic demand and supply responsiveness characterizes most
agricultural products. However, distinct differences in the level and pattern of
responsiveness do exist across commodities. Some of these differences are briefly
Background. Wheat is grown in almost every temperate-zone country of
North America, Europe, Asia, and South America. The largest wheat producing
countries are China, India, the United States, Russia, Canada, and Australia. U.S.
wheat production accounts for about 9-10% of world production; but the United
States is the world’s leading wheat exporter with roughly a 25% share of annual
world trade. However, the international wheat market is very competitive and
foreign sales often hinge on wheat variety and product characteristics as well as price.
The U.S. marketing year for wheat runs from June 1 to May 31.53 U.S. wheat
is produced as both a winter and a spring crop. Winter wheat is usually seeded in
September or October of the preceding year. The United States produces all six of
53 For more information on wheat markets, see USDA, ERS, Wheat Briefing Room, available
the world’s major wheat classes — hard red winter (HRW), hard red spring (HRS),
soft red winter (SRW), hard white, soft white, and durum. Hard wheats generally
contain higher protein levels — a desirable trait for bread making, while softer
wheats may be preferable for making noodles, crackers, and pastries. Durum wheat
is ground into a coarse flour called semolina that is used for making pastas. In local
markets, the demand for a particular wheat class (and quality) relative to its nearby
supply will determine local prices. However, linkages to national and global markets
bring a variety of additional factors — such as transportation costs, competitors
supplies, and foreign demand — into play in determining the price of a particular
wheat type and quality.
Wheat is the principal food grain grown in the United States; however, a
substantial portion (8%-10%) of the annual U.S. wheat crop is used as a feed grain.
As a result, wheat must compete with other cereals for a place at the consumer’s
dinner table, while also vying with coarse grains and other feedstuffs in livestock
feed markets. Almost half of the U.S. wheat crop is exported annually, although the
importance of exports varies by class of wheat. White wheat and HRS wheat rely
more than other wheat classes on sales into export markets. The larger the share of
exports to production, the greater the vulnerability to international market forces.
In the U.S. domestic market, flour millers are the major users of wheat,
accounting for over 70% of primary domestic wheat processing in 2000 and 2001.54
In most cases, a wheat buyer at a flour mill will “source” wheat by general location
and primary quality attributes such as protein quantity and quality (i.e., gluten share),
and baking performance. Price premiums and/or discounts reflecting quality
differences often develop and can also influence buyer preferences. Other major
wheat processors include breakfast food, pet food, and feed manufacturers. Wheat
may be used directly in feed rations when alternate feedstuffs are lacking or when
production-related quality damage makes the wheat unmarketable as a food. Wheat
milling by-products such as bran, shorts, and middlings are also used by feed
manufacturers in the production of animal feeds.55
Key Market Factors. Several factors that are somewhat unique to the wheat
market suggest that the U.S. wheat market structure has greater supply and demand
elasticity than most other field crops. In other words, wheat supply and demand
appear to respond faster than the supply and demand of other grains when confronted
with some external shocks such as a crop failure in a competing exporter country or
a financial crisis in a major purchasing country. Thus, wheat prices are generally56
subject to less dramatic price swings than most other grains.
These characteristics include the confluence of food and feed markets; seasonal
differences between U.S. winter and spring production; seasonal differences between
54 Calculated from Appendix Table 23, Wheat Situation and Outlook Yearbook, WHS-2003,
USDA, ERS, March 2003.
55 For definitions, see the CRS glossary Agriculture: A Glossary of Terms, Programs, and
Laws, web version, available at [http://www.congress.gov/erp/lists/agglossary.html].
56 USDA, ERS, Agricultural Outlook, “Assessing Agricultural Commodity Price
Variability,” by Randy Schnepf, October 1999, pp. 16-21.
northern and southern hemisphere crops; a large number of foreign export
competitors, and U.S. government food aid programs which rely heavily on wheat.
