DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - It wasn't so long ago that farmers were asked what they would do with their windfall profits.
That was last summer, in the heady days of $8-a-bushel corn and $16-a-bushel soybeans, when it seemed farmers could count on an inexhaustible demand from ethanol manufacturers and food companies.
Today, corn prices have dropped below $4 a bushel following a surprisingly strong 2008 harvest and plunging demand. Soybeans were trading at close to $10 a bushel.
Faced with such a huge price swing, combined with the high costs of seed, fertilizer and machinery, farmers could be forgiven for being a bit bewildered. Some are considering switching crops, and many are bracing for more questions when they seek annual loans to cover their upfront costs.
''What we've seen these last two years, you almost got to throw out any previous history because we're in uncharted territory,'' said Ryan Weeks, 36, a fifth-generation farmer of corn and soybeans from Juniata, Neb.
''We've been through a downturn before,'' Weeks said. ''But we've also never had the risk out there that we have now. If we see a huge retreat on grain prices, it's going to be very, very tough.''
Part of the reasons why the industry, especially for Iowa's hallmark corn crop, was seeing such uncertainty were the decline in oil prices, a large crop harvest and the global economic downturn.
The dramatic drop in oil prices has forced a corresponding decline in the price of corn-based ethanol, idling many ethanol plants until their profitability improves and reducing demand for corn.