REGIONAL — Rural Worthington farmer Bill Gordon was one month into his year-long term as president of the American Soybean Association when he joined more than 200 individuals at the White House to watch as President Donald Trump signed the Phase 1 trade agreement with China on Jan. 15. The signing came during a busy month in which Gordon and the ASA celebrated a five-year extension of the Biodiesel Tax Credit, a trade agreement with Japan and signage of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement.
It was beginning to look like a good year for American agriculture, and then a global pandemic swept across the country, sending the industry into a tailspin.
By mid-April, the temporary closure of the Smithfield Foods hog processing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, had area pork producers scrambling to find ways to get their market-ready hogs to market.
“Our system is a just-in-time delivery system for the most part,” said Terry Wolters, vice president of the National Pork Producers Council and an employee of Pipestone System. Hogs are shipped out and producers have a few days to clean those barns before their next loads of pigs are delivered. Suddenly, there was a bottleneck.
Within a week of Smithfield’s announcement, the JBS pork processing facility in Worthington found itself in a similar fate — employees were getting sick from the novel coronavirus, and it was spreading through the facility. Like Smithfield, JBS announced a temporary shuttering of its facility, stranding even more producers with market-ready hogs and nowhere to go with them.
In response, Gov. Tim Walz, U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen and others appeared in a press conference at the Worthington Municipal Airport to talk about the dire situation in the region’s pork industry. It became clear that hog euthanasia would have to be implemented.
Meanwhile, around the country, dairy farmers were dumping milk and vegetable farmers were plowing up fields of market-ready produce due to lost markets due to impacts on restaurants and the food-service industry.
Locally, a hog carcass composting site was established on farmland northeast of Round Lake. From the time it opened on May 2 until it was shuttered on July 1, there were 9,120 hog carcasses delivered to the site, according to Michael Crusan, communications director for the Minnesota Board of Animal Health. The site had not had a delivery since June 2, prompting the decision to close.
By mid-June, JBS had returned to 89% of its 22,000-head-per-day capacity for processing. The plant had resumed operations May 6 at reduced capacity, roughly two weeks after it temporarily shuttered.
While the livestock sector was struggling, area crop producers finally caught a break this year with near prime conditions for planting by the middle of April.
Dusty Neugebauer of rural Bigelow began planting corn on April 21 and finished his soybean planting by the first week of May. He said soil conditions were the best he’d seen in the last four or five years.
Statewide, the Minnesota Crop Progress and Condition report published by the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service said corn planting was 20 days ahead of where it was last year, and nine days ahead of the five-year average. Soybean planting, meanwhile, was 17 days ahead of 2019 and four days ahead of average.
The early planting had farmers hopeful for a bumper crop come harvest, if Mother Nature complied with timely rains and ample growing degree days.
As the crops grew, the government was at work in May to get Coronavirus Food Assistance Program aid to farmers impacted by COVID-19, with direct payments approved for farmers and ranchers.
By July, many area farmers were watching what appeared to be a spectacular crop.
Jim Thovson, an ag consultant and owner of Independent Ag in Slayton, said the crop was far ahead of last year’s in terms of growth and maturity. Corn was in full tasseling mode a good two weeks ahead of normal, and soybeans were starting to form pods — also ahead of normal.
Of course, as Thovson (or perhaps any farmer or crop advisor) said, “It’s not in the bin yet.”
“I really believe our potential is quite large at this point,” he added.
Not every farmer could be so lucky, however.
A mid-July hail storm — some stones the size of golf balls — pummeled farm fields in a path that stretched from near Graham Lakes in Nobles County to the Iowa Great Lakes.
Rural Brewster farmer David Damm reported he had stems left for beans, and his corn fields were stripped.
While those farmers hit by hail were hoping to harvest something from their fields, the remainder of the region’s farmers saw their hopes dashed for a record-breaking harvest when Mother Nature shut off the faucet in August. The final two months of the growing season saw little in the way of moisture, impacting pod fill on soybean plants and leaving corn plants thirsty.
The early planting and the dry conditions combined for an early harvest, with farmers starting to work through their soybean fields in mid-September. Area farmers reported soybean yield averages of 60 bushels per acre, with corn averaging 190 bushels per acre.
“We’re looking at good yields, but not great,” shared Keith Newman, grain division manager at New Vision Co-op. He said the lack of moisture in August dropped yield estimates by 5% to 10%.
At harvest time, Gordon reported the U.S. was seeing a record pace in soybean sales worldwide, and China purchasing more soybeans than previously expected.