First, the feed potential of wheat can dampen wheat price variability, either
preventing prices from falling too low by introducing an additional source of demand
or by shutting off that same demand source when prices rise too high relative to other
feed grains. For example, if wheat prices fall too low, wheat begins to compete with
traditional feed grains (e.g., barley, sorghum, oats, and corn), particularly in the
Southern and Northern Plains States where local feed grain production is frequently
insufficient. On the other hand, as wheat prices rise above a certain threshold in
relation to feed grains, livestock feeders are quick to reduce the share of wheat in
their feed rations thus removing demand pressure underlying the wheat price rise.
Second, U.S. wheat production is marked by two independent seasons, winter
and spring, with planting periods nearly six months apart. If it is apparent that winter
wheat acreage is substantially below market expectations due to prevented plantings
or that expected yields have suffered due to unusual winter weather during the
October-March period, some of the potential production losses can be offset by
increased spring wheat plantings. Given the correct price signals relative to other
crops, spring wheat can crowd out other spring-planted crops that compete for the
same acreage (e.g., barley, sorghum, sunflowers, soybeans, or corn). Or fallow
acreage — rotated out of production to rebuild soil moisture — can be prematurely
brought back into production in the spring provided prices are attractive.
Third, two of the U.S.’s major wheat export competitors — Australia and
Argentina — are in the southern hemisphere where their production runs on a cycle
that is offset by about six months from the U.S. cycle. As a result, Argentina and
Australia have the opportunity to expand planted wheat acreage in response to supply
and demand circumstances in the United States within the same marketing year,
dampening the potential year-to-year variability of prices in the U.S. and international
market. While this potential additional supply limits price rises, it may deepen price
declines because high storage costs and limited storage capacity in those countries
frequently push their surplus production into international markets even when prices
Fourth, the potential for surplus production to enter agricultural markets from
several competing wheat exporter nations (principally Canada, Argentina, Australia,
the EU, and the Black Sea region) increases the supply responsiveness of wheat
beyond that of other major grains. For example, U.S. corn generally faces direct
export competition from only two countries, Argentina and China.
Fifth, most government export programs have been directed at wheat and have
dampened price variability in much the same manner as feed demand — they
introduce an additional source of demand that offsets price declines. Because export
programs are funded to deliver a fixed value of commodities, the volume of U.S.
program grain exports rises during periods of excess supply and lower prices, but
falls when supplies are tighter and prices higher.
In summary, the price sensitivity of wheat feeding and government export
programs, coupled with the opportunity for U.S. spring wheat growers and southern
hemisphere producers to respond to northern hemisphere winter wheat conditions,
provides an important stabilizing effect on U.S. wheat market prices in the face of
variable world demand.
Background. Like wheat, corn is grown in almost every temperate-zone
country of North America, Europe, Asia, and South America. However, global corn
production is less well distributed than wheat, and only a few countries tend to
dominate production and trade in corn. Three countries — the United States, China,
and Brazil — account for two-thirds of world production. The United States is the
dominant corn exporter with a two-thirds share of world markets. China and
Argentina account for another 20% share of world trade. The Ukraine, Brazil, and
the Republic of South Africa are inconsistent exporters, but have shown an
increasing trend since 2000. This small pool of potential exporters can make
international corn prices vulnerable to a weather disruption in one of the major
The U.S. marketing year for corn runs from September 1 to August 31.57 Corn
is the most widely produced feed grain in the United States, accounting for more than
90% of total value and production of feed grains. Other U.S. feed grains include
grain sorghum, barley, and oats. Around 80 million acres of land are planted every
year to corn, making it the single largest crop grown in United States. A majority of
the U.S. corn crop is grown in the traditional Corn Belt region encompassing a swath
of states running from Ohio westward through Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, southern
Minnesota, northern Missouri and into the eastern Dakotas and Nebraska.
Since 2000, about 58% (on average) of the U.S. corn crop has been fed to
livestock as a primary energy source. Another 24% has been processed into a
multitude of food and industrial products including starch, sweeteners, corn oil,
beverage and industrial alcohol, and fuel ethanol. Finally, about 18% of U.S. corn
production has been exported into international markets.
