GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- Crop disasters in the Northern Plains aren’t unusual. Drought, flood, hail and other adverse weather conditions have wreaked havoc on crops since humans have planted them.
But what makes the 2019 crop year one for the history books is the breadth and severity of the damage during September to October, and, on top of that, as much as 2 feet of snow fell in an early autumn snowstorm.
“I don’t know of an event that has impacted the state of North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota as much as this has, as far as financial losses, crop losses, stress on farmers,” said Brad Brummond, Walsh County (N.D.) Extension agent. “We’ve left a significant amount of corn and beans in the field. We left some of our potatoes and sugar beets.”
The 2019 harvest was a battle from August on, with wheat farmers putting big tires or tracks on their combines and parking grain carts on the side of the road in an effort to get the crop off.
Despite the farmers’ best efforts, 750,000 of the 6.5 million acres of spring wheat North Dakota farmers planted in 2019 was not harvested. That meant that an estimated 36.8 million bushels of the crop didn’t make it into the bin.
The harvest struggle continued with row crops as edible bean, soybean and canola farmers were challenged by mucky, wet conditions that reduced the quality and quantify of the crop. As the fall progressed, farmers’ hopes that the weather would turn drier were dashed, as it only got wetter.
Sugar beet farmers buried beet lifters, potato farmers pulled truck, and ranchers used manure spreaders to haul loads of silage in their efforts to get crops out of the field.
In the end, after a six-week battle, the weather won out.
A freeze in early November destroyed potatoes and sugar beets, and farmers abandoned the remainder of their crops in the field. A total of one-third or about 115,000 acres of sugar beets that farmers grow for American Crystal Sugar Co. were not harvested. Total 2019 sugar beet production was 7.7 million tons, 3.3 million tons lower than the typical average of about 11 million tons.
The 2019 sugar beet payment -- $37 per ton --- not only is about 33.5% lower than the 2018 payment, farmers also will have to pay back American Crystal Sugar Co. $343 for each unharvested acre.
Red River Valley potato farmers also suffered big losses from the early November freeze. Thousands of acres of fresh, seed, processing and chipping potatoes were left in the field to rot, ushering in concerns about french fry shortages, higher fresh potato prices and a reduction in future seed potato acres.
Corn also fell victim to the wet weather and fall snowstorm, with nearly 60% of the 3.5 million acres farmers planted this spring still in the field as 2019 comes to a close.
The bottom line is the effect the miserable harvest will have on the finances of the region’s businesses. Agriculture is one of the biggest drivers of the economy, and the reduction in farmers’ incomes likely will be felt in small town and major city businesses, alike.
Even bigger than the economic hit farmers are taking is the emotional hit from the stress of trying to get the crop out then being forced to leave hundreds of acres unharvested. Communities, neighbors, friends, clergy and mental health professionals are empathetic to the farmers’ situation and are reaching out to them.
While farmers will be glad to leave 2019 behind them, it likely won’t be forgotten for decades to come.
Other top agriculture stories of the past decade, in no particular order, are:
Trump's tariffs: Another big agriculture story in 2019 that also is among the top 10 stories of the decade is the tariffs President Donald Trump invoked on China that contributed to the decline in agricultural exports.
The tariffs, at least in part, contributed to a decline in soybean exports, For example, between Sept. 1, 2018, and June 2018, there were 54.4% fewer soybeans shipped from the Pacific Northwest Port to China than during the same period a year earlier.
"Exports are the lifeblood of American agriculture,” Tim Dufault, a Crookston farmer and Minnesota Wheat Research and Promotion Council member, told Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., during an August listening session in Red Lake Falls, Minn. China is the largest export market for U.S. agricultural products, Dufault said. In 2017, for example, the U.S. exported $23.8 billion of agricultural goods, more than 17 percent of its. agricultural products, he noted.
When trade slows, as it did when the tariffs were imposed on China, there is a ripple effect, Dufault said.
“It’s not just the farmers who are impacted by the trade; it’s main street,” he said. “Agriculture matters to everybody.”
Businesses affected by the trade war included railroads and grain terminals that invested large amounts of money to improve infrastructure, said Nancy Johnson, North Dakota Soybean Growers Association's executive director.
High land values: Boosted by strong commodity prices and competition among farmers for land, values soared during the early part of the decade.
In 2012, for example, land values increased nearly 30%. The “all land and buildings” category for U.S. farms averaged $2,650 per acre in 2012, a 10.9% increase from 2011, according to the National Agriculture Statistics annual farm real estate survey. Land values in Minnesota, meanwhile, rose by 24.6% to $4,050.
The Northern Plains, as a whole, saw increases of 26.7% in 2011, the survey said.
“Those are some pretty strong increases in the Northern Plains,” said Andrew Swenson, farm management economist with the North Dakota State University Extension Service.
Pastureland also saw increases with North Dakota’s rising by 19.5% to $490 per acre and Minnesota’s climbing by 7.1% to $1,500 per acre.
Corn acres continue growing: Lucrative prices, the availability of short-season corn varieties and increased demand for corn for use in ethanol encouraged farmers to plant corn in areas where it before had not been grown for the market. Meanwhile, the global trend toward warmer weather, ample moisture and later fall freezes also played a role in the increase in corn acres further north and west.
In 2012, North Dakota edged into the Top 10 corn producers in the U.S. In 2018, it dropped out of the Top 10, ranking 11th, but the state’s farmers still produced a whopping 448.3 million bushels.
