Legislators get earful from farmers plagued by weather

SAUK CENTRE -- The three ears of corn picked by Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, from a Kandiyohi County field on his way to Sauk Centre served as a focal point Monday for frustrated farmers dealing with this year's drought.

SAUK CENTRE -- The three ears of corn picked by Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, from a Kandiyohi County field on his way to Sauk Centre served as a focal point Monday for frustrated farmers dealing with this year's drought.

The ears, dotted with only a few kernels along with spots of mold, are what's really out in the fields, according to Belgrade farmer Neil Spanier.

"That is real -- that's not candy coating the situation," Spanier told the joint meeting of the Minnesota House and Senate agriculture committees. Juhnke, as the chairman of the house committee, chaired the meeting, which was one of two slated to get producer, government agency and agribusiness input into the drought and flooding plaguing the state's farmers.

Spanier urged the legislators to help farmers deal with the availability of feed for livestock in the coming winter. While there is enough feed available in the state, "it's a matter of getting the feed to the people who need it," he said.

The legislators took suggestions on how to appropriate the $3.7 million allocated for agriculture in last week's special session.


The ag legislators, along with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, will determine what the money will be used for in the coming weeks.

The funds will need to be spread over both the drought and flood-affected areas of the state, Juhnke said. Some of the suggestions include paying for the testing of drought-damaged crops and transportation costs of shipping hay to livestock farmers.

Feeding livestock over the winter with purchased feed will be a costly proposition, as open-market hay prices have doubled since last year. Dan Martens, University of Minnesota Extension educator for Stearns, Benton and Morrison counties, urged farmers to use the university's online hay list as another tool to deal with challenges ahead.

The hay list is just one avenue of assistance for producers. Representatives from the Farm Service Agency and Department of Agriculture urged farmers to explore financial avenues of assistance. The Ag Department's Rural Finance Authority has funds to offer as no-interest loans to producers and grant money available, according to Jim Boerboom, assistant commissioner of agriculture.

The Farm Service Agency has low-interest loan funding available because 82 of the state's 87 counties have been declared as disaster areas by the president or the secretary of agriculture or are contiguous to the declared counties, according to Perry Aasness, executive director of the state FSA office.

Those loans can be used for any farm or family living expense, Aasness said. Family farmers can also ask to forgo this year's payment on their loan if they already have a loan through the agency. Farmers in some counties, including Kandiyohi, Meeker and Pope, are eligible to graze or hay Conservation Reserve Program lands.

The Weekly Crop-Weather Report shows that 97 percent of the state's corn crop is dented and 31 percent is mature, outpacing the averages of 77 percent dented and 13 percent mature. Soybeans are also ahead on crop progress, with 85 percent turning yellow and 8 percent mature.

Even though the crops, and therefore the damage to them by the weather conditions, may seem to be complete, the situation could deteriorate even more, according to Dave Nicolai, University of Minnesota Extension crops educator based in Hutchinson.


"Continued wet weather will aggravate the conditions even more," he said. The extension personnel are urging farmers to test the corn crop for mycotoxins and for nitrates before feeding it to livestock. They used more sample ears of corn to show that mold is growing on the ears.

"We are concerned about the quality of the corn that is going into silage or that will be harvested," Nicolai said.

It's not just crop damage facing farmers, according to Rep. Bud Heidgerken, R-Freeport. "Some of the farmers ... their wells have gone dry for the first time since the 1980s," he said.

Producers may be able to use funding from the Department of Agriculture loan program to alleviate that problem.

Morrison County was in the heart of the drought area, and Darrel Larsen, the executive director of the county's Farm Service Agency office, outlined the real costs for the agriculture committee members. The estimated loss in that county alone is $21.8 million.

"It is very unlikely that the losses will be less," he said. The loss was figured using the five-year yield data and three-year price data for the county. The county has sustained drought, hail and high winds and only received 54 percent of average rainfall between April and early August.

Dennis Sjodin, vice president of the Minnesota Farmers Union, told the legislators that farmers are also suffering from high energy prices. Some face difficult decisions that will affect their future.

"Some of the farmers I've known for years are talking about selling their cattle," he said. "They are dumping the calves to preserve the herd."

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