Poor crops in Red River Valley cause farming crisis

Ingrid Skjong

For Howard Person, farm sales and foreclosures are increasingly common occurrences in his northwest Minnesota jurisdiction.
Five years of faltering incomes stemming from poor crops have virtually paralyzed the remote corner of the state, resulting in one of the worst farm crises Person, a University Extension Service agent in Pennington County, has ever seen.
“It’s extreme,” Person said. “We have farmers going bankrupt left and right.”
In an effort to hedge the losses, a task force headed by the University’s Center for Alternative Plant and Animal Products and the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture is working feverishly. The 60-member committee concluded that routinely planting a narrow group of crops over large numbers of acres caused a devastating epidemic of scab fungus, which cost Red River Valley wheat and barley growers $4.2 billion since 1992.
Scab, a fungus especially prevalent in wheat and barley, has the capability to rapidly spread from field to field. It is particularly prevalent when one crop is planted repeatedly with little rotation — hence the need for increased plant variety.
With no known method of controlling the disease, University researchers are attempting to develop a strain of scab-resistant wheat while encouraging crop diversity.
In the meantime, wheat planting has been cut by about 30 percent in the northwest region to decrease the possibility of further outbreaks, Person said.
“I think the Red River Valley is a red flag,” said Don Wyse, University agronomy professor. He added that other areas throughout the state and country could be headed for the same disastrous outcomes if crop diversity is not increased.
The situation is so dire that in March, the state Legislature allocated $8.5 million of the $1.9 billion state surplus to the northwest in emergency assistance. Farmers in 11 counties could receive $4,000 each to help cover rising insurance costs.
Although the importance of disease-resistant crops and increased variety is obvious, Wyse also stressed the importance of recognizing the connection between the health of the land and the health of the population.
The University has the potential to create powerful partnerships through the College of Agricultural, Food and Environmental Sciences and the Medical School to cover both aspects, he said. The Center for Alternative Plant and Animal Products and the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture are both part of the College of Agricultural, Food and Environmental Sciences.
While the urgency of the situation is clear, no real answers will be available for at least two years, said Tracy Sayler, a spokesman for the Minnesota Association of Wheat Growers. Better weather and crop diversity will eventually bring the situation under control, but until that time farmers need to look for alternatives.
Minnesota’s favorable agricultural conditions enable farmers to plant a wide variety of crops, and many have opted to switch to soy beans, canola or oats. But marketability quickly becomes an issue, and without an aggressive market profitability, potential is greatly reduced.
The Red River Valley could lose an estimated 20 percent of its farmers, and many are choosing to pull out now when they still have some equity. A combination of inadequate crop insurance coverage and lack of lender support is at the heart of the problem.
“Bankers are backing away from agriculture,” Person said. “It’s just too risky.”
Prior to 1995, the Federal Farm Program required farmers to plant a prescribed number of base acres — mostly corn, wheat and barley, in order to receive program payments.
Although the program, which is updated every five years, changed in 1995 to encompass a greater variety of crops, payments were cut in half — greatly reducing motivation for planting.
As the University’s task force continues to lobby on the state and national level, the gravity of the northwest’s predicament is a reminder of how bad things could get.
“Many would say it would rival the depression of the 1930s,” Sayler said.