Key Market Factors. As a feed grain, corn must compete with a broad range
of feedstuffs including other coarse grains, as well as feed wheat and in some cases
low-priced protein meals. This makes feed grain markets particularly sensitive to
relative prices among the various feed components. In the United States, the other
two major feed grains — feed barley and grain sorghum — have roughly 95% of the
feed value of corn.58 As a result, they are often priced against corn futures on the
basis of their relative feed value.
Because most U.S. corn exports are destined to be used for livestock feed, U.S.
corn exports are particularly vulnerable to the availability of alternate feed sources.
For example, an early harvest freeze in late August in the Canadian prairies has been
57 For more information on corn and other feed grain markets, see USDA, ERS, Corn
Briefing Room available at [http://www.ers.usda.gov/Briefing/Corn/].
58 USDA, ERS, Animal Feeds Compendium, Agricultural Economic Report No. 656, by
Mark Ash, May 1992.
known to convert a significant portion of Canada’s high-value, high-protein wheat
crop into low-priced feed grain in a single night. As such, Canadian feed wheat
traditionally has been very competitive in East Asian markets, particularly South
Korea, at the expense of U.S. corn exports. However, the extent to which corn is
crowded out of certain feed markets depends on the feeding operation involved.
Some livestock species, e.g., feeder cattle or dairy, are better able to adjust to feed
rations than others, e.g., swine or poultry which are more corn-dependent.
A factor of growing importance in U.S. corn markets is the increasing use of
corn for ethanol production. This growth has been supported by several national and
state programs.59 An increase in the share of total demand attributed to industrial use
could lead to greater price variability in the face of weather-driven supply shortfalls.
In the 2005-2006 marketing year, USDA projects that 15% of U.S. corn production
(or about 1,575 million bushels) will be used for ethanol production. This compares
with a 4% share in 1990/1991 and a 6% share in 2000/01. Continued growth in corn-
based ethanol production without concomitant growth in corn production will tend
to support prices and possibly squeeze U.S. corn out of price-sensitive feed and
Background. Rice is the most important food staple for much of the world’s
population, particularly in Asia and parts of Africa and the Middle East. Rice is
produced and consumed throughout the world in climates that range from temperate
to tropical. However, Asian rice production accounts for nearly 90% of global rice
production with two countries — China and India — accounting for over half.
U.S. rice production generally accounts for a very small share (less than 2%) of
world production. However, the United States exports nearly half of its annual
production. As a result, the United States is among the world’s leading rice
exporting nations, traditionally behind Thailand and Vietnam. India, Pakistan,
China, and Egypt are also important rice exporting nations.
In the United States, the marketing year for rice runs from August 1 to July 31.61
Domestic production generally uses slightly more than half of the U.S. crop every
year. U.S. rice use falls into three major categories: table rice used directly as food;
rice processed into other types of consumables such as snacks or ready-to-eat meals;
and rice used in the brewing industry.
59 For more information on national and state programs that support corn-based ethanol
production, see CRS Report RL32712, Agriculture-Based Renewable Energy Production,
by Randy Schnepf.
60 Robert N. Wisner and C. Phillip Baumel, “Ethanol, Exports and Livestock: Will There Be
Enough Corn to Supply Future Needs?,” Feedstuffs, Issue 30, vol. 76, July 26, 2004.
61 For more information on U.S. and international rice markets, see USDA, ERS, Rice
Briefing Room, available at [http://www.ers.usda.gov/Briefing/Rice/].
Key Market Factors. Only a small share, estimated at about 6%, of global
rice production enters world markets. As a result, the very limited amount of rice
entering world markets (24-28 million metric tons annually) relative to the large level
of annual world consumption (roughly 415 million metric tons) makes the
international rice market fairly sensitive to an unexpected production shortfall in one
of the major exporting or consuming countries, particularly if the lost production
must be made up by importing rice from the international marketplace.
In world markets there are two principal types of rice — long grain (indica) and
short grain (japonica) — each with very specific cooking qualities and appearance.
