Farmers' trust in futures industry wanes

Traders signal offers in the corn options pit at the Chicago Board of Trade in Chicago, Illinois.

Kai Ryssdal: The founder and CEO of a company called Peregrine Financial was arrested today. Russell Wassendorf is his name. Peregrine is -- or was, I should say, since it filed for bankruptcy protection on Tuesday -- it was a commodities futures firm. One that had falsified its financial records to the tune of about $200 million of customer funds, including money from some farmers. Farmers and ranchers use futures to help manage the risks of being so dependent on Mother Nature. But when their money starts disappearing, can you blame 'em for being a little skittish?

From Harvest Public Media, Jeremy Bernfeld has the story.


Jeremy Bernfeld: If you're a farmer who has bushels of soybeans to sell you can't just head down to your local grocery store with a truck full of beans. That's where traders at the Chicago Board of Trade come in. It's one of the world's largest agricultural marketplaces -- where you go to sell your corn, soybeans, oats, things like that. It's pretty similar to what stock exchanges look like in the movies.

Nestled among the skyscrapers of the Windy City, the Chicago Board of Trade is a long way from the fields, and farmers like Daryl Larson want to keep it that way. Lately, Larson hasn't trusted the markets and the bankers much. 

Daryl Larson: There's basically three places, only, that I trust people in suits and that's at church, weddings and funerals.

Larson is a fourth-generation farmer. He has a small cow-calf operation and farms about 1,600 acres in McPherson, in central Kansas. 

When trading firm MF Global declared bankruptcy in the Fall, regulators discovered that $1.6 billion dollars of customer money was missing. A lot of that money belonged to farmers and ranchers, and it made Larson even more wary. 

Larson: I mean, if they want us to trust them then they've got to live by the golden rule and they've got to quit screwing us over when they get a chance to do it.

The markets need farmers like Larson to feel safe. Otherwise, they won't have any commodities to trade.

Bryan Durkin is the chief operating officer of CME Group, which operates the Chicago Board of Trade. He says the industry is doing its best to reassure farmers. 

Bryan Durkin: It is super important. It is a mission on the part of the CME Group to make sure that we are directly reaching out to this very important segment of this business.

By that, he means farmers and ranchers. 

Durkin: I, myself, have spent a great deal of my time out in the field meeting with those customers that were directly affected from these unfortunate events.

In February, CME Group launched a program designed to back up farmers for up to $25,000 in the event of another MF Global-type situation. But many farmers have accounts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. The Peregrine Financial bankruptcy will be the first test for the new fund. The industry also wants to show it will be harder for rogue trading firms to dupe them in the future. They're working to institute tougher reporting requirements and greater oversight. 

Again, Bryan Durkin with CME Group.

Durkin: We want to make sure that the protocols and the procedures are in place that continues to restore their confidence in the industry itself.

Out in Kansas, farmer Daryl Larson has taken to using his local co-op to help him place bets on the markets. It takes out some of the worry, he says. He knows the people he's working with and he can meet with them face-to-face. Larson wants to trust the markets in Chicago and he wants to take some of the risk out of his work. But it's a gradual process.

Larson: We need to be able to turn our backs on people and not be afraid they're going to stab us, just plain and simple.

Farmers know that growing trust, like anything else, is hard. That's a lesson the commodities markets are learning too.

In McPherson, Kansas, I'm Jeremy Bernfeld for Marketplace.

About the author

Jeremy Bernfeld is a reporter with Harvest Public Media.

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