COVER STORY: The region's top ag stories from 2009

The year 2009 for agriculture in the Northern Plains might be best described as difficult. But other terms come to mind also: tough, demanding, ominous and, at times, encouraging.

The year 2009 for agriculture in the Northern Plains might be best described as difficult. But other terms come to mind also: tough, demanding, ominous and, at times, encouraging.

The year began with widespread rain and flooding, followed by a declaration that the state of North Dakota had become a disaster area. It ended with a blizzard that shut down all but the most determined corn harvesting efforts. In between, the dairy and pork industries struggled, battles raged against new and resurgent diseases and farm rents hit new highs.

Here is a look at the region's top ag stories, as picked by Agweek staff.

Floods and disaster

Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer issued the year's first disaster declaration in January for all 53 North Dakota counties, aimed at drought and late rains for the 2008 growing year.


The wet fall had left the ground soaked and the heavy winter snows led to an intense snowmelt. When the spring rains came in 2009, flooding became widespread.

On March 24, the state of North Dakota again was declared a disaster area, with 34 of 53 counties designated for aid.

A saving grace for some producers was that the new farm bill's permanent disaster program included the Livestock Indemnity Program, which pays 75 percent of market value for livestock losses in excess of normal mortality as a result of weather conditions.

An overall cap of $100,000 per person per calendar or crop year was set for funds distributed under LIP, the Supplemental Revenue Assistance program, the Livestock Feed Program and the Emergency Livestock Assistance Program.

Emergency low-interest loans already were available in 2008 because of secretarial disaster programs, which overlapped into 2009 for some counties.

On Nov. 27, North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven announced that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack had approved his request for a disaster declaration covering weather-related crop damages in 24 North Dakota counties. The request was prompted by the severe spring flooding and late season weather.

Hoeven summed things up in a letter to Vilsack, saying that spring flooding, late planting, cool growing conditions and late season moisture had "challenged the harvesting of row crops, including sugar beets, corn and soybeans."

High yields, low protein


Despite the weather issues, 2009 saw the second-biggest and highest-yielding wheat crop in history.

On Oct. 2, the National Agricultural Statistics Service verified a North Dakota hard red spring wheat yield of 44.2 bushels per acre -- a record by more than three bushels and more than eight bushels per acre better than 2008.

But the average protein levels in the crop fell to 13.1 percent, more than a full percentage point below that of 2008 and the five-year average, according to the North Dakota Wheat Commission. The decline in protein was a result of the cool growing season and the record yields, the commission reported.

With the lower protein levels came heavy discounts. Grower Kevin Krueger of East Grand Forks, Minn., took a sample into his local elevator Sept. 8. He said his wheat tested at about 12 percent, while some of his neighbors were hauling in 10 percent protein.

"They offered me $3.25 a bushel for it," Krueger said. "This summer, it was $7, and last winter, it was $15."

Ethanol slide

The slowdown in the ethanol industry's growth was explained by some as a natural effect of an industry that was growing too rapidly. Also, falling oil prices forced several ethanol producers, including Sioux Falls, S.D.-based VeraSun, into bankruptcy.

In July, Harold Newman of Jamestown, N.D., confirmed that plans for a 100 million-gallon ethanol plant at the Spiritwood (N.D.) Energy Park were on hold. In October, Murphy Oil Corp. of El Dorado, Ark., bought the Hankinson, N.D., ethanol plant from VeraSun.


Many plants bought corn when it was selling for about $7 a bushel. They were able to generate nice profits when a gallon of gas was selling for about $4. But when gas prices dropped, so did ethanol prices, while many plants still were using the $7 corn.

Industry tactics aimed at selling more of their product have included an attempt to have the Environmental Protection Agency to allow the use of 15 percent blends, a 50 percent increase over the current limit of 10 percent.

The ethanol industry also is working on the introduction of various ethanol blends at the "blender" pumps, up to 20 percent and, in some cases, even 30 percent.

Industry proponents claim that increasing the availability of the high-percentage blends would help stimulate the economy, create jobs and increase U.S. independence from foreign oil.

Schafer finishes


Former North Dakota Gov. Ed Schafer stepped down from his one-year post as U.S. secretary of agriculture, saying in January he was pleased that then President-elect Obama had nominated another former farm state governor, Iowa's Tom Vilsack, to replace him.

