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Cattle graze in Morton County, N.D., on Aug. 1, 2017. The area is among a portion of the state in exceptional drought. (Jenny Schlecht/Agweek)

2017 in agriculture: Drought, dicamba and more

It was the year of drought and dicamba, and of a new president who promised sweeping change in trade and regulatory policy.

It was the year of weeds and wildlifes, and of the epic fail of a prominent North Dakota farm.

It was the year of mixed crop yields and multi-million-dollar projects, and of challenges old and new.

Here's a look back at 2017 state, regional and national agricultural highlights:

January

• U.S. agriculturalists wonder whether President Donald Trump fully understands the importance of ag exports.

• Overall farmland rental rates and land values continue to decline, though prices in some areas hold steady or inch higher.

• U.S. organic farmers increasingly worry about fraudulent imports — foreign-produced food that's brought into America under the organic label, but doesn't always adhere to U.S. organic standards.

February

• St. Thomas, N.D.-based McM, one of the state's biggest high-value crop farms, files for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. The epic fail sends shockwaves throughout the area, especially northeast North Dakota.

• Plans for a $240 million soybean meal, oil and biodiesel plant in Spiritwood, N.D., are announced. The plant would use an estimated 125,000 bushels of soybeans per day. 

• Titan Machinery, based in West Fargo, N.D., says it's closing 15 dealerships in Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Iowa.

March

• The rising cost of health care insurance increasingly worries self-employed farmers and ranchers, as well as many ag businesses that provide it to employers.

• Farmers, agronomists and applicators prepare to use a new dicamba formulation. But widespread problems from it develop later in the growing season, leading to crop damage and hard feelings among farmers.

Minnesota's buffer strip law — which requires landowners to establish and maintain buffers along public water tributaries and drainage ditches — generates more confusion and controversy. Farmers and others seek clarity for the rest of the year.

April

• Sonny Perdue is confirmed as the new U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. His experience in politics, business and science (he once was a veterinarian) wins widespread praise in ag circles. But there's concern about the unusually slow pace of filling top U.S. Department of Agriculture posts that remain vacant.

• Pulse crops — increasingly popular with consumers at home and abroad — generate more attention in eastern Montana, where the climate is well suited to pulses.

May

• Planting generally gets off to a good start, though some areas are hit with uncooperative weather.

• A major new study concludes that gluten-free diets could hurt the health of people who don't have celiac disease.

• The Trump administration officially begins its effort to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada. Upper Midwest agriculture supports updating and modernizing NAFTA, but worries that U.S. ag exports  could suffer.

June

Planting wraps up, or nearly so. Drought worsens, especially in the western Dakotas and Montana.

• Farm group leaders are predictably pleased when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency files an official proposal to withdraw the controversial Waters of the United States rule.

July

Drought intensifies in the Upper Midwest. Some veteran agriculturalists say conditions are the worst they remember. The Lodgepole Complex Fires in eastern Montana destroy pasture and hayland. Ranchers in drought-stricken areas come to eastern North Dakota to hay CRP land.

• A proposed $6 million sow barn near Devils Lake, N.D., draws opposition. A state decision on whether to allow the plant is expected in early 2018.

• Ag groups continue advance behind-the-scenes work on 2018 farm bill.

August

• Upper Midwest agriculturalists — on a Nebraska bus trip organized by North Dakota State University — learn more about Palmer amaranth. The extremely dangerous weed, which already infests some Nebraska fields, is making its way north.

• Rain! Much-needed precipitation in parts of the region weakens, but doesn't end, drought.

September

Dakota Plains Ag Center holds the grand opening for its new $40 million grain facility near Yankton, S.D. It's one of the largest grain terminals in southeast South Dakota and opens up new export markets. Dakota Plains photo

• The North Dakota Supreme Court upholds the state Health Department's decision to issue a permit for a controversial 9,000-head hog farm in western Cass County.

• Montana officials say more than 30 large wildfires are still burning across the state. Drought-induced fires already have burned more than 1 million acres and done more than $300 million in damage.

• Beef Products Inc., a South Dakota meat processor, sets up a $10 million fund to help former employees and communities affected by the plants it closed in 2012. The company had sued ABC News for calling its top-selling product "pink slime," which BPI said led to the plants closing.

October

• Row-crop harvest moves along. Yields are mixed, reflecting varying summer rainfall across the region Northeast North Dakota, which suffered from too much rain in 2016, enjoys good yields, in part due to subsoil moisture left from the previous year.

• The new $18 million North Dakota State University Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory starts operations — a strengthened frontline defense for the region's livestock industry. Photo of lab

November

• Minnesota state government holds public meetings on legislation that restricts public ditch mowing. The controversy reflects differing urban and rural perspectives.

Cattle prices hold up relatively well. Ranchers who didn't need to buy expensive hay likely will be profitable for the year. 

Harvest wraps up, or virtually so. Overall yields are better than many expected, given widespread drought.

December

• Budget pressures continue at the North Dakota State University extension service. One proposal could cause six counties in the state to lose their own extension offices.

Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative, based in Wahpeton, N.D., announces another big sugar beet crop and per-ton payments at profitable levels. American Crystal Sugar Co., based in Moorhead, Minn., reports a good crop and improved payments, too. American Crystal also says it's spending $100 million over four or more years to expand its Drayton, N.D., processing plant.

• Ag groups generally applaud passage of the new federal tax bill.

• A 79-foot-tall Christmas tree — provided by USDA — is lit on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol. The Engelmann Spruce comes from the Kootenai National Forest in northwest Montana; it's decorated with handmade ornaments from different parts of the state.

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