Consumers tend to have strict preferences for one or the other and rarely switch. As
a result, it is not uncommon for overall world rice supplies to be in surplus while
supplies of one or the other type of rice may be in short supply relative to market
demand. The United States produces and exports both indica and japonica types of
Rice processing further differentiates rice products and markets. Rice quality
is often associated with the degree of polishing (removing the hull and bran layers)
or whiteness of the grain and the percentage of whole versus broken grains. Both of
these attributes are highly dependent on milling infrastructure — a market feature
that the U.S. rice industry has used to its advantage to compete in international
markets. Parboiling rice (a process of steeping, then precooking rough rice under
pressure with its bran hull rice, then removing the hull through abrasion) results in
a product that is preferred by certain markets (e.g., Saudi Arabia, the Republic of
South Africa, and Nigeria).
Background. Cotton is the single most important textile fiber in the world,62
accounting for over 40% of total world fiber production. While some 80 countries
from around the globe produce cotton, the United States, China, and India together
provide over half the world’s cotton. About one-third of annual world production is
traded in international markets. The United States, while ranking second to China
in production, is the leading exporter, accounting for over one-third of global trade
in raw cotton.
The U.S. marketing year for cotton runs from August 1 to July 31. The U.S.
textile industry has been in decline for the past decade. As a result, domestic use of
cotton has represented a declining share of annual production and the U.S. cotton
sector has increasingly turned to international markets to sell its output. Since
Key Market Factors. Cotton competes with several other fibers in U.S. and
international textile markets. Cotton’s principal competitor is polyester, but rayon,
wool, jute, flax, and silk are also used in the production of yarn for fabric. As a
62 For more information on cotton and other fiber markets, see USDA, ERS, Cotton Briefing
Room available at [http://www.ers.usda.gov/Briefing/Cotton/].
result, local and international market conditions for these substitutes play a role in
U.S. and international cotton price formation.
The phaseout of the Multifiber Arrangement (MFA) and other forces have been
reshaping world textile and cotton markets in recent years.63 The MFA and its
predecessor agreements — through their set of trade rules and import quotas —
directly influenced world textile and clothing trade patterns (and indirectly influenced
world cotton markets) for nearly 50 years. These agreements protected U.S. and
European Union (EU) textile and clothing producers from imports, but raised prices
and reduced consumption in both U.S. and EU markets.
The elimination of the MFA (concluded on December 31, 2004) is helping
reduce clothing prices in the United States and the EU and causing a shift in
industrial demand for cotton to China, India, and Pakistan. At the same time, world
cotton consumption has accelerated along with economic growth since 1999,
especially in developing Asia, where an emerging consumer society is driving
increases in household consumption of clothing and other cotton products. In the
long run, income growth and technical change are expected to have a greater effect
on world cotton consumption than the elimination of the MFA.
Government programs such as Step-2 payments for domestic users and exports,
have also played an important role in facilitating both domestic consumption and
exports of U.S. cotton.64 However, following a widely publicized ruling in 2004
(upheld on appeal in 2005) against certain features of the U.S. cotton program in a
dispute settlement case brought by Brazil at the World Trade Organization (WTO),
U.S. government cotton programs are likely to be altered with important potential
market consequences.65 The Administration has already announced changes to the
U.S. export credit guarantee program designed to accommodate the WTO ruling, and
the U.S. Congress has proposed eliminating the Step-2 user payments in legislation
that has passed both chambers (H.R. 4241, S. 1932). Conference action is pending.
The effects of altering U.S. export credit guarantees and the elimination of Step-2
user payments (if enacted) are likely to reduce U.S. cotton exports and, by softening
demand, put downward pressure on domestic market prices.
In addition to the WTO case, intense international pressure has been brought to
bear upon cotton subsidies in general and U.S. cotton subsidies in particular at the
on-going Doha Round of WTO trade negotiations. It remains to be seen if these
pressures will elicit further changes to the U.S. cotton program. The market effect
of further reductions in U.S. cotton program support would depend on the specific
nature of the changes and how they would be implemented.
