A tough year for wheat farmers: Financial, emotional challenges mounting

PARK RIVER, N.D. -- Aaron Kjelland says he's "inherently an optimist." That's a good thing, even a necessity, in modern agriculture. But it's especially important this growing season -- one that began for Kjelland with too little rain and that's ...

PARK RIVER, N.D. - Aaron Kjelland says he's "inherently an optimist." That's a good thing, even a necessity, in modern agriculture. But it's especially important this growing season - one that began for Kjelland with too little rain and that's now plagued with excess moisture, harvest delays and major quality concerns in his wheat crop.

"It's been a challenging year, that's for sure. And there are farmers who've had greater challenges than we've had," said the 38-year-old who farms with his father Orville near Park River northeastern North Dakota.

Spring wheat farmers across the Upper Midwest - producers throughout North Dakota, in much of Montana and South Dakota and in northwest Minnesota grow the crop - have struggled in 2019. Poor wheat prices, too little rain in some areas and too much in others during planting and now, during harvest, far too much precipitation have brought both financial and emotional distress.

Among the difficulties are "falling numbers," a measure of possible or potential sprout damage in wheat kernels. Unfavorable falling numbers makes wheat less attractive to millers and bakers and usually leads to discounts, or price reductions, in what farmers receive for their crop.

Upper Midwest spring wheat farmers pride themselves - and market their wheat to foreign and domestic buyers - on the high quality of their product. So any reduction in quality is troublesome and potentially costly.


"Falling numbers are definitely a concern," said Cassidy Marn, trade and marketing manager with the Montana Wheat and Barley Committee.

The name refers to a test in which the grain is ground into meal, water added, then mixed with a stirrer and heated. The falling number is the number of seconds it takes for the stirrer to fall to the bottom of the test tube. The less time it takes for the stirrer to fall to the bottom, the greater the potential damage to the wheat.

Rain and high humidity after wheat kernels reach maturity contribute to falling numbers, though the causes aren't fully understood, said Kjelland, who represents northeast North Dakota on the North Dakota Wheat Commission.

Stress and depression from poor prices, quality reductions and harvest delays are a growing worry, too.

"The mood is getting very depressed," said Charlie Vogel, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Wheat Growers.

But there's a silver lining. Some farmers - ones who were able to plant and harvest at least part of their wheat on schedule - enjoyed both good yields and good quality.

In Montana, for example, yields generally have been good, despite harvest delays, most of them in the north-central and northeast parts of the state, Marn said.

Wheat is a cool-season grass, allowing it to fare well in the relatively cool summer of 2019, Kjelland said. He enjoyed above-average yields this year, though falling numbers are a major concern for him.


"We're not quite sure how it will work out for price and quality," he said.

Unfortunately, widespread rains in late August and the first half of September hampered harvest, complicating combining fields with potentially above-average yields.

When Agweek visited Kjelland's farm in September, about a third of his wheat crop remained in the fields.

He had finished his wheat by the time this article was going to print, even though his area had received another 2 inches of rain in the meantime.

"We pushed a lot harder than we usually do and combined some wheat that was much wetter than usual. But we saw the 10-day forecast and decided to get it done, if at all possible," he said.


The statistics say ...

Spring wheat harvest delays are common this fall. The U.S. Department of Agriculture gives these "usual" dates for the spring wheat harvest, as well as the harvest pace as of Sept. 15 this year:


Montana: Typically, spring wheat harvest begins July 30, is most active Aug. 7 through Sept. 6 and is wrapped up, or nearly so, by Sept. 13. As of Sept. 15 this year, just 69 percent of the crop was harvested.

Minnesota: Generally, spring wheat harvest begins July 30, is most active Aug. 5 through Sept. 9 and wraps up, or nearly so, by Sept. 13. As of Sept. 15 this year, 83 percent of the crop was harvested.

North Dakota: Typically, spring wheat harvest begins Aug. 1, is most active Aug. 8 through Sept. 12 and wraps up, or nearly so, by Sept. 25. As of Sept. 15 this year, 73 percent of the crop was combined.

South Dakota: Generally, spring wheat harvest begins July 20, is most active July 27 through Aug. 20 and is finished, or nearly so, by Aug. 25. As of Sept. 15 this year, 96 percent of the crop was harvested.

As Kjelland pointed out, the days are getting shorter and generally cooler, making it harder for wet grain in fields to dry. Also, "the dew stays longer (in the morning) and comes earlier in the evening," which also hampers harvest, he said.


'No break in the clouds'

Though many area wheat farmers have been hurt by uncooperative weather this growing season, South Dakota producers may have been hit particularly hard.


The wet fall of 2018 hindered planting winter wheat, a relatively prominent crop in the state, said Reid Christopherson, executive director of the South Dakota Wheat Commission. Winter wheat is planted in the fall, goes dormant during winter and then begins growing again in the spring.

That was followed by unusually wet conditions in the spring of this year, hampering and delaying spring wheat planting, he said.

Exceptionally wet weather this fall - some areas in South Dakota have received 10 inches or more of precipitation - further snarls what was already a late harvest season, he said.

"It's been one thing after another with no break in the clouds," Christopherson said.


Falling numbers

In theory, wheat hurt by falling numbers can be blended with wheat that hasn't been affected, potentially avoiding discounts. In practice, however, it's really not feasible to do so, Vogel said.

According to information from North Dakota State University extension agronomist Joel Ransom: "Blending grain with low FN (falling numbers) with sound grain can be risky because the relationship is not linear, but exponential, and it is difficult to predict what the FN of the blended grain might be."


He gives the hypothetical example of blending sound grain with a FN of 350 and damaged grain with a FN of 250. Doing so wouldn't result in the mixed grain having a falling number of 300, but potentially 270 - making the entire mixture subject to discounts.

Farmers with wheat hurt by falling numbers face difficult questions involving marketing, storage and insurance, Vogel said.

He encouraged Minnesota wheat farmers to contact the state wheat growers association. "We don't have all the answers, but we'll do everything we can to help you," Vogel said.


Mental health

Poor crop prices, harvest delays and falling-number discounts are leading to widespread stress and even depression among farmers, Vogel and Christopherson said.

Commodity prices are inherently cyclical and eventually will bounce back. But the need to safeguard farmers' mental health is real and immediate, Christopherson said.

Both he and Vogel urged farmers struggling with stress to reach out to friends, relatives or someone else.


"Just find somebody to talk with," Christopherson said.


Still committed to wheat

Kjelland is harvesting his 14th crop. Though he once planned to be a lawyer, the lure of the family farm drew him back to Park River.

"Some of the land I'm farming has been farmed by my family for 125 years. I'm farming around yards where my great-grandparents lived," he said.

Kjelland raises wheat, corn, soybeans, canola and pinto beans, as well as cattle. Just under half of the cropland goes into wheat.

His land and geographic area are well-suited for wheat, so he plans to stick with that nearly 50% allocation to wheat. "This land just likes to grow wheat," he said.

He hasn't harvested any other crops this fall, but plans to at least try harvesting canola in late September.

Though the wet fall has been frustrating, he's determined that farm safety remains the top priority. "We don't want to make poor decisions that lead to someone getting hurt," he said.

And this self-described optimist tries hard to keep a positive long-term perspective, despite current difficulties.

"I look at my career as the next few decades, knowing that things are a cycle. This is a short-term frustration," he said.

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