Farmers off to a strong start

NELSON COUNTY, N.D. -- Farmers and others involved in production agriculture in North Dakota's Nelson County are much more optimistic this spring than they were a year ago.

Lake Region Grain Cooperative
This is the Lake Region Grain Cooperative in Lakota, N.D. Crops in the area are coming along nicely, though more rain is needed. (John Brose, Special to Agweek)

NELSON COUNTY, N.D. -- Farmers and others involved in production agriculture in North Dakota's Nelson County are much more optimistic this spring than they were a year ago.

"It's just been a lot better spring as far as getting in the crop," says Richard Barta, station manager of Dahlen (N.D.) Farmers Elevator & Oil Co. in Petersburg, N.D.

Most farmers in the county were just beginning to plant in the middle of May a year ago, when fields were extremely wet. This spring has been dry and early, so most farmers in the county were finished, or nearly so, by the week of May 21.

Fledging crops look good, but rain is needed, say people who talked with Agweek.

That's a big change from the past few years.


Nelson County, in north-central North Dakota with Grand Forks to the east and Devils Lake to the west, has struggled in recent years from excess moisture. The Sheyenne River snakes through the southern end of the county, and flooding from it has cut into planted acreage. In the western end of the county, the rising waters of Devils Lake have pushed up neighboring Stump Lake as well. Expanding sloughs have been a problem across the county.

Two other observations on Nelson County:

• Farmers grow a variety of crops, with no particular crop standing out. Nelson ranks 25th statewide in spring wheat, 15th in canola, 18th in soybeans, 28th in corn and ninth in dry edible beans. It also ranks 46th in cattle and 37th in sheep. All the numbers, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service, are for 2010, the most recent year for which the statistics are available.

• The average age of farmers in the county was 61.4 years, the oldest such age in the region, according to a 2007 survey by USDA. Anecdotal evidence indicates the average age of Nelson County farmers has fallen since then, with strong farm prices attracting more young producers.

Here's what three people involved in production agriculture in Nelson County said to Agweek during a swing through the county on May 21:

Hoping for more rain

LAKOTA -- Planting in the Lakota area is mostly finished and crops are looking good, says Rick Schmidt, agronomy manager with Lake Region Grain Cooperative here.

"Farmers are pretty happy right now," he says.


Many farmers were wrapping up planting in mid-May, roughly the same time they began planting a year ago.

"This spring is just a lot better," he says.

Traditionally, spring wheat has been the top crop in acreage in his area. In 2010, Nelson County farmers planted 107,000 acres of spring wheat, followed by 89,100 acres of soybeans.

Schmidt thought carefully before answering when asked what crop has the most acres in his area this spring.

"Well, I think people would probably say soybeans," he says.

Soybean prices remain strong, he notes.

A half inch of rain on May 19 helped the up-and-coming crops, but more precipitation would help, Schmidt says.

"We need timely rains," he says.


Rain was forecast for later in the week of May 21.

Planting goes much better

McVILLE -- Robert Lindvall thought he was done planting for this season. But the 59-year-old McVille farmer found some dry ground along the edge of sloughs.

"I'll be able to plant a little more than I thought," he says.

Planting in 2011 was no fun for Lindvall, who said with a smile that he's been farming since he was 9.

Last year, planting already wet fields in the western end of the county was made more difficult by the rise of Devils Lake and Stump Lake, he says.

Rising lake waters pushed up the water table under other fields in the area, further complicating planting, he says.

Dry conditions this year have allowed planting to go much more smoothly, he says.


Roughly half an inch of rain on May 19 helped his fields, but more rain is needed, he says.

Lindvall, like other area farmers, says he's concerned about rising expenses, including farmland rental rates.

"We've had a couple of nice years of profits, but our costs just keep going up," he says. "It's at the point where we have to have a good crop" to be profitable.

'Mother Nature' is the boss

PETERSBURG -- Crops in the Petersburg area are mostly in the ground, Barta says.

"Our crops are looking nice," though some fields are getting a little dry, he says.

A half inch of rain on May 21 was appreciated.

"It helped. It's a blessing," he says.


Dry edible beans, though not particularly popular across Nelson County, are common in the Petersburg area, in the northeastern part of the county.

Prices for the crop are attractive, which helped acreage this spring, he Barta says.

Corn acreage shot upward in much of the region this spring. That's not the case in the Petersburg area, Barta said.

Farmers in the area are concerned they may not receive all the heat units that corn needs to develop properly, he says.

Producers, no matter how carefully they plan, ultimately are dependent on the weather, Barta says.

"If Mother Nature says we get a good crop, we get one. If Mother Nature says we get a poor crop, then that's what we get," he says.

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