63 For more information on the MFA and its potential effects, see USDA, ERS, The Forces
Shaping World Cotton Consumption After the Multifiber Arrangement, Cotton Outlook
Report No. (CWS-05C-01), 30 pp., April 2005, available at [http://www.ers.usda.gov/
64 For a description of the U.S. cotton programs, see CRS Report RL32442, Cotton
Production and Support in the United States, by Jasper Womach.
65 For more information, see CRS Report RS22187, U.S. Agricultural Policy Response to
WTO Cotton Decision, by Randy Schnepf.
The Oilseed Complex
Background. The demand for oilseeds is derived primarily from the demand
for edible oils and protein meals. The international oilseed market consists of a large
variety of oil-bearing crops produced throughout the world including temperate-zone
crops such as canola, rapeseed, and sunflowerseed; tropical-zone crops such as palm
kernel and coconut copra; and multi-zone crops such as soybeans, cottonseed, and
peanuts. Most of these crops, when crushed for their oil, also yield high-protein
meals that are widely used in livestock and poultry rations. As a result, most of them
are relatively close substitutes and their prices are strongly correlated.
Processed soybeans are the largest source of protein feed and vegetable oil in
the world. Unlike many other commodity markets, only a few countries tend to
dominate soybean production and trade, making the market sensitive to any supply
disruption in one of the major producing nations. Major soybean producers include
the United States, Brazil, China, and Argentina which combined have accounted for
nearly 90% of global production since 2000. Three countries — United States,
Brazil, and Argentina — dominate world soybean trade, accounting for about 92%
of soybean exports since 2000; while two countries, the EU and China, have
accounted for nearly two-thirds of world imports.
The U.S. marketing year begins on September 1 for soybeans and on October 1
for soybean meal and soybean oil.66 Soybeans equal about 90% of U.S. total oilseed
production, while other oilseeds — such as cottonseed, sunflowerseed, rapeseed,
canola, and peanuts — account for the remainder. The United States is the world’s
leading soybean producer and exporter. Soybean and soybean product exports
accounted for 43% of U.S. soybean production in 2003. In the United States,
soybean oil accounts for about two-thirds of all the vegetable oils and animal fats
consumed. Similarly, soybean meal is the dominant protein meal consumed in the
United States. U.S. vegetable oil exports are heavily influenced by concessional food
aid to developing nations through such programs as P.L. 480.67
Soybean meal is the world’s most important protein feed, accounting for nearly
65% of world supplies. Livestock feeds account for 98% of soybean meal
consumption. Similarly, soybean oil is the world’s largest source of vegetable oil.
An important market development of the past decade has been the phenomenal
growth of soybean output and exports by Brazil and Argentina. Together they
currently account for about half of the world soybean export market, up from less
than 15% before 1980; they have each surpassed the United States in soybean meal
and soybean oil exports. Vast untapped reserves of farmland in Brazil’s interior
region could permit a continued significant expansion in soybean area, production,
66 For more information on soybeans and other oilseed markets, see USDA, ERS, Soybean
and Oil Crops Briefing Room, available at [http://www.ers.usda.gov/Briefing/
67 See USDA’s FAS for a description of U.S. food aid programs, available at
[ ht t p: / / www.f a s.usda.gov/ f ood-ai d.asp] .
The tropically-produced palm oil accounts for an important and growing share
of global vegetable oil production (USDA projects a 30% share in 2005) and
vegetable oil trade (a projected 58% share in 2005). Malaysia and Indonesia are the
world’s leading palm oil producers and exporters. Indonesia still possesses
substantial untapped territory for further expansion of palm oil plantations. The rapid
growth in Southeast Asian palm-oil output means it will likely surpass soybean oil’s
top ranking within a few years.
Key Market Factors. Because of their primary processed products — protein
meal and vegetable oil — oilseeds are affected by market conditions in both the feed-
grain and edible oil sectors of U.S. and international markets. Foreign import
demand for whole oilseeds depends on the deficit between a countries’ domestic
oilseed output and its consumption. Divergent requirements for protein meal and
vegetable oil, as well as limits on domestic processing capacity, determine the ratio
of oilseeds to oilseed products that a country will import.
