Watching the Corn Grow

Published on: 14:00PM Sep 02, 2008

I was last in Blair, Nebraska, back when I was in college, 25 years ago.  I was at a summer camp there (there’s a long story about why, as a college student, I was at a camp of high schoolers, but that’s another blog post) in the early 1980s, at a time when the regional economy was heading into a depression.  Not a recession, which the national economy was confronting, but an honest to God depression, with plunging commodity and land values, banks going under, and jobs hard to find.  Actually, my lack of employability was one of the reasons I was in Blair at the camp.


So it was remarkable to see Blair again, this time on the front page of the Washington Post, last month.  From the sound of it, the good times are rolling in Blair, as they are in many similar small communities across the Corn Belt (like my hometown of Seward, which is about the same size as Blair and just 60 miles away).  Because with corn and soybean prices being what they are, there’s plenty money to be made in them thar…plains.


The Post article posted some interesting statistical tidbits:  land values in Nebraska have doubled in the past three years.  Unemployment has risen to the oppressive level of 3.4 percent.  And car and truck sales in nearby Omaha have actually increased in 2008.  You’d be hard pressed to find anyplace not in flyover country that could also brag about statistics like these.


I reported on this Corn Belt boomtown trend myself back in December, when I last visited Nebraska and there was plenty of money being spent on Christmas presents.  Looks like, with corn prices still clinging to a $5+ bushel level this fall, Santa can afford to be generous again this December across the Midwest.


The Post article calculates that high corn prices mean almost a seven-figure increase in gross income for the average-size Nebraska farm…while also noting that high input costs will reduce the net increase significantly.  And imagine what those high prices for both feed and fuel will do to the average Nebraska feedlot operator or pig or dairy farmer, whose economic model is very different these days than his neighboring row crop operator.


The astute mayor of Blair closed the article by noting that the good times never last, because straight line graphs can’t maintain those upwardly-mobile lines forever….and corn stalks can’t grow to the sky forever.  But until those stalks stop growing, it’s a nice crop to watch.