Washington — The chances of Senator Joni Ernst, Republican-Iowa, losing her seat in the upcoming elections appeared to grow Oct. 15 after a debate question about corn and soybean prices became a viral moment buoying Democratic challenger Theresa Greenfield.
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While turnover of the seat would not likely change Iowa's support for US biofuel policy, it could contribute to Democrats gaining control of the Senate, which could have significant implications for energy and climate policy.
Asked for the breakeven corn price, Greenfield said a bushel was going for "$3.68, $3.69" that day.
"Breakeven really just depends on the amount of debt someone has," she said. "I suspect there's farmers that are breaking even at that price. However, if their yields are down 50%, that's certainly not going to cover it for them. We've had low commodity prices for so long, they've been going-out-of-business prices."
The moderator then turned to Ernst and asked for the breakeven price of soybeans. After hesitating, she said: "It depends on what the inputs are, but probably about $5.50."
The moderator replied: "Well, you're a couple dollars off, I think, because it's $10.05. But we'll move onto something else."
The clips quickly circulated on Twitter, with election watchers criticizing Ernst for flubbing the question.
"It's a sucker question," said Pete Meyer, senior agriculture commodities adviser for S&P Global Platts Analytics. "You and I can farm right next to each other in Iowa, and our breakevens aren't the same.
"This whole concept of breakevens is flawed because of that. You might be renting your land or you might be planting a different seed than me, or you have different costs associated with your trucking."
Meyer said he talked about the debate moment with several Iowa farmers in a chat group afterward, and "five of them had very different breakevens."
Current cash prices are about $10.05/bushel for soybeans and $3.75/bu for corn, he said.
US farmers have faced dire economics for several years because of weather, trade and other challenges, although increased farm subsidies by the Trump administration have helped offset some losses.
Meyer estimates net return per acre will remain in negative territory this year at around a $25/acre loss for corn, $70/ac loss for soybeans and $74/ac loss for wheat.