Southeast Minnesota farmers take a hit in 2013

The catchphrase is “prior planning prevents poor performance.”  In 2013, southeast Minnesota farmers found out that Mother Nature can have plans of her own.

 

Southeast Minnesota farmers saw a banner year in 2012, with the growing season producing bumper crops.  In 2013, farmers saw a complete 180-degree turn for the worse, and the area is still feeling the effects as farmers look to the upcoming growing season, when they get back into the farm fields that help produce our nation’s food supply.

 

2013 started poorly

 

Lisa Behnken is a Regional Extension Educator in Crops with the University of Minnesota Extension Office in Rochester, and she said 2013 saw a very slow, wet start to the season.  When spring did finally begin to wake up, the first problem area farmers saw hit the livestock industry particularly hard.

 

Lisa Behnken of the U of Mn Extension office, Rochester (Extension Photo)

Lisa Behnken of the U of Mn Extension office, Rochester (Extension Photo)

“The first thing that hit people was the alfalfa,” said Behnken. “We had a massive alfalfa winterkill.”  She said roughly 50 to 90 percent of a farmer’s acres died.  This alfalfa is a prime source of feed for the beef and dairy cattle industries, and farmers were in a tough spot.  Behnken called it the first “big, red flag of the spring.”

 

A wet spring delays planting

 

Behnken said farmers took the winterkill into consideration heading into spring planting, and rearranged some plans to include re-seeding of alfalfa, but here came the next challenge:

 

2013 was hard on livestock farmers because of alfalfa winterkill

2013 was hard on livestock farmers because of alfalfa winterkill

Southeast Minnesota saw a very wet spring.  Behnken looked back at the calendar as May 2 saw an estimated 15 to 20 inches of “heavy, wet snow” blanket the region.  “It turned cold, and the snow just stayed in the fields.  There was virtually no window to plant in the month of May.”

 

She estimated farmers saw a very small window to plant in mid-May, when a few fields opened up.  Farmers were able to plant a few fields of corn into the dead alfalfa stands, but there was still manure and fertilizer to get down on empty fields, and it was “a lot to do in a very small window,” said Behnken.

 

To plant or not to plant

 

May 31 was the deadline for farmers to decide on taking payments for prevented planting acreage, or to keep forging ahead to try to get corn in the ground, and it was a tough decision for everyone, but especially for livestock farmers.  Behnken said the livestock farmers “needed feed for their animals.  They had to plant.”

 

June 15 led to another tough decision for farmers – whether or not to plant soybeans or take prevented planting

payments to help cover some of their farming costs.  “Acres were still under water in mid-June.  It’s not like they were going to dry out if we had many sunny days in a row.  They were simply not plantable.”

To plant or not to plant?  A tough decision for many farmers in 2013 (photo from nebraskacorn.org)

To plant or not to plant? A tough decision for many farmers in 2013 (photo from nebraskacorn.org)

 

Livestock producers weren’t the only ones who needed to produce grain.  Grain farmers who had forward contracted their crops owed bushels to their local elevators.  Farmers who had contracts with ethanol plants had to come up with bushels as well for the plants to use in their production.

 

June fields were very muddy, very sticky, and “it was very tough planting conditions,” according to Behnken.  As a result, southeast Minnesota farmers were still planting well into July.

 

An aphid explosion in August

 

“As the weather began to change, warming up in the third week of August, we saw soybean aphid populations explode,” said Behnken. “It’s probably the worst case I’ve seen, in terms of numbers and the speed at which populations grew.”

 

Soybean aphids (U of Mn Extension file photo)

Soybean aphids (U of Mn Extension file photo)

“If you weren’t out scouting your fields and following good IPM practices when you reach the threshold for spraying, you took a big yield hit.”  Soybeans were at least two stages behind normal growth rate, and that made the hit even worse.

 

Behnken was at a field day in early September when soybean damage was at it’s worst, and saw many bean fields that were literally black in color.  “Soybean aphids defecate excessive plant sap, called honeydew, that drips onto the lower leaves.  A black to gray mold may then colonize the honeydew, turning the surface of the leaf a dark gray.  In severe infestations, the field will take on a very dark cast.  The mold then covers the green areas of the leaf, interrupting photosynthesis, and reducing plant growth.”

 

Behnken said some farmers walked away from their fields when they saw this.  “Some farmers began to throw up their hands, understandably, and say to themselves, enough.”  Several farmers weren’t going to put any more money into their bean fields, especially since it was planted late to begin with, and they weren’t sure the returns would make up for the cost of producing the damaged crop.

 

Better harvest than expected

 

Harvest was a challenge as well.  The weather was cool, which led to “very poor drying conditions in the field,” said Behnken.  She called it a very nasty harvest season.  “It was going to be late, which we expected because we planted late.”  She offered silage as an example, which she said was chopped six weeks later than normal.

 

To exacerbate the poor drying conditions, southeast Minnesota farmers had to deal with a shortage of propane for their dryers.

 

“Our yields were…okay.  For most producers, we were pleasantly surprised that we came up with an average

Corn harvest (photo courtesy of indianagrain.com)

Corn harvest (photo courtesy of indianagrain.com)

yield,” said Behnken.  She estimated the average corn yield for the area at 150 bushels per acre, with extremes on either side of that number depending upon how much snow landed on each farm field.  “A few fields in the area did go over 200 bushels, but that was the exception.”