Corn has been a profitable crop for farmers across North Dakota for the majority of the past 10 years. However, the disastrous 2019 corn year, which has resulted in about 60 percent of the crop unharvested, may have some farmers reconsidering how much corn they will plant next year, or at least, about growing shorter-season varieties. While those varieties may not yield as well as the longer-season ones, the chances are better of getting them out of the field and into the bin before the snow flies.
North Dakota dairies decline: High transportation costs, lack of available transportation, the volatility of milk prices and the decline in the numbers of farm families who want to put in the long hours required to milk cows has resulted in a decline in the number of dairies in North Dakota.
As of Sept. 3, 2019, there were 54 Grade A and 9 Grade B dairies in North Dakota, according to the North Dakota Agriculture Department. There were no Grade A or Grade B dairies in the northeast North Dakota counties of Grand Forks, Cavalier, Griggs, Pembina, Ramsey, Steele or Traill counties. Pembina County and Walsh counties each had one Class A dairy.
Years ago, small, diversified family farms were common in North Dakota and other Northern Plains states. Family members milked the cows, first by hand, and later, used milking machines. Griggs County alone had an estimated three dozen dairy farms, according to a 2013 Herald story.
Tile drainage increases: High water tables, combined with the clay surface of the Red River Valley, results in slow surface drainage of water or no drainage at all.
The Red River Valley contains hundreds of miles of ditches and large numbers of wetland drains designed to move water as quickly as possible off of agricultural land. That’s why tile, which takes in surrounding groundwater and moves it away from the field and into a natural water course, such as a ditch, large wetland or river, is increasingly becoming common in North Dakota.
But though common, tile drainage is not without critics; and some people believe that it increases spring flooding. However, tile drainage supporters counter that claim, saying that it actually removes excess water from fields during the summer when rivers, streams, lakes and other waterways are low. Supporters of tile drainage also say that creates more water storage capacity in fields in the spring, which reduces the amount of water in waterways that are brim full or spilling over.
Precision agriculture increases: High input costs and commodity prices that generally are not commensurate with that have made it more important than ever for farmers to get the most money they can out of their crops. One way to do that is through the use of technology. Precision agriculture allows producers to farm by the inch. Through the use of methods, which include the use of satellite images, farmers can apply the appropriate amount of seed, fertilizer and pesticides to each square foot of the field, instead of applying a blanket amount to the entire acreage.
Evidence of the number of farmers embracing precision agriculture is the expansion of precision agriculture programs offered at North Dakota’s colleges and universities. For example, NDSU has a precision agriculture major as does Lake Region State College in Devils Lake. Meanwhile, other colleges, including Bismarck State, have precision agriculture as part of their agriculture curriculum.
Devils Lake swallows up farmland: Devils Lake, North Dakota’s largest freshwater lake, is a closed drainage basin, which spills onto surrounding acreage when it rises. Despite hopes of dry years stemming its spread, the lake continued to claim farmland during the past 10 years. The lake, which in the 1980s was at a level so low that it precipitated worries that it may dry up, instead burgeoned during the 1990s and into the 21st century.
The lake rose from its lowest level, recorded in 1993 to record elevation in 2011, growing to about 202,000 acres. That’s 44,000 acres more than it was 20 years previous.
With the increase in the size of Devils Lake came a decrease in the number of acres of farm and pasture land. Meanwhile, the lake also has claimed farm buildings and ruined roads that farmers use for transportation. During dry years, such as 2012, there were glimmers of hope that the lake level would recede. However, the number of years during the past 10 that have been wet have offset them, and farmers continue to be challenged by the lake’s reach.
McM Farms files bankruptcy: McM, a large farm led by St. Thomas, N.D., farmer Ron McMartin Jr., filed Chapter 7 bankruptcy in Fargo in February 2017, according to a Dec. 22 story by Agweek reporter Mikkel Pates. Agweek is owned by Forum Communications, which also owns the Grand Forks Herald.
McM was one of the largest farms in the region, raising about 39,000 acres of high-value crops, including potatoes, soybeans and edible beans. Meanwhile, at one time, McM was the largest sugar beet producer for American Crystal Sugar Co., raising 11,000 acres of the crop.
McM had three headquarters in the central and northern Red River Valley, Pates’ story said.
The fall of farming giant McM continued to make headlines throughout the next two years. In March 2019, for example McMartin’s two adult daughters reached an agreement that allowed sale of a valuable piece of property near Detroit Lakes, Minn., according to an Agweek story by Pates.
High commodity prices: In February 2011, cash wheat prices skyrocketed to about $10 a bushel, driven by a drought in Russia, a major wheat exporter, according to a February 2011 Agweek story. At $10 a bushel, the crop was fetching nearly twice as much as it is December 2019.
Prices in February 2011 for new-crop wheat, meanwhile, were $9 a bushel or more, and some farmers were considering locking in that price. Frayne Olson, an NDSU crops economist told Agweek that the new-crop prices were generous, and selling some of the new-crop wheat in February would be a smart move. However, Olson cautioned them not to sell too much in advance, especially if they were in dry areas.
Soybean prices also rallied during the first half of the past decade. The average price of soybeans in 2012 and 2013 was near $14 per bushel, according to the National Agricultural Statistics. The price dropped had dropped by 2014, but still was about $12.50 per bushel, more than $3.25 per bushel higher than it is in December 2019.