Some oilseeds have higher oil content than others; and some oilseeds yield a
higher protein content meal with less fiber, making them more easily digestible. For
example, a unit of soybean when crushed will yield, on the average, about 18%-19%
oil and 74%-80% meal with about 44% protein content. Soybean meal is the most
valuable component obtained from processing the soybean, ranging from 50%-75%
of its value (depending on relative prices of soybean oil and meal). As a result, an
importer must weight the relative prices for vegetable oils and protein meals against
the oil and meal yields for each type of oilseed, as well as the protein and fiber
content of the resultant meal. Another consideration is fiber content. High-fiber
meals are better suited for ruminants (e.g., feeder cattle and dairy) than for non-
ruminants (e.g., swine and poultry).
For soybean crushers, the processing decision involves choosing when to
commit to buying soybeans (e.g., from farmers), to processing them, and to selling
soybean meal and oil (e.g., to food and feed manufacturers). The main decision
variable in making binding commitments on future dates to sellers and buyers is the
gross soybean processing margin. This margin equals the per-bushel revenue of
soybeans processed into oil and meal minus the per-bushel soybean price. If the
gross soybean-processing margin is high enough, a processor will commit soybean-
processing resources for that date. If it is too low, the processor keeps the processing
resources available for a future date and a higher margin.
Compared with trade in other agricultural commodities, trade in whole oilseeds,
particularly soybeans, is relatively unrestricted by tariffs and other border measures.
But oilseed meals, and particularly vegetable oils, typically have higher tariffs.
Successful completion of the on-going Doha Round of multilateral trade negotiations
could reduce import tariffs and quantitative restrictions to global oilseed product
markets offering increased growth in demand.
An important demand-side market development has been the rapid growth of
China’s and India’s economies which has spurred their domestic food consumption.
China is now the world’s leading soybean importer, and both China and India are
among the world’s largest vegetable oil importers. The EU is self-sufficient in
vegetable oil production, but its protein deficit still makes it the world’s largest
importer of soybean meal and second-largest importer of soybeans. Changes in
agricultural and trade policies for all three of these countries have greatly influenced
world oilseed markets.
Appendix Table 1. Major Agricultural Commodity Futures
Futures ExchangeAbbreviationInternet address
Minneapolis Grain ExchangeMGE[http://www.mgex.com]
Chicago Board of TradeCBOT[http://www.cbot.com]
Kansas City Board of TradeKCBOT[http://www.kcbot.com]
New York Cotton ExchangeNYCE[http://www.nyce.com]
Winnepeg Grain ExchangeWCE[http://www.wce.ca]
Buenos Aires Cereals ExchangeBOLSA[http://www.bolsadecereales.com]
Rosario Futures ExchangeROFEX[http://www.rofex.com.ar]
European Union Commodity FuturesaEuronext.liffe[http://www.euronext.com]
South African Futures ExchangeSAFEX[http://www.safex.co.za]
a. The Euronext is a synthesis of stock markets within the European Union including the previous
London and Paris Commodity Futures Exchanges.
Appendix Table 2. Major Agricultural Commodity Futures
Contracts, Futures Exchanges, and Contract Months
Ti cker F utures a
Commodity specificationbSymbolExchangeContract months
Wheat, No. 2, Soft Red WinterWCBOTN,U,Z,H,K
Rough Rice, No. 2RRCBOTU,Z,H,K,N
Oats, No. 2 HeavyOCBOTN,U,Z,H,K
Corn, No. 2 YellowCCBOTZ,H,K,N,U
Soybeans, No. 2 YellowSCBOTU,X,F,H,K,N,Q
Soybean Oil, crudeBOCBOTV,Z,F,H,K,N,Q,U
Soybean Meal, 48% proteinSMCBOTV,Z,F,H,K,N,Q,U
Wheat, No. 2 Northern SpringMWMGEcH,K,N,U,Z
Hard Red Winter Wheat indexdHRWIMGEAll months
Hard Red Spring Wheat IndexdHRSIMGEAll months
Soft Red Winter Wheat indexdSRWIMGEAll months
National Corn indexdNCIMGEAll months
National Soybean indexdNSIMGEAll months
Wheat, No. 2, Hard Red WinterKWKCBOTN,U,Z,H,K
Cotton, No. 2, 1 1/16 inchCTNYCEH,K,N,U,Z
Canola, No. 1 CanadaRSWCEF,H,K,N,U,Z
Barely, No. 1 Canada WesternABWCEH,K,N,V,Z
Milling Wheat, EuropeannaEuronextF,H,K,N,U,X
Feed Wheat, EuropeannaEuronextF,H,K,N,U,X
Corn, French yellownaEuronextF,H,M,Q,X
Rapeseed, any originnaEuronextF,K,Q,Xe
Wheat WEAT SAFEX H,K ,N,U,Z
Sunflower SUNS SAFEX H,K ,N,U,Z
Source: Compiled by CRS from sources listed in Appendix Table 1.
