A conversation with Dan Basse: Part One

Dan Basse is founder and CEO of AgResources

Growing up in Wisconsin, Dan Basse raised hogs on his father’s farm to put himself through Wisconsin State University. He had originally planned to be a veterinarian, but after a few years running the hog operation, he began to realise that some years he made money and he could enjoy the university life, while other years he didn’t make much money, even though his costs hadn’t changed. He told me that he was doing the same things in terms of costs, but it was all about marketing the hogs.

He began to get interested in markets to try and understand what drives prices. He took some economic courses, fell in love with the subject and switched his major from veterinarian studies to economics.

Dan how many hogs did you have when you were a student?

I had between 120 and 150 each year,” he told me. “Running the operation gave me some ideas about the business of farming. It was a good way to get a young lad into the world of agriculture. I knew that I didn’t want to be a hog farmer long term, so maybe it also encouraged me to work harder in college!

And does the farm still exist?

We still have the family farm but we now employ a farm manager to run it for us. My mother is still alive at 83, but my father passed away in 2013. The farm is located near the city of Milwaukie and we are involved in an urban restoration project there, building a few apartment buildings on some of the land. But we are still farming; we don’t have livestock anymore, but we grow vegetables and apples.

About ten years ago my wife told me to get a hobby, so I bought a dairy farm in Ohio where I raise high-end Guernsey cattle. It is an unusual cattle breed for the US, but the breed has been in my family going back three generations. We show them in fairs and have had some national champions, so it has been quite successful. I enjoy it. It is a good way for me to get away from my consulting business and enjoy the rural life.

Are the cattle grass-fed?

Yes. They are largely grass-fed, but we still have to use about 10-15 percent of a grain mixture so that the cows get enough vitamins, along with the balanced diet, that they need for milk production. We have about 270 head of cattle, so it is a relatively small business.

I have some clients with farms as large as 40,000 head. The average in the US is probably around 900 head, so my operation is small. The trend in the dairy sector has been from small to large operations, a mix of corporate and family-owned. The big problem we have in the US at the moment is finding help; the labour market is so tight. That is a constraining factor on the dairy sector, even for us with our three employees.

You founded AgResource in 1987 at the age of 30. Was it a success from the start?

Yes! Within the first couple of weeks I had 600 clients through a new entity called DTN, Dataline Transmission Network. At that time farmers didn’t have access to price quotes, and I was one of the first on the DTN service to provide research. The owners of DTN told me that no one would ever pay me the $50 per month that I was charging for my research, but they were wrong. Businesses need good research. Today we have over 1,200 clients in 87 countries.

In your opinion, what makes a good analyst?

First, you need the ability to take large amounts of data and to put it into a format that is sensible and consistent. Second, you need the ability to get on with people. You have to have contacts within the industry to bounce ideas back and forth. Having the data is one thing, but you also have to have ground level input from real people: market participants, farmers, traders, governments etc. So a good analyst has not only to understand data, but also to understand people and what drives them. Third, you need the ability to write and to communicate your research in a readable, interesting manner. It’s a rare combination of skills.

Economics is our preferred subject of study when we look for an analyst —normally a Masters Degree or a PhD. A farm background helps.

Dan, you are among the leading analysts in the grain sector. What do you think first made your reputation as an analyst?

There are two occasions that come to mind. The first was the Carter grain embargo when we quickly understood that the US government would be buying up a lot of the surplus grain stocks.

The second was the biofuel build outs and the way that the mandates in the US, EU and elsewhere would lead to a sharp increase in demand. You could smell, taste and put your fingers in it in terms of projecting future grain demand. It was therefore relatively easy to see the bull markets that enveloped the grain markets from 2007 to 2014.

It then became equally as easy to see that agricultural markets would begin to struggle as the biofuel industry matured. We lost that demand driver while at the same time productivity and yields continued to improve.

The current situation is less clear. Trade wars are not as clear as biofuel mandates. The future in terms of politics is far more difficult to predict.”

Do you think the Chinese ethanol program could be the next driver for global grain demand?

We think it will drive some demand, but it is not clear how quickly the program can be implemented. It should lead to 37 to 45 million tonnes of addition annual corn demand. That will ultimately deplete Chinese stocks by 2021, and led to increased imports after that date. But unfortunately when you look at corn yields and technologically, the industry is advancing faster than we thought it would. Yields are increasing faster than demand. But that Chinese ethanol demand will of course be helpful to the world corn market.

In the 1960s and 1970s we were all worried about having enough food to feed the world. And that repeated itself in the early 2000s with the growth of biofuels and the food versus fuel debate.

If you do some long term modelling of population growth and farm yields, we could start to run out of agricultural farmlands around 2050. Until then, I don’t see really what, apart from a weather problem, could alter the situation. I can’t see where the next demand driver will come from. Until we find one, any rallies in price are supply-based, weather etc. I can’t see demand catching up with supply until we get to 2025 or beyond.

Could biodiesel come to the rescue of the US soybean producers?

We have seen record demand recently for biodiesel. It is mandated, so that demand trend will persist. At some point it may become mature in the same way that ethanol demand matured. We believe that world energy demand will peak somewhere between 2029 and 2031. As we start to use more electric vehicles biofuel demand will slow, but for the moment it keeps gliding upwards.

The US has anti-dumping cases against a number of biodiesel producers, so we have been trying to keep supply out of the domestic market.”

Have GM crops aggravated these surpluses? Looking back, could you argue that the world didn’t, or doesn’t, need GM crops to feed itself?

I think we need GM crops to feed the world, particularly as population continues to grow. The problem that has occurred is that farmers always overreach when they see profitability; they have bought in more land than we needed. It is not just GM that has enhanced yields—it is also farm technology, GPS, drones etc, as well as better fertiliser, pesticides and herbicides.

Looking back to the 1800s, it has always been demand shifts, whether war, biofuels or the growth of Asia that have jump started our grain demand. Our current trade wars are disruptive in terms of flows of grain rather than overall grain demand. So it is a question of shifting the chairs around the table, rather than putting more food on the table.

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