Minnesota Senate convenes hearing at University of Minnesota Crookston.
They’ve been reading about it and hearing about it and seeing the photos and videos for weeks, this “perfect storm” that had unprecedented September and October rains followed by an early snow storm and then frigid temps that froze the fields solid and made the fall harvest of sugar beets, potatoes and soybeans difficult and often impossible.
But on Friday, members of the finance and policy divisions of the Minnesota Senate Agriculture, Rural Development and Housing Committee, at a hearing they convened in Crookston, put some faces and actual voices in UMN Crookston’s Bede Ballroom with all of the bad news they’ve been digesting over the past several weeks.
Perhaps East Grand Forks farmer Rhonda Larson best captured the harvest struggles that she told the legislators actually began with the grain harvest. The crop was looking great until an extended run of cool, wet weather right at harvest time led to the phenomenon known as “falling numbers.” In the simplest terms, by the time much of the grain was harvested, its quality was greatly diminished. To put an image in the minds of those who don’t know what falling numbers are all about, Larson said that if you see a loaf of bread and the slices have a lot of holes in them, it’s due to falling numbers in the grain.
On top of that, she said, there were unable to get a single sugar beet out of the ground on their farm after the pre-pile harvest because of flooded fields (and they’ll have to pay American Crystal Sugar $343 per unharvested acre). Larson did add that they were going to be finishing their soybean harvest on Friday, but only because the ground is rock-solid and they’re able to drive heavy equipment on it without getting stuck.
The numbers are pretty simple to get your arms around: Around a third of sugar beet acres in the Red River Valley remain in the ground and will not be harvested, and around half of the various edible potatoes, of which the Red River Valley is the nation’s biggest supplier, also will not be harvested.
“We need your help, any help you can give us,” Larson said, adding that her crops are insured to a predetermined percentage, but that will only lessen their losses.
District 1 State Sen. Mark Johnson (R-East Grand Forks) stressed that the crop insurance story needs to be told to whose who don’t know the “nuances” of the coverage that’s actually available. “People say, ‘Oh, farmers have insurance, they’ll be fine,’” Johnson said. “But there’s more to it than that.”
Howard Olson of AgCountry Farm Credit Services in Fargo testified along with Crookston AgCountry representatives Kristie Ricard and Chrissa Luckow. Olson said “cash flows” on the farm have been “under considerable stress” since 2013. The tariffs and subsequent trade war and the disastrous 2019 harvest are going to add a great deal to that financial stress, Olson said, as well as many other types of on-the-farm stress.
Olson said farmers’ working capital over the past seven years has been reduced and they’ve rebalanced their debt numerous times, and that was all before the 2019 harvest added insult to injury. Projections this year and in 2020 look “very tough,” he said, the trade war’s impact likely won’t ease, markets might be lost for good, and the formula combining growing debt on the farm with decreasing cash flow is not sustainable.
The federal government’s Market Facilitation Program payments – the next round totals $16 billion – to help growers across the country deal with losses attributable to the trade war, “Will help,” Olson said, “but they might not make a difference between (farmers) staying in or getting out.”
“We will stay engaged and we will do what we can,” said committee co-chair State Sen. Torrey Westrom, a Republican from Elbow Lake.