na = not applicable.
a. Jan = F; Feb = G; Mar = H; Apr = J; May =K ; June = M; July = N; Aug. = Q; Sep. = U; Oct. = V;
Nov. = X; and Dec. = Z.
b. Refer to the contract specification information available at each exchanges website provided in
Appendix Table 1. In general, other grades are available for delivery at quality premiums and
d i sc o unts.
c. The MGE introduced a durum futures contract in 1998. However, the durum contract was ended
on March 20, 2003, due to low volume.
d. Cash settlement only, no physical delivery of the commodity is accepted.
e. For 2004, the April (J) and June (M) contract months are available.
Appendix Table 3. Annual Release Schedule for Key USDA
Crop and Market Information Reports
Dat e a
Jan.TWinter Wheat &1st estimate of planted area for U.S. winter wheat and
Jan.TGrain StocksEstimate of U.S. stocks by position (on- and off-farm)
for all wheat, coarse grains, and oilseeds on January
Jan.TRice StocksEstimate of U.S. stocks by type (long, medium-short,
and broken) for milled and rough rice on January 1.
Mar.TProspectivePlanting intentions for U.S. spring-planted crops.
Mar.TGrain StocksEstimate of U.S. stocks (on- and off-farm) for all
wheat, coarse grains, and oilseeds on March 1.
Mar.TRice StocksEstimate of U.S. stocks by type for milled and rough
rice on March 1.
MayTCrop1st estimate of yield and harvested area for U.S.
MayTWASDE1st projection for marketing year (T/T+1) of: U.S.
season-average farm prices (SAFP); U.S. and foreignc
total supply and use balance (S&U) for rice, cotton,
oilseeds, wheat, and coarse grains; and foreign
country (S&U) for coarse grains and wheat.
JuneTGrain StocksEstimate of U.S. stocks (on- and off-farm) for all
wheat, coarse grains, and oilseeds on June 1.
JuneTWASDEAll available S&Us are updated based on new market
JuneTAcreage1st estimate of planted area for U.S. spring-planted
JulyTCrop1st estimate of yield for U.S. spring wheat, barley,st
Productionoats, durum, and rye. 1 production estimate based
on June Acreage estimate of harvested area for major
JulyTWASDE1st projection for foreign country (S&U) for rice,
cotton, and oilseeds. All available S&Us are updated
based on new crop and market information.
Aug.TRice StocksEstimate of U.S. stocks by type for milled and rough
rice on August 1.
Aug.TCrop1st estimate of yield and harvested area for U.S.
Productioncoarse grains, rice, cotton, oilseeds, sugar cane, and
Aug.TWASDEAll S&Us are updated based on new crop and market
Sept.TGrain StocksEstimate of U.S. stocks (on- and off-farm) for all
wheat, coarse grains, and oilseeds on Sept. 1.
Dat e a
Sept.TCropNew yield estimates and possible harvested area
Productionadjustments for U.S. coarse grains, rice, cotton,
oilseeds, sugar cane, and sugar beets.
Sept.TWASDEAll S&Us are updated based on new crop and market
Oct.TRice StocksEstimate of U.S. stocks by type for milled and rough
rice on October 1.
