2018: Year of tariffs, year without a fall
Upper Midwest agriculture is a heady brew of weather, crop and livestock prices, politics, personalities and more. Every new year brings both similarities and differences to what's happened in the past. And, over time, the years tend to run together.
But two things made 2018 particularly memorable for area agriculturalists:
President Donald Trump's controversial and still-to-be resolved trade policies, especially his renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement and get-tough-with-China trade war, generated intense, passionate reaction. Supporters say the president is trying to fix major inequities in trade relations. Critics say Trump is hurting U.S. ag exports and further weakens already-poor farm profitability. Whatever your view, there's no disagreement that Trump's policies were a big deal indeed in ag circles.
Winter's early and fierce arrival in much of the region also was remarkable. Heavy snows, as early as Oct. 10 in places, reduced yields and complicated harvest for many farmers.
2018: The year of the tariffs, the year without a fall.
Here's a quick, month-by-month look at Upper Midwest agriculture in 2018:
• Opioid addiction in rural America draws more attention. So does the danger of farmer suicide.
• The high-profile bankruptcy case of McM, a large farm based at St. Thomas, N.D., continues to wind its way through the legal system.
• Retired farmers Danny and Sherry Zirnhelt of Forman, N.D., successfully appeal a Conservation Reserve Program contract program dispute to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Appeals Division.
• Land values continue to slip across much of the region, reflecting poor crop prices and and farm profitability.
• The Trump administration unveils its "Harvest Box" program to replace the Supplemental Nutritional Association Program. But the proposal draws heavy criticism, both in and out of agriculture and across the political spectrum, and quickly disappears.
• Concern grows that U.S.-China trade issues will hurt exports of U.S. ag products, particularly to China. Worries rise as grain prices tumble, further threatening the already shaky outlook for ag profitability.
• A new USDA report finds that family farms still account for the vast majority of U.S. food production.
• A late spring means no-go on early planting for most farmers. But the consensus view is that farmers still have plenty of time to get in their crops.
• Trump announces his support for year-round sales of E15 (15 percent ethanol, 85 percent gasoline). Later in the year, he officially directs the Environmental Protection Agency to allow such sales. Midwest ag interests generally support the change, while oil companies and some environmentalists oppose it.
• Continued cool weather slows planting and results in late-planted fields at greater risk of early fall frost. But spring moisture eases drought concerns.
• On the lighter side, a mysterious " large wolf-like creature" — shot on a ranch near Denton, Mont. — garners nationwide attention. There's speculation that "the creature" may be an unusual bear or even, believe it or not, a relative of Bigfoot. DNA testing later reveals that the animal is merely a wolf from the northern Rocky Mountains.
• Generally cooperative weather — both timely rains and warmer temperatures — boosts Upper Midwest crops, "pushing" crop maturity and helping healthy plant development.
• A USDA study reinforces what most in U.S. agriculture already know: Public-sector spending on ag research continues to decline, threatening the ability of farmers and ranchers to become more productive and supply more food to the world's growing population.
• The use of dicamba remains controversial, with farmers and others often disagreeing sharply on its benefits and detriments.
• Parts of a South Dakota tractor that had been swooped up by a tornado are found days later in Montana, yet another reminder of nature's power.
• Precipitation is scarce in much of the region, cutting into potential crop yields. But timely rains in some areas allow crops there to flourish.
• A proposed Devils Lake, N.D., hog farm generates controversy. The proposal reveals sharp divisions, even in the agricultural Upper Midwest, over large-scale confinement livestock projects.
• Dry conditions that began in July persist in some areas, with once-promising row crops continuing to deteriorate.
• The area's wheat harvest goes well, with farmers reporting excellent yields and high quality overall. The good wheat crop, in combination with weak soybean prices, leads to talk that more wheat and fewer soybeans will be planted in 2019.
• USDA announces the Market Facilitation Program, which will give federal payments to farmers hurt what USDA terms "trade damage from unjustified retaliation by foreign nations." Implementation of the program later runs into a number of snags.
• Palmer amaranth — an exceptionally dangerous weed — is officially confirmed for the first time in North Dakota. The weed already had been found in Minnesota and South Dakota.
• San Francisco jurors award $289 million — a judge later cuts the amount to $78 million — to a man they say got cancer from Monsanto's Roundup weedkiller. Monsanto appeals the judgment.
• The United States-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement — aka USMCA, NAFTA 2.0 and the new NAFTA — is approved by negotiators. The agreement, which still needed Congressional approval at year's end, partially reassures U.S. farmers and ranchers concerned about the possible loss of ag exports to Mexico and Canada. U.S. dairy producers and wheat farmers, who say parts of NAFTA were unfair, welcome changes in the new trade pact.
• The region's row crop harvest gets under way, with mixed results that largely reflect the amount of precipitation that individual fields received in July and August.
• Wet, heavy snow falls in parts of the region, effectively ending fall and bringing an early winter. The snow hampers harvest, especially for soybean producers, since their crop is close to the ground.
• But some parts of the region avoid early winter and harvest excellent crops, reflecting timely rains earlier in the growing season.
• President Donald Trump's controversial trade policies play a major role in the fall election, at least in agricultural states.
• The election brings the defeat of some moderate members of Congress, leading to concern that a more polarized Congress could complicate life for agriculturalists. But with the Democrats regaining control of the House, Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., generally considered a moderate, is slated to again become chairman of the House Ag Committee.
• Still more snow and cold continue to complicate harvest, which at times proceeds with almost glacial slowness.
• Interest picks up in South Dakota to update current laws to tax land owners on the highest and best use of agricultural land.
• A tragic, terrible reminder that production agriculture is dangerous: Katie Vilmo of Ada, Minn., is killed after being pinned by a hay baler. She is survived by a 3-month-old daughter and husband, Mike Vilmo. A GoFundMe page is set up to help the family with medical costs at www.gofundme.com/in-honor-of-katie-vilmo-and-family.
• Jerry Hennessey, manager of the Ashby (Minn.) Farmers Elevator Cooperative, turns himself into federal authorities after formal charges are filed. He's accused of using millions of dollars of elevator funds to help pay for big-game hunting trips. The case generates interest in the proper role of cooperatives' boards of directors.
• Details emerge about Hunter Hanson, a 21-year-old North Dakota entrepreneur who customers say failed to pay for more than $5 million in grain handled through his grain handling businesses in Devils Lake, N.D.
• Many in U.S. agriculture, including the cattle industry, increasingly worry that U.S. ag exports will suffer because of tariff advantages enjoyed by Australia, Canada and several other top competitors.
• After months of uncertainty, agreement on a new U.S. farm bill — the centerpiece of U.S. food and agricultural policy — is finally reached. Trump signs it into law Dec. 20.