Schafer served as North Dakota's governor from 1992 to 2000, working to expand North Dakota's economy and advance agriculture. He strove to develop an export market for North Dakota agricultural products in China. Schafer managed the state's emergency responses to the severe flooding of 1997.


Just before leaving USDA, Schafer had signed the final rule on country-of-origin labeling for meat and poultry. Some groups said he should have left the COOL decision for the incoming administration.

From Johnson

to Goehring

After two unsuccessful attempts to become North Dakota's agricultural commissioner, Doug Goehring was appointed April 6 to replace Roger Johnson, who resigned the post after being elected president of the National Farmers Union.

Hoeven said Goehring's

"burning desire" for the job was a factor in his decision to appoint him as Johnson's successor.

"He has a real interest, a real commitment," Hoeven said. "It's not like he just woke up two weeks ago and said, 'Gee, I'd like to be ag commissioner.'"

Goehring operates a 2,000-acre farm near Bismarck, N.D., raising corn, wheat, soybeans, canola and alfalfa. He is a director of the North Dakota Soybean Council and treasurer of the North Dakota Grain Growers Association.


Goehring said he intends to promote trade, ethanol production and agricultural crop research, particularly on wheat and other cereal grains.

His position will be up for election in 2010.

Mudding in,

mudding out

2009 marked the second straight year when farmers up and down the Red River Valley hoped for, but did not get an early warm up and dry out.

The late rains and heavy snows of late 2008 had set up an almost predictable delay in planting work in 2009, since much of the field preparation had yet to be done and a lot of corn had been left standing over winter.

Then a huge storm system came out of the Pacific Northwest in the third week of March, deluging the already saturated ground and causing widespread flooding. Residents in Fargo, N.D., were organizing battalions of sandbaggers to protect their city. Cattle were stranded and drowning and crop fields were under water. By the time farmers were able to get into their fields, they had their hands full.

"When we went into it, the ground was extremely wet from last year," Moorhead, Minn., farmer Jimmie Nelson says. "We didn't get it worked up good last fall, and we had to dig it in a bit deeper than we normally do. Usually, we like to work it up, let it dry for a half a day and plant. This year, there was so much residue we had to dry it for one to two days on a lot of ground before we could get in and plant and do anything. And we had to set up the planters a little different than usual."


Nelson completed his planting a month late. Many would not be able to start planting until early June.

Grand Forks rancher and farmer Frank Matejcek said he had to move his cattle off his land next to the Red River to keep them safe until the waters receded.

After a generally cool summer, the rains reappeared, soaking the fields and keeping frustrated combiners on hold. By early December, a dry but cold weather window was allowing producers to catch up. North Dakota's corn growers, the furthest behind of the Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Illinois, still bringing in corn, pulled off 9 percent of its corn in seven days. Those without corn left were getting prep work done for next year.

Then came the Christmas snowstorm, Blizzard Alvin, dumping 1 to 2 feet of snow across the Northern Plains. The 2009 corn harvest came to a halt, and farmers at the coffee shops again began to talk about when they might be able to get in their fields in 2010.

Roundup Ready or not?

On June 24, a U.S. appeals court declined to lift a ban on planting genetically modified alfalfa -- the fourth-

largest crop by acreage in the country -- until the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service finishes its study on the crop's impact on conventional crops, the environment and farm economics.

In September, a federal judge in San Francisco overturned regulatory approval of Roundup Ready sugar beets, now planted in an estimated 95 percent of Red River Valley beet fields, and ordered APHIS to study the crop's environmental impact.

According to the Associated Press, U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White found that APHIS violated environmental law by failing to take a "hard look" at whether the beets could share their genes with other crops through cross-pollination. The agency is reviewing the ruling.

More than half the sugar produced in the U.S. comes from sugar beets, and the Red River Valley is the largest beet-growing region in the country.

Roundup Ready beets were planted commercially for the first time in 2007 in Wyoming. Local co-ops in North Dakota and Minnesota approved the technology for planting in 2008, and half of the beets were converted immediately, limited partly by seed availability. In 2009, the co-ops estimated that 90 percent to 95 percent of the region's beets had the transgenic trait, which makes them immune to glyphosate.

