It didn’t take long for a theme to emerge in the USDA ag office garage in East Grand Forks, where on Tuesday Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz packed the space with farmers, ag lenders, ag business leaders, state legislators, federal emergency management officials, staff members of federal lawmakers and other ag stakeholders for a roundtable discussion on record late summer and falls rains and the difficult to sometimes impossible harvest that has resulted.
Someone in the room would offer their thoughts on the situation and in most cases their individual plight or the plights of their neighbors, and Walz would interject with a question: “Is this the worst you’ve seen it?”
Every answer he heard back, whether the word used was simply “yes” or an adjective like “unprecedented,” indicated to Walz that Red River Valley farmers are staring down uncharted waters. (No pun intended.)
“You can’t really call them 500-year rains when we’re getting them every two or three years. I don’t want to get into the debate over why that’s happening, but it’s happening,” Walz said. “Flying in here, it’s pretty stunning to see the amount of water out here.”
Many in the room were most interested in seeing Walz and his administration pursue a federal disaster declaration, which North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum is seeking. But the threshold for public infrastructure damage to seek a federal declaration is $1 million. So far in North Dakota, the tally is $12 million and counting. The threshold in Minnesota, meanwhile, is $8 million, and Joe Kelly of the Department of Homeland Security/Emergency Management, said only a few hundred thousand dollars in infrastructure damage has been reported so far in relation to the record water and subsequent damage. While he urged farmers to report damaged roads and other infrastructure to their county emergency management office, most in the room agreed that the best route to go that might get impacted growers some assistance in more rapid fashion is a disaster declaration on the USDA secretary level.
“I can’t see your roads from my office in St. Paul,” Kelly said. “Even if we don’t meet the threshold for a (presidential level) declaration, the governor has the ability to help even if we don’t get to the FEMA level.”
Walz, while saying his administration would work to get help as fast as possible, stressed that with winter coming and then the spring thaw and subsequent flood threat, it’s going to be a long, stressful slog. “That’s why we’re kind of triaging this, because this is one big event that’s unfolding and will continue to unfold for the next seven or eight months,” the governor said.
Walz heard nightmare scenarios on the sugarbeet and soybean harvest during the roundtable discussion. While in the valley overall around 60% of American Crystal Sugar’s crop is in, Crystal’s Tom Astrup said closer to Crookston and Fisher and East Grand Forks, less than 40% is in. And in a cruel twist, while hard morning freezes will likely be enough to harden the fields enough for heavy equipment to get in to get the beets, the beets sitting in the frozen ground for more than a couple days might inflict too much damage on them to be useful.
The story is at least as dire with the area’s red and yellow edible potato crops. It will be “game over” on the potatoes remaining in the ground in the area, Walz was told, if the forecast holds and morning lows are in the low and mid-20s. With Thanksgiving approaching, potato prices could skyrocket as a result, and looking further ahead, potato growers next spring might have enough potato seed for their own planting, but no seed to sell.
The wheat harvest in late summer was no treat, either, Walz heard. With cool, rainy weather triggering the phenomenon known as “falling numbers,” crop quality and yields took a major hit.
Farmer Rhonda Larson said insurance will help, “But there’s a gap between insurance and what you need to survive.” She said in extended tough times, most farmers have various “buckets” of money or other equity they can fall back on to get by. “But we have no buckets to go to anymore; we are bucketed out,” Larson added. “We have stuff…land and equipment, but we don’t have cash. We haven’t pulled beets since pre-pile in August. So with no beet check, you have to go talk nice to your banker.”
Added grower Paul Rutherford, on his 2019 wheat crop: “We got 3,000 bushels of good wheat, and 55,000 bushels of junk.”