Oct.TCropNew yield estimates and possible harvested area
Productionadjustments for U.S. coarse grains, rice, cotton,
oilseeds, sugar cane, and sugar beets.
Oct.TWASDEAll S&Us are updated based on new crop and market
Nov.TCropNew yield estimates and possible harvested area
Productionadjustments for U.S. coarse grains, rice, cotton,
oilseeds, sugar cane, and sugar beets.
Nov.TWASDEAll S&Us are updated based on new crop and market
Dec.TCropNew yield estimates and possible harvested area
Productionadjustments for U.S. cotton.
Dec.TWASDEAll S&Us are updated based on new crop and market
Jan.T+1CropFinal planted and harvested area, yield, and
Production,production for U.S. crops.
Jan.T+1Winter Wheat &Final planted and harvested area for U.S. winter
Source: USDA, NASS for Winter Wheat and Rye Seedings, Prospective Plantings, Acreage, Crop
Production, Grain Stocks, and Rice Stocks reports; USDA, WAOB for the WASDE report.
a. T represents the current calendar year; T-1 represents the previous calendar year; and T+1
represents the next calendar year. Season-average prices and supply-and-use balances are
calculated for a crop’s marketing year, i.e., the 12-month period starting from the first harvest
month in the crop’s primary growing region. Because most of the marketing year for most crops
extends over parts of two different calendar years, they are represented by the expressions
T/T+1. For example, the 2005-2006 marketing year is often referred to simply as the 2005
marketing or crop year. For the specific release date of a USDA report in 2006, see a calendar
of 2006 release dates at [http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/inforeg/pei_calendar2006.pdf].
b. In USDA reports the terms estimate, forecast, and projection have very distinct and different
meanings. See section “Estimates, Forecasts, & Projections” for a description.
c. These preliminary U.S. S&U projections use: linear-trend yield forecasts; planting intentions area
from the Prospective Plantings report; and the historical harvested-to-planted area relationship
to derive harvested area for U.S. spring-planted crops. Winter wheat harvested area is available
from the Crop Production report for May.
Appendix Table 4. Major NASS Crop Production Reports
Winter Wheat and Rye Seedings report (January) contains the first forecast of winter wheat
and rye planted area.
Prospective Plantings report (end of March) is a survey of farmer planting intentions all
spring-planted field crops as of early March.
Acreage report (late June) is a survey of actual and intended farmer plantings of all field
crops as of early June. This survey represents the first area forecast for crops.
Small Grains Summary (late September) contains the first estimate of winter and spring
wheat harvested area for the just-finished marketing year.
Crop Progress reports are released weekly between April and November. Each report
contains state- and national-level information on:
(1) Crop progress as of the report date in terms of plantings, various plant growth stages,
and harvesting. Comparisons are made with the previous week, the previous year, and
the five-year average.
(2) Crop condition rated as percent that is: very poor, poor, fair, good, and excellent.
The Weekly Weather and Crop Bulletin provides a weekly weather update for the principal
crop producing regions. It includes weather map contours and indexes for crop moisture,
extreme minimum and maximum temperatures, weekly precipitation, departure from average
temperature, growing degree days, and a summer review of national weather, as well as the
long-term Palmer drought severity index. In addition, the bulletin contains an international
weather and crop summary for major foreign production regions.
Crop Production reports are released monthly throughout the calendar year. Each report
contains state-by-state area, yield, and production estimates for major field and specialty
crops. The crop coverage varies in each report with a focus on those crops that are currently
in an active seasonal growth pattern.
The Agricultural Prices report, released monthly throughout the calendar year, contains
estimates of previous month’s average farm price received for major field and specialty
crops, as well as for livestock, poultry, meat, and produce. Each report also contains a
preliminary farm price estimate for the current month. Monthly average prices are weighted
by marketings. Each report also includes an all-farm products index of prices received and
prices paid index for commodities and services, interest, taxes, and farm wages paid. The
July issue includes an annual summary.
Crop Values — Annual Summary, released in February, includes state-by-state estimates for
average prices received and the value of production for the preceding crop marketing years
for major field and specialty crops.
Source: USDA, NASS.