Talk of saturated fields and in some cases an impossible harvest mushrooms to include other topics of frustration.
Around 100 area farmers, farm advocates and stakeholders, ag business and commodities representatives and crop insurance providers filled a ballroom at the Crookston Inn Tuesday to update 7th District U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson on what they’re going through during this saturated fall that has made the sugar beet and potato harvest exceedingly difficult and in some cases impossible. For many of the growers, it’s a stressful fall that comes on the heels of a grain harvest in which an extended run of cool, wet weather drastically reduced the quality of their wheat and barley.
While Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz during a similar visit to East Grand Forks last week heard stories and information specifically related to the current and in some cases unprecedented harvest struggles, Peterson’s hour-long discussion Tuesday mushroomed to include farm programs in general, tariffs and the trade war, crop insurance difficulties, and his own blunt criticism of the second round of $16 billion worth of Market Facilitation Payments (MFP) to be made to farmers hurt by President Donald Trump’s trade war and the resulting loss of their markets, mostly for their soybeans in China.
But, first and foremost, when Peterson meets with U.S. Under Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey in Fargo-Moorhead on Friday, Nov. 8, he’s going to tell him how much growers in the Red River Valley are hurting right now and that they need help.
“I have 90% of my potatoes in the ground. They’re done. They’re all done,” Stephen-Argyle-area farmer Aaron Hapka told Peterson. Sitting next to his dad, Brian Hapka, the younger Hapka said the soaked fields followed by a hard, killing freeze mean he’s “done digging.” Only in his fifth year of farming, he said his potato crop started out amazing, with ideal temperatures and rains perfectly timed that fell in perfect amounts. But when “it started raining and never stopped” around harvest time, things turned bleak in a hurry.
As his excellent crop began to take shape over the summer, Hapka said he began to envision a great harvest and was looking forward to updating some of his 1970s-era farm equipment. Now, he’s anticipating filing an insurance claim and maybe being able to pay his bills. “This is just devastating,” Hapka added.
Thinking ahead to Friday’s meeting between Peterson and Northey, Donavon Johnson, president of the Northern Plains Potato Growers Association in East Grand Forks, told the longtime congressman that federal officials can’t simply be given the impression that farmers are having a difficult year. The federal decision-makers need to know just how bad things have become this fall in this region, he said.
“It’s not just a tough year; farmers have tough years and they keep at it, keep on working,” Johnson told the Times after the meeting. “What’s happening now, it’s…unprecedented.”
Sugar beet growers cover a wide swath of the valley and every year there’s a range that varies between American Crystal Sugar cooperative members who have a great crop and those who have a crop that’s not so great. But, American Crystal Sugar Board member Curt Knutson told Peterson, this year the range is especially wide between growers that got their crop in, and those, at least to date, who have not even come close to being able to harvest their sugar beets because of the wet conditions. American Crystal needs sugar beets to keep its factories running, Knutson said, so the cooperative continues to encourage its members to try to get as many of their sugar beets out of their fields as possible.
“We’re working on how to deal with this every day. This year there are more haves and have-nots, but we’re slowly getting our arms around it,” Knutson said. “We’re trying to get people to work on the harvest as hard as they can, and so far we’re seeing that.”
Crop insurance programs and the industry itself came under fire during the discussion, too, with sugar beet growers wondering why their crop can’t be included in “whole farm” coverage, and Johnson noting that crop insurance for potatoes is especially expensive so a lot of farmers don’t buy a policy, or they try to mitigate their risk by spreading their coverage around. “This year it didn’t happen for them,” Johnson said. “You need to get the message out there that this is a disaster.”
“I know that,” Peterson responded. “But the secretary (U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue) doesn’t want to hear that.”
If there are inconsistencies or irregularities in the crop insurance industry and individual agents are interpreting provisions and policies in their own ways and farmers are not getting the coverage and payments they thought they were, Peterson said action needs to be taken. “If Northey won’t do what he’s supposed to do, we’ll have a damn hearing and put him on the spot,” he said.
The current federal disaster legislation was originally written with things like wildfires and hurricanes in mind, Peterson said, and there’s a $3 billion spending cap. While he added that he thinks “excessive moisture” can be included in the language and that allocations can stay below the cap, he noted that he’s taking a “cautious” approach to getting significant help from federal disaster funds.
• Asked by Brian Frisk of AgCountry in Crookston for an update on the second round of MFP allocations, Peterson said he has no idea because the process was undertaken without any input from people like him. “I told Perdue this is a mistake, but he did it anyway,” Peterson said. “No one can figure out what the hell is going on.”
Peterson said U.S. steel proponents in Trump’s inner circle implemented tariffs in China and launched the trade war because they said it would revitalize the U.S. steel industry, which Peterson said has not happened. As a result of the tariffs and subsequent trade war, with the West Coast the only place for farmers to send their soybeans, he explained, “It’s shut down. The elevators are full. The trains have stopped.”
“The only reason is steel,” Peterson continued. “You had a soybean market and it disappeared. And you also had African swine flu that killed half of China’s pigs so they didn’t need the soybeans for that, either. It’s a double-whammy. That market is gone.”
Making matters worse in the bigger picture, the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC), with roots dating back to 1933 and something Peterson noted most people were likely unaware of until recently, is being used to fund the second round of MFP allocations.
The CCC allows the U.S. agriculture secretary to borrow up to $30 billion a year “as long it helps producers,” Peterson explained. “But now the (Republican) Freedom Caucus knows about it and they want to get rid of it, and the liberals like AOC and Omar heard about it, and they want to get rid of it, too,” he noted.
• Peterson said that the combination of everything happening right now in farming and related ag industries has him fearing for the future of federal farm legislation in general.
“The thing I’m really worried about, given all that’s transpired, I don’t know how we’re ever going to pass another farm bill,” he said. “The last three were real tough, but we have to live with what we’ve got.”
For two decades, Peterson said he worked to get rid of ad-hoc government payments to farmers and replacing it with a better safety net supported by a stronger crop insurance program. “And in only two years, they’ve undone everything we did,” he said. “Forty percent of farm income this year will come from the government. That’s just not going to work.”