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Experts focus on ag as they dissect economy

10/19/2012

By DAWNE LEIKER

dleiker@dailynews.net

Local economic indicators are strong in Ellis County, according to speakers at Thursday's Economic Outlook Conference hosted by Wichita State University.

But that doesn't mean those working in business and agriculture won't frequently be "recalculating" as they move forward.

"How many of you use a GPS?" John Greathouse, chairman of Fort Hays State University's Department of Agriculture, asked of conference participants gathered at FHSU's Robbins Center. "How often does it say, 'recalculating?'

"It is interesting. ... We're right now in a place where we're recalculating because we don't know where we're going with this economy in agriculture."

Greathouse, along with Bank of Hays President Randy Walker, provided a local economic perspective during the conference, while Jeremy Hill from WSU's Center for Economic Development and Business Research, gave a statewide employment forecast. Stan Longhofer, WSU Center for Real Estate, discussed local and state real estate markets.

Greathouse pointed out some challenges agriculture-related businesses in the region are facing daily. Drought has played a role in some businesses and dairies going out of business. In addition, agribusinesses are faced with the challenge of recruiting qualified employees.

"In agriculture, we've got positions open that we cannot get filled," he said. "One, because there's not enough people who are qualified for those positions.

"When you have somebody in an agriculture position that doesn't know what they're doing, that's a bomb waiting to go off. Somebody's going to get hurt."

Bringing those workers to rural western Kansas often is difficult due to a reluctance for some individuals to relocate.

In addition, available housing for those workers often is in short supply.

Greathouse pointed out agricultural producers have seen increased profits the past year, and the demand for agriculture products is not going away. He urged those in the agriculture lending field to continue investing in food production.

Commodity prices and equipment prices have been on the rise the last few years. Wheat sold for $8.59 a bushel Thursday, Greathouse said, an increase of $3 from two years ago.

Sales of tractors also have increased 6.7 percent.

"Machinery prices are staying up there," he said. "So we have some issues that are interesting to look at as we're talking about diversity of agriculture.

"I did not write my projections down. ... I'm not an economist, I'm a realist."

Low unemployment was one factor Walker pointed to in gauging Ellis County's economic health. The most recent data, Walker said, showed unemployment at 3.2 percent, close to half of the state average.

In addition, real estate values have remained high in Ellis County. For the last seven years, he said, the average home's purchase price has fluctuated between 95 percent and 96 percent of its asking price.

"I looked last night, because there's a brand new report out," Walker said. "For the first time I've ever seen this, during the last quarter, the sale price was 100 percent of listing price.

"Which is just remarkable. ... Another sign of the strength of our local economy."