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It might be a cliche, but it's still true: Even in tough times, people have to eat.
Witness Monsanto (NYSE: MON ) , which blew the doors off Wall Street's estimates yesterday. Fiscal first-quarter earnings came in at a buck a share -- more than doubling from the year-ago quarter -- and the company raised yearly guidance by 5% at the low end.
Monsanto seems to have little problem competing against DuPont's (NYSE: DD ) Pioneer and Syngenta (NYSE: SYT ) , thanks to strong sales in the southern hemisphere; overall sales of seeds rose 31% compared to last year. Sales of Roundup and other herbicides fared even better, up 35% compared to last year.
The upcoming U.S. planting season looks similarly promising. The fiscal quarter concluded at the end of November, but through the end of December, prepayments for seeds were running 50% ahead of last year. That's good news for Monsanto, but also for other agricultural stocks, like fertilizer makers PotashCorp (NYSE: POT ) , Mosaic (NYSE: MOS ) , and Agrium (NYSE: AGU ) , and equipment maker Deere (NYSE: DE ) . Farmers are still planting, despite lower commodity prices.
The great thing about Monsanto? While agriculture is somewhat cyclical, the price Monsanto can charge for seeds isn't completely connected to the price farmers can get for the food they produce. Since Monsanto is constantly coming out with new, higher-yielding seeds, it can charge incrementally higher prices, even if commodity prices stagnate. For instance, Monsanto is developing drought-resistant corn in conjunction with BASF, capable of delivering 6%-10% higher yields in drought-prone areas. If it splits the potential increased profits with the farmer, that's a substantial increase in price.
It may be a while before we see the highs that Monsanto's stock set last summer, but the company is definitely back -- big time.
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