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Like many cities in North Dakota, the local economy of Grafton is influenced by shifts in the agriculture industry. Photo taken Thursday, Nov. 9, 2017. Nick Nelson / Agweek

This Thanksgiving, Grafton is thankful for better weather for farming

GRAFTON, N.D. — Denise Moe is thankful for something she didn't see a lot of a year ago: local farm-family customers walking through her store.

"They're doing more looking than buying. But they're looking, and they weren't doing much of that last year," says Moe, who owns and operates B & D Flooring and Furniture in Grafton, N.D., with her husband, Brad.

Grafton, a farm town of 4,300 in northeast North Dakota, was hammered by excess rain in 2016. Some Grafton-area fields — like others in parts of northeast North Dakota and northwest Minnesota — received twice their normal precipitation, which cut sharply into yields and producers' bottom lines. That left farmers with less to spend at Grafton merchants — who, like other farm-town merchants, thrive or struggle along with their local ag producers.

What's more, 2016 brought exceptionally difficult harvest conditions, which inevitably generated stress and frustration in the Grafton community.

But 2017 is much different. Weather generally cooperated during the growing season, helping yields and income. And though early winter snows complicate combining the last of the corn crop, this year's harvest — especially of potatoes, a top crop in the Grafton area — has gone smoothly overall.

"This year and last year are like night and day," says Mike Sackett, proprietor of Grafton's NAPA Auto Parts store. He's been in business in Grafton since 1978.

"In '16 with all the rain — it was just so tough on farmers. And that it made it tough for everyone because our economy is 99 percent or 99.9 percent dependent on agriculture," he says.

In contrast, "This year the yields are better and the stress level is down so much," Sackett says.

Grafton is the county seat of Walsh County, population about 11,100. The county is in the heart of the Red River Valley of the North, and the Red forms the boundary between North Dakota and Minnesota.

The flat, fertile farmland in the Grafton area allows farmers to grow many crops, including sugar beets, potatoes, dry edible beans, spring wheat and canola. Potatoes, production of which Walsh County traditionally leads the state, are particularly important.

So the 2017 rebound in potato yields, combined with relatively attractive prices for the crop, are a major boost to the Grafton economy, Sackett says.

Historically and logically, farm family living expenses reflect farm profitability. When times are tough financially, farm families overall spend less on things like furniture. When financial conditions improve, farm families spend more.

But as Denise Moe notes, farm families prudently wait to spend until they have a clear grasp of how they finished the crop season financially. When they're optimistic about the outcome, they look at furniture. When that optimism gels into confidence, they buy furniture, she says.

So B & D Flooring and Furniture in particular — and Grafton merchants in general — might not see a big upturn in business until later this winter, when farm families have a better handle on their finances, Moe and Sackett say.

But the turnaround so far is heartening.

"What I really want to emphasize is how happy we are for them. Last year was just so hard on them. I'm thankful this year is better," Moe says.