CHICAGO - The worst U.S. drought in a half century is bringing tech-savvy crop forecasters and fund managers back to the farm tradition of walking field rows to assess damage in the world's top grain exporter.
A record number of traders, seed dealers and government researchers have signed up for a first-hand look at corn and soybeans on the four-day, seven-state tour next week organized by Pro Farmer, the agricultural advisory firm. Demand was so strong that eight people who signed up late are on a waiting list.
Tour members want an on-the-ground look at the crops as new technology like satellite imagery was slow to detect a turn in conditions earlier this summer. In other words, in times of crisis nothing beats getting your hands dirty and your feet wet.
"Unless you're going out or you're sending somebody out to look at the crop, you're no smarter than anybody out there," said Chris Myers, the principal of M6 Capital Management, a commodity trading advisor that will send a new employee on the tour.
The tour, which sends participants into thousands of fields to manually count corn ears, kicks off on Monday and will provide its final national estimates of corn and soybean yields on Friday.
Some, like U.S. Department of Agriculture employees, will tag along to help check their own estimates; others, like independent trader Charlie Schramer, will have a more material objective.
"I'll be trying to trade once we get to the hotels" after finishing field surveys each day, he said. "Most likely, I'll be trading overnight and what I can during the day."
SURVEYS TOP SATELLITES
This year, the early start to hot, dry weather that has decimated crops made field surveys the leading indicator of damage, analysts said.
Satellite imagery, a premium product for food companies and funds, did not detect problems right away because there was a period of time when images showed plants were turning green, as they typically do in early stages of development, said Corey Cherr, agriculture research manager for Lanworth, a private analysis firm that uses satellites as a forecasting tool.
Lanworth is a unit of Thomson Reuters.
It was not until later that images began picking up on signs of stress, he said.
Sky-high imagery can fall short in estimating yields because it provides a view of the crop canopy and does not actually delve into the crop to count, say, the number of corn ears.
"The field work was the first place we could confirm the really severe problems," said Cherr. "The imagery was used later as kind of a way of actually checking the field work."