MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
As Harvest Public Media's Kathleen Masterson reports, all of this has some investors treating corn like the new gold.
KATHLEEN MASTERSON: On a recent sun-beaten afternoon, I'm traveling with two corn buyers from Heartland Co-op in Des Moines to Vernon Flinn's farm just outside of town. They're visiting to check the crop's progress. For a more accurate estimate, you need to check the corn away from the edge of the field. So we wrestle our way through the towering eight-foot corn stalks, shielding our faces to keep from being cut by the sharp leaves.
(SOUNDBITE OF RUSTLING LEAVES)
MASTERSON: Flinn twists off an ear of corn to examine how the heat has damaged it.
VERNON FLINN: That one there is kind of a nose back, probably due to dry weather or - this here's probably 16 rows around and it looks like probably four or five kernel rows right there and that row that's aborted or will not fill.
MASTERSON: But demand from the ethanol industry, livestock feed and export market continues to out-strip yield projections, says Iowa State University economist Chad Hart, and that sent grain prices soaring.
CHAD HART: When you look, last summer, we had corn prices, in some cases, down around $3.50 a bushel. Now, we're up in the 6 to $7 range, so we've seen nearly a doubling of prices, if you will, over that past 15 months.
MASTERSON: And in the last few months, another player has taken a bite out of the US corn market.
HART: China's been a very early buyer of the corn crop we're growing now and so they've already, if you will, put in some advance purchases and that's been something that has got the market a little worked up right now.
MASTERSON: Now, high grain prices are usually good news for farmers. They helped Vernon Flinn buy a new tractor, but today's even higher prices mean even higher stakes and Flinn says selling in this volatile market comes with risks.
FLINN: I mean, you're kind of scared to sell it for fear you're going to miss the rally and you're scared if you don't sell it, for fear we're going to say, oh, heck, we should have sold it all last time.
MASTERSON: Driving his truck over to the next cornfield, Flinn and corn buyers Nick Hyde and Ron Groskreutz discuss what every farm struggles with: enormous swings in the market.
FLINN: It was a lot more fun when corn when $3 and it would move. Maybe the limit was 10 cents and if it moved 10 cents in a day, you know, that was huge.
NICK HYDE: If it moved a nickel in a day, you were looking for a meteorite.
FLINN: And now, they're saying corn is average. This year is just right around 22 or 23 cents a day.
HYDE: From high to low.
FLINN: In a day, it'll move. Well, unheard of.
MASTERSON: For NPR News, I'm Kathleen Masterson.
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