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Feeling (Slightly) Better After a Really Bad Year

This interview is also available on Spotify and Apple Podcasts.

Robert Carman is optimistic about 2024. He must be. “Went though a really, really, really tumultuous 12 months,” Carman said as he sighed before reflecting on 2023.

This year needs to be better than last year. That is his hope.

Carman is a commercial lender at Farm Credit Services of America where he is based out of Jefferson, Iowa. He specializes in the swine industry and spends part of his days on the road talking with hog producers.

His company provides financial lending for farmers and ranchers in four states: Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Wyoming.

Carman’s home state is hog central. Iowa has about seven hogs for every person (nearly 24 million hogs according to the National Pork Producers Council).

Last year brought numerous struggles for hog farmers. Producer costs went up, American consumers’ demand went down, and losses mounted.

“The average producer lost around $32 a head,” Carman said.

Carman is a child of the late 80s. So, he missed much of the worst of the Farm Crisis. But his father worked as an ag lender and told him about the suffering. “I got stories of what the eighties was like.”

But he also knows what followed. “They always compared to 1998…being the worst year,” he said.

Losses were about $28 per head back then. Some hog producers had no choice but to leave the industry after prices fell when consumer and packer demand dropped.

That was bad. But then came 2023. “It’s actually worse than 1998,” Carman said.

Too many hogs and not enough consumer demand.  

Smithfield Foods, the country’s largest pork producer, made changes. Shane Smith, the company’s president and CEO, offered this statement in December:

“Our industry and company are experiencing historically challenging hog production market conditions. Smithfield continues to take steps to improve operational efficiency and optimize our hog supply chain. These actions have included rebalancing production with East Coast harvest capacity, reducing our sow herd in Missouri and closing finishing operations in Utah. These are difficult decisions, but they are necessary to help our company remain competitive in this operating environment."

Carman is a thoughtful guy. After all, his clients are his neighbors and extended neighbors. Farms surround his hometown. For him, it is challenging to explain his growing optimism for hog farmers in 2024, because one of the factors that he cites is the benefit for some at the expense of others.

“I hate to say it…I’m sorry…but…the producers in the swine industry…every producer in the swine industry certainly benefits from lower feed costs…no doubt about it,” Carman said.

Corn and soybeans could both decline in 2024, according to projections

  • Corn ↓27%

  • Soybeans ↓16%

Carman has worked in finance for several employers for nearly 15 years. So, he obviously follows interest rates and their impact on swine producers and farmland owners overall. “Interest rates have definitely been a hot button.”

And it is the topic about which clients have the most questions. But it is also the one that could be the most difficult to figure out for Karmin…or anyone else these days. When will inflation slow enough for the Fed to feel comfortable with bringing down rates again?

There is no easy answer for Carman on this. “In my banking career, I’ve never seen rates like this.”

It’s the previous generations that experienced much higher rates in the early 1980s. “It’s been an education for me as well,” Carman said as he tries to counsel clients about preparing for what is ahead.   

While the industry tries to forecast when those lower borrowing costs could arrive, it also looks for opportunities. Carman sees one south of the border where he hopes consumers will provide the appetite for additional hog exports.

“Our friends in Mexico are buying lots of product, so hopefully they continue. They are doing wonders for our industry right now.”


American Farmland Owner Hayfields mountains


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