Sioux Falls sale

barn closes

The Sioux Falls (S.D.) Stockyards are closed. The 36-acre site had been a major livestock hub in eastern South Dakota for 92 years. The property was listed at $3.5 million in June when cattle operations were terminated.

Stockyard manager Paul Scott told the Sioux Falls Argus Leader that it was a tough decision, but that a limit on how much rain water the city says he can allow to run off the grounds was part of the trouble.

"The city no longer wants to take the rain water," he said. "A half-inch of rain puts it over the limit."

Negotiations were long but fruitless. He said the final sticking point was the city's demand that he roof the massive complex of corrals.

"Dollarwise, it's not feasible," he said.

The stockyards had been selling as many as 100,000 cattle a year.

"It's a sad day for Sioux Falls," Scott said. "We've been in business 92 years and we always considered ourselves good citizens."

Hogs, sheep and goat sales continued until the end of the year.

Diseases and pests

North Dakota State University plant pathologists were kept busy in 2009, getting the word out on a range of new and old enemies that had appeared in and around the Red River Valley.

n The soybean cyst nematode, thought to pose a threat to dry edible beans, was found to be moving north through the valley toward the most productive dry bean areas.

"What we know for sure is that on pinto beans, kidney beans and even black beans, we find that the nematode can reproduce quite well in the field," NDSU plant pathologist Berlin Nelson told Agweek in May. "All the biological studies that we've done showing that this nematode will reproduce on dry beans, meaning that it's parasitizing the root to grow and to produce eggs, say that it has to do some damage to the beans -- it's a parasite. We just don't know how much damage."

Whether any existing varieties of dry edible beans are resistant to SCN still is unknown, but studies are under way to find that out.

n A new race of dry bean rust, apparently immune to resistant genetics in beans, also was found in eastern North Dakota, but dry bean producers got an early break in the hunt for disease resistance.

Part of the credit for the early detection goes to plant pathologists at NDSU, according to Juan Osorno, dry edible bean breeder at NDSU.

"That was a big home run from Sam Markell and his group that they were able to find it and track it," he said. "They were on top of those things before it could take us by surprise."

The new race of bean rust, tentatively dubbed 20-3, was discovered by growers in Traill County in southeast North Dakota in fall 2008. Markell and fellow plant pathologist Rubella Goswami examined samples of the disease and determined that it was a new race and apparently able to attack every variety of dry edible bean grown in the Northern Plains.

But by October, they had caught a break. The research team established gene resistance to 20-3 in Stampede. The breakthrough could take several years off the process of getting a resistant commercial variety into growers' hands.

It could mean the difference between planting resistant beans as early as 2012 or as late as 2018.

n Potato producers were told by NDSU plant pathologist Neil Gudmestad in August that late blight had been found at several locations in north-central Grand Forks County, N.D.

The disease, also known as potato blight, was the cause of the Irish potato famine in the 19th century and a 1999 outbreak in the Northern Plains that destroyed $125 million worth of the tubers.

"We are in a situation that is not unlike 1999," Gudmestad told growers at a potato grower's field day. "We lost 10.5 (million) to 12 million bags of potatoes. We don't need to go there."

Late blight first was confirmed Aug. 19 near Inkster, N.D. By that evening, Gudmestad had found seven fields with disease symptoms.

"So we have potato fields with late blight from the South Dakota border all the way up to Walsh County," he said. "That's really well-distributed and prepared to spread and explode if we get the kind of weather pattern that the National Weather Service is predicting for the next week."

Again, growers caught an early break. Intensive spraying operations immediately were launched and the small, localized blight outbreak was completely contained.

Packing plant proposed

in North Dakota

North Dakota's beef cattle industry may be getting a packing plant, which would be the largest in the Northern Plains.

FK Partners of South Korea still is raising funds to build the plant, which would have the ability to process 500 to 750 head of cattle a day. The North Dakota Feeder Council hosted a meeting early 2009 in Bismarck at which FK Partners President Jack Kim spoke to about 60 cattle feeders.

"There was what I would call complete support for the idea of a packing plant," feeder council member Vern Anderson told Agweek.

Kim said he is "ready to move on the project."

North Dakota's Agricultural Products Utilization Commission allocated $150,000 to have a feasibility study conducted. In October, the released results of the study said the venture was feasible, but would require a close partnership with cattle suppliers.

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