Farming is inherently challenging.

There’s risk in almost every decision that needs to be made on what goes into the field, when it should be planted, when it should be harvested, how much to keep in the bins, when to sell. How to keep livestock healthy and how to get the best price. There’s equipment to buy, sell and repair when it breaks down.

But there’s little question that South Dakota’s farmers and ranchers were challenged to a heightened degree in 2019. They faced one of the wettest years in the state’s history, which challenged both ends of the planting and harvesting process, and damaged rural roads and property. Less than 54% of the days in the crop season were suitable for field work, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. The trade standoffs in Washington crunched an already difficult agriculture market. Stress for ag producers continued to climb, and mental health awareness for farmers and ranchers moved to the forefront. Because of the makeup of our state and communities, that trickles down to every aspect of South Dakota.

“I am continually amazed at the resiliency and perseverance of South Dakota producers whether they are facing trade uncertainty, low prices, or a steady onslaught of disastrous weather, they kept putting one foot in front of the other and made it through one of the toughest years in history,” South Dakota Secretary of Agriculture Kim Vanneman told The Daily Republic this week. “While it certainly looks like at least the beginning of 2020 will remain tough, particularly in the weather department, I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to regain some market certainty, through final passage of USMCA and a phase one trade deal with China, and overall, this year will be better than 2019.”

All of those factors made South Dakota’s farmers The Daily Republic’s people of the year for 2019. The newspaper’s staff sought out first-hand accounts of what 2019 was like for various random producers, the challenges they faced and what they learned.

The stories from three area farms are below:

‘I’ve never seen anything like it’

Steve Graber has seen a lot of changes in his time as a farmer.

Farming full-time since 1974, Graber still operates out of the family farm his great-grandfather established in 1879 southeast of Freeman. He grew up working with his father before taking a few years off for school and a brief stint in teaching, and he and his family have faced the trials and tribulations that come with working the land in South Dakota ever since.

Changing technology. The evolving farm economy. The weather.

Oh, the weather.

Steve Graber, of Freeman. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Steve Graber, of Freeman. (Matt Gade / Republic)

“When I started farming, just growing up on the farm, what I worried about every year was drought,” said Graber, 71. “And then the 1990s came, and it has been continuously raining every year except 2012. And it’s just Biblical proportions. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Like other producers around South Dakota in 2019, Graber and his sons, Dan and Jon, did their best to tend to their cattle and get their crops in the ground during a historically wet season. As the inches of precipitation fell, his sons asked what he and his father would do in the past when faced with rainfall in these amounts, and he said he honestly didn’t have an answer for them.

“The boys kept asking me what are we going to do? What did you used to do? And I don’t know,” Graber said

Graber and his sons managed to plant about 40 acres of soybeans and about 160 acres of corn this year, a reduced amount for their operation. Fortunately, crop yields were good. The calving season was stressful, but went well considering the conditions, Graber said.

“Our calving was not fun at all, but we got through it in pretty good shape,” Graber said.

While he ponders the past and tends to the present, Graber has an eye on the future of the industry. His sons have taken over more of the operation in recent years, and he is considering turning the whole business over to them and simply getting up and working for them every morning.

That’s fine for him, he said, but what about the next generation of farmers? Graber’s generation is approaching retirement age, and with smaller farm families to help carry on the tradition than in the past, he questions what the face of farming will look like in rural South Dakota in another 10 years. While the trend often sees farms expand to operations with thousands of acres of cropland and a large crew of hired help, Graber said his family is proof that you don’t need massive amounts of land to raise a family and make a living.

Steve Graber, of Freeman. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Steve Graber, of Freeman. (Matt Gade / Republic)

“What happens in the next 10 years? There are so many who are looking for land and don’t have any children to help farm. It’s a whole new set of problems,” Graber said. “My father raised four children on a quarter of land and rented an 80. I bought an 80 and then rented another 80. You do not need to have 5,000 or 10,000 acres to make it.”

