Optimism mixed with concern

MAHNOMEN, Minn. -- Jake Hein looks back fondly at 2012. A rare combination of strong yields and high prices made it "a good year for us," the Audubon, Minn., farmer says.

MAHNOMEN, Minn. -- Jake Hein looks back fondly at 2012. A rare combination of strong yields and high prices made it "a good year for us," the Audubon, Minn., farmer says.

He's not sure what to expect this year. His fields lack subsoil moisture, which will limit their ability to withstand dry, hot stretches this summer.

"We're going to need rains at the right time" during the growing season, he says.

Hein attended the annual Ag Trends Conference Feb. 26 in Mahnomen, Minn. The event, sponsored by 75 area businesses, drew 260 people. Most of the attendees lived within 90 miles of Mahnomen, a town of 1,200 in northwest Minnesota.

Hein's concern about subsoil moisture was shared by most at the conference.


Northwest Minnesota is in drought, with the drought's severity ranging from moderate to extreme, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, a partnership of federal and academic scientists.

The shortage of moisture, at least so far, definitely is on the minds of northwest Minnesota agriculturalists, said Clyde Kringlen, sales manager with West Central Ag Services in Ulen, Minn.

Nonetheless, agriculturalists in the area are optimistic about the coming year, he says.

Randy Zimmerman, who helped organize the conference, also said farmers in the area think 2013 can be a successful year.

"They'd like there to be more moisture available. But we see a lot of optimism, too," says Zimmerman, a member of Northland Community & Technical College's Farm Business Management team. He's stationed in Ulen.

Corn's importance grows

Part of the optimism stems from new corn varieties, which allow more farmers in northwest Minnesota to raise corn. The crop, once considered too risky to grow in the area, is catching on with farmers.

For instance, producers in northwest Minnesota's Polk County in 2012 planted 113,000 acres of corn, up from 62,300 acres in 2011 and 44,200 acres in 2010, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.


Northwest Minnesota farmers who planted corn in 2012 fared well on balance.

Last year, corn's net return per acre on cash-rented land in northwest Minnesota averaged $294.44. That was 35 percent more than the $209.04 average net return per acre for soybeans on cash-rented land and more than double the $140.73 average net return per acre for spring wheat on cash-rented land, according to preliminary data from the Northland Community and Technical College Farm Business Farm Business Management Program.

The preliminary statistics, based on information from about 200 farming operations that participate in the program, were released at the Ag Trends Conference.

The final numbers will be released in about a month, Ron Dvergsten, dean of management education for Northland Community and Technical College tells Agweek.

"It was a good year for row crops," he says of the 2012 corn, soybean and wheat returns.

Young blood in ag

Ag Trends Conference keynote speaker David Kohl, professor emeritus of agriculture and applied economics at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., noted appreciatively that many of the people at the event were college students and FFA members.

Experts cite the importance of attracting more young people into agriculture, an industry in which baby boomers nearing retirement play a huge role.


Drew Underdahl, a junior at the University of Minnesota-Crookston, was among the students at the Ag Trends Conference.

The Rochester, Minn., native, who grew up on a hobby farm, is majoring in agricultural business.

"There are a lot of opportunities" in ag, she says. "People will always need to eat."

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