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Published June 27, 2011, 07:33 PM

Fed ag officials huddle to look at 'disastrous' N.D. crop losses

It was an emergency meeting because of the record damage that may be hitting the state’s crops, what officials said in a news release “may be a disastrous year for farmers and ranchers in the state.”

By: Stephen J. Lee, Grand Forks Herald

More than a fourth of the crop acres North Dakota farmers intended to plant this spring didn’t get seeded because of flooding, and perhaps millions more acres that got planted now are drowning out after recent rains.

That’s the upshot of an emergency teleconference Monday in which federal farm officials from across North Dakota huddled to tally up how much damage this year of too-much water is doing to agricultural production.

It was an emergency meeting because of the record lack already in planted crop acres in what officials said in a news release “may be a disastrous year for farmers and ranchers in the state.”

Aaron Krauter, executive director of the federal Farm Service Agency in North Dakota, convened the meeting.

“Gov. Dalrymple has requested that we complete a damage assessment report as the initial step in the secretarial designation process,” Krauter said in a news release. “Today’s meeting lets us formalize the assessment process and makes sure that all of the USDA agencies in North Dakota are stepping forward as one to get the most accurate information possible.”

The losses promise to be bigger than any year since 1995 when “prevented planting” acres began to be counted.

In fact, well over a fourth of the acres typically planted each year to cash crops wasn’t even seeded this year, officials said Monday in a report using newly collected data. Plus, a significant slice of acres that did get planted is getting drowned out by more recent heavy rains.

Minnesota’s crops are doing better, overall, but also are behind normal because of too much rain.

An estimate compiled Monday by county farm program directors of projected “prevented planting” acres — those qualifying for a federal program when farmers can’t get the crop planted — totaled 6.3 million acres, nearly 40 percent more than the previous record of 3.9 million acres in 1999, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The 6.29 million acres, in fact, represent 22.3 percent of the total of 28.2 million crop acres in the state, if the acres put into grass and trees in the Conservation Reserve Program are included in total crop acres.

But if only the annual cash crops planted, such as wheat, corn, beans, oilseeds, spuds and sugar beets are tallied, the state’s farmers intend to plant a total of about 22.4 million acres each year. So this year’s 6.29 million acres that were prevented from being planted represent a full 28 percent of intended annual crop acres.

But the total hurt will be even bigger than that.

Recent rains have compounded injuries, drowning-out or threatening to drown out many more acres already planted, and therefore would not be counted in the prevented-planting projections.

Prevented planting is a federal program, part of the Risk Management insurance program for farmers, that subsidizes farmers when they can’t get their crop in, with payments based on average yields and crop prices, as well as premium levels paid by growers.

Once the crop is planted, other provisions of the federal crop insurance program can kick in to subsidize farmers who lose planted acres to too much rain or other natural disasters.

A look around Grand Forks County, where 2 to 5 inches of rain or more have fallen the past week, makes it clear that significant percentages of many planted fields will drown out. One Emerado, N.D., farmer said Monday that once temperatures get into the high 80s later this week, the crops will begin to show real damage as they literally starve from lack of air in super-saturated soils.

Because crop prices at local grain elevators are much higher than normal, the projected acreage losses translate into big dollar amounts of lost potential crop income.

While the prevented-plant acres in Grand Forks County are projected to be 61,000 acres, or about 10 percent of total annual cash crop acres, maybe an equal amount of planted acres will drown out, based on how things look after the last week of rains.

Terry Miller, director of the Grand Forks County FSA office, said he has no official way this early of estimating crop losses to drown-out after the recent rains. But it appears it could amount to 5 percent of planted acres, he told the Herald on Monday.

Worst hit is the northwest part of the state, where heavy snowfall last winter and excessive rain this spring created flooding in most streams and muddied fields and hills usually brown with drought by mid-summer. Six counties in that region saw only 10 percent to 56 percent of their crops planted, according to the USDA survey.

In Renville County, north of Minot and bordering Canada, only 23 percent of the county’s typical 514,000 annual crop acres got planted this year, according to the USDA projections. And some of that 23 percent later got ruined by rain.

In Divide County, in the very northwest corner of the state, only 20 percent of the county’s 462,000 acres typically planted annually to cash crops got planted.

By Sunday, the northwest corner of North Dakota has received 4 inches to 5 inches above normal precipitation since April 1, with totals of about 11 inches at several main reporting sites, including Minot; which would be about 60 percent of a full year’s normal precipitation in less than three months.

Minnesota farmers also faced rainy conditions last week, delaying herbicide spraying and keeping crops behind schedule.

The corn in Minnesota averaged 16 inches in height by Sunday, USDA reported, more than a foot shorter than the five-year average height by June 26. Soybeans averaged 5 inches high, instead of the normal 8 inches by now in Minnesota.

USDA won’t have final planted acreage figures for either state until all reporting is completed later this summer

The teleconference Monday was designed to collect information needed to possibly seek more emergency aid from Congress and the USDA, said an FSA official in Fargo.

The worst years for prevented planting in North Dakota, after this year and 1999, were 2001, with 2.1 million acres not seeded; 2009 with 1.9 million; 2010 with 1.7 million and 2004 with 1.6 million, USDA officials said Monday.