He cherishes the time he had working with his father and continues to cherish the time he has working with his sons. He said they’ll prepare as best they can for what is forecast to be another wet spring in 2020. And, as his family has done for the past 140 years, they’ll find a way to come through whatever Mother Nature throws at them.

Sometimes it’s tough, Graber said, and many variables are out of a farmer’s control. But farming can be a noble and rewarding career, one he hopes his sons and other young producers have a chance to continue in and appreciate as much as he has.

“I would hope that, if my sons continue to farm, which I think they will, they would have time to stop and smell the roses, because it is a wonderful lifestyle if you can stop long enough to appreciate it,” Graber said.

— Reported by Erik Kaufman

‘We’re glad it’s over’

Throughout Robb Stahl’s life on the farm, he’s learned to be an optimist. After suffering through what he dubs as “the worst year I’ve ever experienced on the farm,” Stahl’s ability to remain optimistic in the midst of disastrous times was put to the ultimate test in 2019.

“It was one for the books … that’s for sure,” Stahl said, followed with a laugh. “My dad and my grandfather both said they hadn’t seen a year like this in their lifetime. It was just tough all year long, and we’re glad it’s over.”

While Stahl is able to find glimpses of humor when reflecting back on how difficult 2019 was, the 40-year-old farmer said he hopes to never endure the stress and challenges he had to overcome during the grueling farm season ever again. As a fourth-generation farmer, Stahl is tasked with keeping the family’s farming tradition alive, which began in 1911 on the same ground the Stahl farms today. His father, Gregg Stahl, along with his uncle and cousin are who run the family farm.

Robb Stahl, of Mitchell. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Robb Stahl, of Mitchell. (Matt Gade / Republic)

A corn and soybean crop farmer with several head of cattle, the Stahls have their hands full every year. Factoring in historic amounts of precipitation falling on their crops, blizzards and snowstorms delaying spring planting, flooded fields complicating harvest season and volatile market prices, the Stahls are relieved to put 2019 in the rear-view mirror.

“We lost some calves in the spring blizzard, and we didn’t really get anything planted. We were getting stuck in the fields with sprayers, and then we had nonstop mud after all the snow melted,” Stahl said. “But you live to see another year, and that’s upon us now.”

With the historic wet year that drenched South Dakota, Stahl only managed to plant about 20% of all the crops he farms roughly 12 miles southwest of Mitchell. To make matters more challenging, a few late-April and early-May snowstorms delayed Stahl’s planting by an entire month, extending it into late June.

“It started with the spring rains and late snow melt, so we didn’t even have much of a planting season at all,” he said. “I’ve never planted that little amount of crops. Whenever we needed just one day or two to make some progress planting, it snowed or rained.”

Just as it did during planting season, Mother Nature struck again in September, as the Mitchell area received upwards of 7 to 10 inches of rainfall in a two-day span.

After the September flooding, Stahl said he was beginning to worry about the little crops he had planted might not be harvestable. To his surprise, nearly all of the soybeans and corn he and his father planted were somehow able to get harvested a month later in October, making it one of the only moments he experienced a glimmer of good news on the farm.

Stahl has experience combating extremely dry summers, but he had to adapt in a new way for handling his crops in a very wet year. It was the first year he’d used his corn dryer since the 1980s.

Robb Stahl, of Mitchell. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Robb Stahl, of Mitchell. (Matt Gade / Republic)

“You don’t want to have to dry corn, because it’s just another expense that adds up quickly,” Stahl said. “We had to run everything through the dryer this year. But without it, we wouldn’t have had any corn to sell this year. … You always have to be prepared for a bad year or two when your farming, but prevented plant insurance helped us at least cover a lot of expenses,” Stahl said. “But we really didn’t have any cash-flow or profit this past year.”

Despite the prevent plant insurance the Stahl’s had to tap into -- which covered operation expenses -- that doesn’t make up for any profit loss on farming crops. Prevented planting is the failure to plant an insured crop with proper equipment by the final planting date or during the late planting period. Prevented planting provides crop insurance benefits to policyholders to compensate for pre-planting costs that are incurred during preparation for planting the crop.

