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The one-two punch at modern agriculture

Upper Midwest farmers are doing their best to keep pace with current events, but recent years have made it difficult

A North Dakota farmer cutting his grain. File photo
A North Dakota farmer cutting his grain. File photo

Shelly Ziesch says she likes to stay humble. She and her husband are ranchers in Kidder County, N.D., and she won’t say on the record how many head of cattle they keep (that’s the humility at work). She also said she’s never one to complain.

But for Ziesch – and for farmers and ranchers around the upper Midwest – the last two years have brought a one-two punch. First came a trade war with China, and then came the coronavirus pandemic. Both have meant havoc for markets.

"We've gone from one thing to the next. It's been a nightmare for marketing,” Ziesch said, who also grows corn, wheat, oats and soybeans to feed her cattle, often selling any surplus. "It's been difficult – and then in our region of North Dakota, 2017 had a drought, 2018 had a drought, 2019 we flooded, and now here in 2020 we've had coronavirus and we're drying…in our little area here. It's just been awful for farming and ranching."

Upper Midwest farmers are doing their best to keep pace with current events, but recent years have made it difficult – the coronavirus pandemic being perhaps the biggest hurdle for many to clear. Around the country, the virus has meant a radical change in how consumers get their food, shuttering restaurants and catering services and the like. Suddenly, some farmers are left with big surpluses – or plunging prices.

That’s precisely the dynamic Ziesch is faced with as prices for cattle fall.

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“We just really want our markets back — but in all reality, if this sticks around the way it has been, we're going to need assistance,” Ziesch said, adding that it might take years for the agricultural economy to recover from the pandemic and the trade war.

Ag Chart1 - August PB

Mark Watne, who heads North Dakota Farmers Union, points out that the same dynamic often puts farmers and ranchers in a cruel bind: if they want to make a good profit, they need to increase production. But as others around the country do the same, markets just get flooded further.

"It's setting a stage where there is not a huge opportunity to see price increases for a long time, simply because we've built up this inventory,” he said.

Those concerns are common around the country and have been an ongoing concern for months – but they’ve resonated especially in the Midwest. The Smithfield Foods meatpacking plant in Sioux Falls, S.D., was the center of a local outbreak of the coronavirus, shining a light on pandemic problems not just at the dinner table, but in the supply chains that help farmers get their food there. The company has now drawn the scrutiny of federal workplace regulators, the Sioux Falls Argus Leader reports , and is entangled in a legal battle over what happens next. That, in turn, comes after farmers in the state were already dealing with remarkable 2019 flooding, putting further pressure on growers.

The same is true of Minnesota producers. Dave Mensink, who raises hogs in the southeast of the state, told CBS News in June that he stood to lose six figures on falling prices.

There are a few bright spots, if they can be called as much. In a recent survey from The Purdue Center for Commercial Agriculture, farmer optimism was looking up from deep, deep lows in April and May. The number of farmers who thought their performance would be worse than last year fell from the mid-50% range into the low 40% range — though 27% remained “very worried” about their farm’s profitability, and only 12% expected financial improvement over last year.

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And compared to a year ago, well more than 50% of respondents said they had lower expectations for purchasing farm equipment than a year ago – an indication of the ripples that are likely to spread through the economy as a result of shifts in the food and farming market. And in some cases, farmers’ chief concerns go well beyond coronavirus. Tyler Stafslien, who grows soybeans, spring wheat and the like on a farm near McCody, North Dakota, said his biggest concern is how coronavirus has taken attention away from international trade concerns.

"For me, again, to normalize trade relations with China is very important for the financial health of my family and my farm in the future,” he said. “To take the spotlight off of that is detrimental to me financially. It continues the issues we've been having since the beginning of the trade war, and I don't see an end in sight."

But Stafslien and others keep their concerns in perspective. After all, they still have jobs – which is more than workers in plenty of other economic sectors can say as retail, restaurants and the like have been ravaged with layoffs and shuttered businesses amid falling foot traffic.

"I feel fortunate, because I know there's a lot of people across this country, whether it's the restaurant worker in DC or bartender in LA (who are struggling),” he said. “To have the open space and the relative comfort of living in an area that's not so populated, I know I'm lucky."

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