 

Many soybean yields came in at roughly 40 bushels per acre.  Between 40 and 55 bushels per acre is considered a pretty good year.  There were extremes as well, with “some farmers harvesting only 20 bushels per acre off their fields.  Overall, it was a modest harvest, definitely not a bin buster.”

 

Turn the calendar

 

Behnken said the Extension Service is encouraging farmers to turn the page to the New Year, but not to forget the lessons learned from a rough 2013.

 

“Let’s learn the positive lessons.  There’s going to be a weed seed bank out there.  There are going to be pest issues because some spraying last year simply didn’t get done in time.

 

“Did we do anything with our fields that would cause soil compaction issues as we get set for spring planting?”

 

She said farmers in the area did learn a lot about cover crops, which could be very beneficial to soil health in the years to come.

 

2013 was a legitimately bad year for most, and she said “it’s time to turn the page.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fighting for the little guy on the family farm

 

“Nothing gets done without politics.”  Not exactly what you’d expect to hear from a 4th generation farmer, but it’s a philosophy that Minnesota Farmers Union President Doug Peterson has lived by his entire life.  He’s using that philosophy on a relentless campaign to improve the lives of farmers in Minnesota, and across the country.

 

Doug Peterson at a recent FarmFest near Redwood Falls, promoting agriculture at the Farmers Union booth (photo by: Mn Farmers Union)

Doug Peterson at a recent FarmFest near Redwood Falls, promoting agriculture at the Farmers Union booth (photo by: Mn Farmers Union)

Growing up on the farm:

Doug grew up on his father’s 300-acre farm south of Madison, Minnesota.  After his birth in 1948, he attended a one-room schoolhouse.  He spent a lot of his early childhood years at Farmers Union county meetings, where his father was the county President.  Some of his earliest memories at those meetings include “sitting in mom’s lap and riding on dad’s shoulders.”

 

A family of his own:

Doug is married to Elly Peterson, his high school sweetheart, who he began dating in ninth grade.  They have two sons, Aaron, who’s a lobbyist, and Ryan, a virologist who conducts stem cell research at Cornell University.

After graduating from Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where he played college football for four years, the family settled in to life at Glencoe, Minnesota, where Doug worked as an art teacher and football coach for ten years.

 

Back to the Farm:

Doug returned to the family’s 300-acre farm soon after his father passed away from cancer in 1978.  He planted his first crops on the farm in 1981, and farmed actively until 2000.  He also worked full time as a teacher in the Canby and Montevideo school districts. It was during this stretch that he began his foray into politics.

 

Off to the state Capitol:

Doug was elected to the Minnesota State Legislature in 1990.  It was there that he gained “very valuable legislative experience,” according to Minnesota Farmers Union Vice President Gary Wertish.  Doug accomplished a lot during his time in state government.  One of his biggest accomplishments was authoring a bill mandating the use of 10 percent ethanol in every gallon of gas dispensed in Minnesota, a law that is still in effect today.

 

The Farmers Union comes calling:               Farmers Union Logo                        

After serving in the Minnesota Legislature for 12 years, Doug was elected President of the Minnesota Farmers Union, a job he’s held since then.   Doug describes Farmers Union’s main purposes as Legislative and Educational.

 

His knowledge of how to play the political game is very valuable, as Farmers Union spends a lot of time at the Minnesota State Capitol, as well as Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., advocating for policies that aid farmers in doing their jobs as efficiently as possible.  Farmers Union Vice President Wertish said Doug’s political experience and personal connections have proven invaluable as they make the rounds in state and national government offices.

 

Doug Peterson speaking with a reporter during a Farmers Union Fly-In campaign to Washington, D.C. (Photo by Mn Farmers Union)

Doug Peterson speaking with a reporter during a Farmers Union Fly-In campaign to promote agriculture in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Mn Farmers Union)

 

 They’re having some success at the process.  According to the North Carolina College of Ag and Life Sciences website, farmers, as a mere 2 percent of the population, produce food so efficiently that they feed the nation, and still export close to 100 billion dollars worth of their products too.

Peterson said Farmers Union is on a mission to educate the non-farming public on just what it is farmers do to produce the food on their dining room table.  He said “98 percent of our population is getting further and further removed from having direct access to any kind of farm or farming practices.”  That results in a lot of misconceptions about farming.

Clearing up the confusion on farming:

He said the biggest misconception the non-farm public has, is just how much money it takes to farm.

“If it cost you 400 dollars an acre to plant a crop, and you farm 1,000 acres, you’re looking at 400,000 dollars to plant a crop in a single year.  Most people I know don’t have that kind of money sitting in the bank somewhere as liquid assets.”

File photo of a family farmer at work (photo by Mn Farmers Union)

File photo of a family farmer at work (photo by Mn Farmers Union)

Government farm safety net payments have long raised the ire of non-farmers when it comes to agricultural practices, and Peterson said, “show me other major public investments that don’t have some kind of subsidy.  Things like roads, bridges, airlines, schools, and hospitals always have some kind of governmental help.  New businesses rarely build a new road to their place on their own.”

Farming has changed a great deal in the last few decades.  Most of the off-farm public have no idea that computers are now driving tractors.  The Farm Bill now creates roughly 16 million jobs around the country.  The average dollar spent in the farm sector turns over in the economy 7 times, according to Peterson.  In other sectors of the economy, the dollar turns over a mere two times.

 

Agriculture brings a lot to the table in the nation’s economy.  Peterson said they can’t ever quit bringing that fact to the attention of state and national legislators, and just as importantly, to the American public as well.

 

Minnesota Farmers Union 2012 Year in review: