Drought impacts, and USDA response, vary with geography and different types of farms

While parts of northern Minnesota entered exceptional drought conditions for the first time ever under the modern U.S. Drought Monitor, southeastern part of the state also have struggled with drought conditions, albeit less severe ones. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Aug. 12-13 visited several southeastern Minnesota agriculture operations to talk about drought and support for producers.

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CANNON FALLS, Minn. —The "garden spot" of Minnesota when it comes to this year's drought conditions is southern Minnesota, said David Nicolai, University of Minnesota Extension crops educator. But that doesn't mean it hasn't been impacted.

"It's really variable across the state, considering the amount of rain that we've gotten here," said Nicolai on Aug. 12.

Nicolai was in Cannon Falls to hear from said U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack at a visit to Callister Farms, run by Chip Callister, along with his wife, Micki, and sons, Noah and Jonah.

Vilsack, along with U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, and U.S. Rep. Angie Craig, addressed a crowd that included the state's ag leaders including presidents from both the Minnesota Farmers Union and Minnesota Farm Bureau.


U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, U.S. Sen. Tina Smith and U.S. Rep. Angie Craig address the state's ag leaders during a stop at Callister Farm in Cannon Falls, Minnesota, on Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021. Noah Fish / Agweek

With crops looking fair in the southeast part of the state, Nicolai pulled out his cellphone to show photos from corn growing in Lamberton, Minnesota , looking like what he referred to as a "pineapple."

"It's really a tale of two cities across Minnesota," said Nicolai. "Western Minnesota really got skipped by the rain, and so they're in dire need out there compared to southeast Minnesota."

Cash crops still green

Chip Callister, owner of Callister Farms, listens to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, U.S. Sen. Tina Smith and U.S. Rep. Angie Craig address the state's ag leaders during a stop at Callister Farm in Cannon Falls, Minnesota, on Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021. Noah Fish / Agweek

Chip Callister is a third-generation farmer in Cannon Falls. Callister Farms is mostly a cash crop operation raising corn and soybeans, along with alfalfa and grass hay. The farm also has a 30 pair cow-calf operation.

Callister said every year presents its challenges but this year has been particularly difficult. Not for his cash crops, which are irrigated, but for his pastures and hay ground that are not.

"I'm in a place now where it's probably been about three or four weeks where I've been feeding hay that we would normally store for winter," said Callister. "And we're pretty much done producing hay."

So for Callister, as well as many producers across the state, the question becomes, what is going to be used for feed this winter?


"Most likely, I'll probably chop some silage, and that'll help me out a great deal," he said.

The U.S. Drought Monitor on Aug. 12, 2021, moved portions of Minnesota into exceptional drought for the first time. U.S. Drought Monitor

Northern Minnesota livestock producers have been heavily impacted by the drought, Nicolai said. In fact, on the same day that the tour went through Callister's farm, the U.S. Drought Monitor listed part of northern Minnesota in exceptional drought — the worst category on the monitor — for the first time since the new Drought Monitor began in 1994 . Many other portions of the state, in all directions, were in extreme drought, the second worst category.

Southern Minnesota, on the Drought Monitor, was in better shape, with a tiny sliver not considered in any drought category and other spots considered only "abnormally dry." But even though southern Minnesota hasn't been hit as bad, the south doesn't have enough hay production to give the north.

"We're working in the University of Minnesota Extension on if we can use some of our soybean crop as a forage, or even small grain that wasn't harvested for grain, and then going back for livestock," said Nicolai.

Farmers have headed to the low grounds to pick up any extra meadow grass they can get like this area along the Leaf River north of Wadena. A two-man crew was baling and stacking there Monday, Aug. 9, 2021. Michael Johnson/Pioneer Journal

He said things will become especially dire if the next year and following years continue to be as dry.

"It's not just now, but if this drought continues into next year — what adjustments have to be made, with the subsoil moisture and topsoil, as far as farm programs," he said. "And reaching into other areas that haven't been traditionally supported, outside of the traditional commodity crops."


Callister said with the U.S. agriculture secretary touring his farm, he wanted to make it clear that farmers across the state have had it much worse than him this year.

"I'm feeding my cows now, and I'm going to have some silage," he said. "But as for as government aid, if they can help people out, that's great — but personally, I'm not a huge fan of government bailouts."

However, he does believe more aid is needed for cattle producers who are hurting right now.

A cow-calf pair stood in a pasture in Cannon Falls, Minnesota, on Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021. Minnesota elected officials and USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack met with farm leaders nearby to survey the impacts of the drought. (Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service)

"When I have a hail situation or frost — I'm insured for it, but for cattle, that's a different story," he said.

The last year that was this challenging for Callister was 1988, which he remembers well.

"The difference in '88 was we had 30 mph winds, low humidities and 100-degree temperatures," he said. "Versus this year, which has been humid with very few windy days — and the smoke has kept the temperatures down ."

This year, unlike in the summer of 1988, Callister's crops are green.

Feeling the pinch

Stu Lourey, government relations director with Minnesota Farmers Union, said despite the brief rain showers than came through southern Minnesota on Aug. 12 before Vilsack's visit began, "a sense of urgency" from the drought had settled in.

"It's undoubtedly welcome," Lourey said of Vilsack's presence in the state this month, signaling that more federal help was needed.

"Producers are feeling the pinch — we know that well, and we've had board members who've sold out their dairy herds," he said. "It's very real, and I think this is a moment when action on the state and federal level can make a real, material difference in whether or not folks are able to farm next year."

Ed Terry is a part-time agriculture instructor and FFA advisor at Randolph High School in Randolph, Minnesota, and he spoke up at the event, saying it's time to take seriously the average age of farmers and discuss who is going to take over for them. Those young adults need encouragement now, when times are tough, more than ever, he said.

"We can't be discouraging — we need to make sure we're supporting young farmers in particular," said Terry. "I farmed for 60 years, I've been through five droughts — the big difference is the margins are so slim today compared to what they were in 1963 when I went through my first drought."

He said more state and federal help should be geared toward getting young farmers established in times like this.

"Because the farm crisis in the early 1980s discouraged a lot of kids from even wanting to try farming," he said. "We can't be doing that again."

Chip Callister said that he's starting to consider the transition of their farm from him to his son, Noah. Raising the capital gains tax, for example, would hamper their ability to make that transition, said Callister.

"This is my retirement — my 401(k) is out here," Callister said, pointing to his fields. "So how do we successfully transition the farm to the next generation?"

Small-scale farming also hit hard

The day after touring Callister Farms, Vilsack toured a different kind of operation — the farm site of the Hmong American Farmers Association in Hastings, Minnesota.

Janssen Hang, executive director of Hmong American Farmers Association, speaks with Minnesota Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, Minnesota Department of Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack on Friday, Aug. 13, 2021, at the HAFA farm in Hastings, Minnesota. Noah Fish / Agweek

HAFA was formed in 2011 as a way for Hmong farmers to overcome the barriers that exist for them. According to said Janssen Hang, executive director of HAFA, Hmong farmers make up around 50% of growers at Twin Cities farmers markets.

It's been challenging to make every market this year, with not enough vegetables to sell. And Hang said many HAFA farmers spend between 14-16 hours a day in the fields. A lot of Hmong farmers don't have access to irrigation, he said.

"It's been an honor to have Secretary Vilsack here to really recognize the struggles of the drought in our communities," said Hang. "But the true underlying issue is the issue of equity."

Vilsack got to hear from farmer Mai Moua, who said because of the weather turning from very cold to extreme heat this year, the germination process was greatly impacted for her plants.

"There are people who want agriculture to pit against one another — production agriculture or small farming like here today — or it's row crops or specialty crops," said Vilsack. "Minnesota has figured out that the strength is in diversity."

Vilsack said the diverse agriculture of Minnesota is a "more resilient, and ultimately more profitable agriculture." The agriculture secretary said he saw "both sides" of farming in the state, and spent one day touring a more traditional agriculture site before spending the next day at the diverse HAFA operation.

He said he enjoyed talking to Minnesota farmers about the USDA's forage program that helps livestock producers purchase forage when they are having a difficult time growing it on their own farms because of the drought.

"We talked about the NRCS ( Natural Resources Conservation Service) programs that provide assistance and help for water hauling expenses or for long-term investments that would enable people to withstand future droughts," said Vilsack at the HAFA farm site. "But the reality is, those programs don't really work for farms like this."

Janssen Hang, executive director of the Hmong American Farmers Association, translates for Mai Moua, a vegetable farmer on Friday, Aug. 13, 2021, as she speaks with Minnesota Department of Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack at the HAFA farm about how the drought has impacted her crops this year. Noah Fish / Agweek

That's why, on the week of his visit, he was talking about a different set of programs. Like the Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program, which Vilsack said needs greater flexibility. And the Local Agriculture Market Program, which encourages leaders to figure out ways local and regional producers have market access — whether that be a farmers market, school or other institutional purchaser.

"USDA is committed — it is absolutely committed — to both kinds of agriculture," said Vilsack. "And we're excited about the future."

Vilsack said for many years the U.S. has been committed to expanding production, but that focus needs to change if farmers want to continue operations well into the future.

"It's been a remarkable story of productivity, but we forgot the profitability aspect of agriculture," Vilsack said.

He said today, 89.6% of American farms don't generate the majority of income for the families that are farming them. Farmers have to rely on an off-farm job, and maybe even more than one .

"It isn't enough to do it the old way, it isn't enough to grow more, you also have to figure out new ways to create profit for farms," he said.

Mother Nature is enemy No. 1

MN Drought.jpg
Corn in parts of Minnesota is drying out far ahead of normal progression as drought conditions continue to expand and intensify. Michelle Rook / Agweek

Climate change is also a force to be reckoned with, if farmers want to survive, said Vilsack. He said that's why USDA is focusing on creating incentives for climate-smart agriculture. One of those methods would be storing carbon.

"There are tremendous opportunities to pay farmers for that benefit," Vilsack said of a carbon market. "To pay farmers for the value-added notion of sustainably produced food — the market is demanding it and there there will be an opportunity to profit from sustainably produced food."

He said over the next several months, Congress is going to debate and hopefully pass the infrastructure bill, which Vilsack said creates "some resources for more resilient agriculture."'

"And then the Build Back Better budget resolution, that creates an enormous commitment and historic commitment that will allow us to invest in facilities like (HAFA), all across the country," he said. "At the same time, increasing significantly our ability to do better conservation on production agricultural lands, so that we can withstand that next drought, mitigate the consequences of it, and create opportunities for farmers to stay in business."

It's hard to debate climate change is happening, said Vilsack, and to combat that change will take change from not only producers, but policy, too.

"The programs that we have in our farm bill are really designed for the disasters of yesterday, and we now have to think anew, and we have to think differently about the disasters of tomorrow," he said.

He said the focus should no longer be getting through just one more year of drought, but the next years when it may happen again.

"Our systems have to be redesigned to deal with this new reality, to create a longer standing and greater commitment over time, to producers to be able to keep them in business and keep them on the farm," said Vilsack. "The backbone of many, many states across the country is rural places and rural folks, and we want to make sure that there's opportunity for them."

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