Nationwide, nearly 20 million acres of preventative planting took place, more than double the previous record. South Dakota was the state with the most, at 3.9 million acres.

The thought of another wet year like 2019 is something Stahl doesn’t want to let cross his mind, but his passion for farming has proved to overcome the worst of the worst.

“We almost have to see an extremely dry spring for the crops to even have a chance at producing close to average profits,” Stahl said, noting the saturated moisture that’s left over from the past year. “But that’s the risk you take. You have to be an optimist to farm in the first place. If you weren’t optimistic that things were going to get better, you couldn’t find it in you take the risk in the first place.”

— Reported by Sam Fosness

‘Next year’s going to be different’

Bridgewater farmer Jerry Paweltzki said 2019 ranked among the worst years for producers in the more than five decades he’s been farming.

“In the ’80s was a rough time, but that was mainly about inflation and high-interest rates, when we were pushing 20% interest. It was pretty tough,” Paweltzki said. “The worst year, crop-wise, would probably be 2012. But that turned out to be one of the best years, the most profitable years, for most farmers.”

The combination of unpredictable, record-breaking weather and crop prices driven down by a foreign trade war created the perfect storm for South Dakota farmers in 2019, requiring them to hedge their bets throughout the season to stay above water in a buyer’s market.

Jerry Paweltzki, of Bridgewater. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Jerry Paweltzki, of Bridgewater. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Paweltzki has been farming in Bridgewater since 1966, when he began working with his father. Over the years, he’s raised hogs and dairy cattle, then added grain farming. He’s farmed with his son for the past 10 years and in 2019 raised beef cattle, corn and soybeans.

Paweltzki said he and his son were hardly able to plant any corn in 2019, and each claimed prevent plant on about 250 acres, though they were able to plant most of their soybeans and didn’t have many issues with cattle, aside from difficulty with keeping hay dry. Together, the two typically raise about 1,200 acres of corn and 1,200 of soybeans each year.

Altogether, Paweltzki said his farm took a financial hit of about 25% in 2019, compared to an average year.

The financial strain on farmers, Paweltzki said, hasn’t disappeared in the new year. With both low crop yields for many, especially those in eastern South Dakota, and low prices being offered for what crops there are, Paweltzki and other farmers are faced with the difficult decision between selling now to pay some bills or holding on to crops longer in the hope that prices will rise, potentially making what they did manage to grow stretch further.

“This year really isn’t going to be quite as bad as next year,” he said. “Once you get toward the end of last year and farmers have got to start paying bills, they’re not going to have any crops to sell from this year.”

Paweltzki said he’s held on to the soybeans he grew in 2019, as well as a small amount of corn leftover from the previous year.

“People that did get some are kind of holding on to it and hoping this trade war straightens out and the price does go up,” he said.

Paweltzki also said that while farmers typically would rather do whatever possible to plant rather than taking a payment, he’s heard this year may have shifted that attitude for some who worked to meet enterprise unit planting requirements or put a cover crop in the ground, only to have what was planted destroyed by weather later on.

“I know some people that worked hard to plant said they’re not going to do that next year again. If it’s wet, they’re just going to take the prevent plant,” he said.

Jerry Paweltzki, of Bridgewater. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Jerry Paweltzki, of Bridgewater. (Matt Gade / Republic)

To get through the undesirable weather and trade conditions farmers faced in 2019, Paweltzki said all he’s been able to do is wait to see what happens next for factors out of his control.

“Over the years, the only thing that’s basically guaranteed is that next year’s going to be different,” he said. “You can never count on one year to be the same as the year before.”

— Reported by Ellen Bardash

Past winners of The Daily Republic's person of the year award:

2013: Ken Tracy, Mitchell mayor

2014: Wessington Springs tornado first responders

2015: Gary Gjesdal, of Plankinton

2016: Lyndon Overweg, Mitchell public safety chief

2017: Julie Brookbank, Mitchell Technical Institute

2018: Gary Van Roekel, of Mitchell

2019: South Dakota farmers