MINNEAPOLIS — Farmers in northwest Minnesota need emergency assistance to deal with difficult — if not impossible — harvest conditions, Gov. Tim Walz wrote in a letter to the secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The first-term governor said after visiting farmers in East Grand Forks who described the situation as "unprecedented" and "catastrophic" he submitted the request to free up disaster loan funds for farmers in need. In North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota, farmers faced spring flooding that delayed planting as well as record rain and snow in October that prevented or delayed harvest or destroyed crops.
After surveying the damage, Walz asked for a disaster designation to be issued for Becker, Clay, Kittson, Lake of the Woods, Mahnomen, Marshall, Norman, Pennington, Polk, Red Lake, Roseau and Wilkin counties in an effort to "triage" damage. Wet weather in the area made fields unworkable and impassible. And some crops molded in the fields, while others, like sugar beets and potatoes became lodged in frozen soil.
“It’s not a fix but it might provide some of that safety net to kind of soften the blow a little bit,” Walz told reporters on Thursday, Nov. 7.
To be eligible for the emergency declaration, 30% of a crop must be lost. USDA officials were beginning to assess the damage Thursday and said they were close to determining whether North Dakota's emergency assistance would be declared.
"Our disaster programs are just to soften the blow. They do not make everybody whole their losses and they don't always fit every situation," Bill Northey, USDA undersecretary of farm production and conservation, told reporters. "We want to be able to make sure they're fitting as many situations considering those producers are in really challenging financial times right now."
Northey met with Walz on Thursday afternoon and spoke to a group of farm and food industry leaders in Minneapolis. He was set to visit northwestern Minnesota and North Dakota on Friday and Saturday to assess the damage to crops.
"I want to hear from producers the challenges they're facing," Northey said. "We'll get to some farms, we'll have a couple town hall meetings in Minnesota and North Dakota."
Northey said news about North Dakota emergency assistance declarations would likely come in the next week. Consideration for Minnesota's requests would take a week or more.
Steve Linder, an Oklee farmer, said he'd been able to get his wheat harvested early, but soybeans proved to be a challenge with mud in the fields. He said he'd likely wait until spring to harvest his corn.
The 64 year old said he was glad to hear agriculture officials were considering declaring the emergency conditions in Minnesota but didn't know if freeing up low-interest loans was the right answer.
"That's kind of a mixed blessing," he said, noting that it could require several additional loans to pay back the disaster loan. "It's better than nothing, I guess."
Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen said he expected farmers that had slipped by in getting operating loans in recent years might not be so lucky this year and he said the administration was beginning conversations with ag lenders about what help they might be able to provide.
"It was hard this year, the last two years it's been hard and farmers would call and tell me, 'I'm not going to get my operating loans this year.' And then they'd skate by," Petersen said. "I have no idea how some of the farmers are going to do it this year."
Without the crops, there could be a small supply of seed potatoes in the Red River Valley for next year's planting and a shortage of sugar beets for sugar beet processors in the area. Petersen said southwest Minnesota counties that grow sugar beets could also be put forward for federal disaster assistance.
State Rep. Deb Kiel, R-Crookston, said half of her family's sugar beets had gone unharvested due to the freeze. The typically reliable crop became anything but this year, Kiel said.
"It's like making a nice dinner, putting a lot of effort into it and then throwing it into the garbage," she said. "To walk away from all that work, it just feels like it's not done."
Minnesota lawmakers earlier this year also approved additional funding to double state-funded mental health counseling services for farmers and their families through the Minnesota State College system. And the state has made available farm advocates that can provide free financial advice to farmers.
Mental health and stress management resources
Minnesota Farm and Rural Helpline — (833) 600-2670 ext. 1
Mental Health and Family Services Line — 1-800-FARM-AID
Ted Matthews, rural mental health counselor — (320) 266-2390
Mental Health Minnesota — text "MN" to 741741