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A combine stands idle after a 4-inch snow suspended corn harvest on Nov. 5 at the Delaney Herefords farm near Lake Benton, Minn. The difficult weather in 2019 was the year's top story in agriculture. Mikkel Pates / Forum News Service

The year of the miserable harvest

Upper Midwest agriculturalists are hardly strangers to difficult harvest conditions. But the 2019 crop season brought what many in area ag say was the worst, most onerous harvest in memory.

The miserable harvest began with repeated rains in August that hampered combining wheat and other small grains. It continued with more rain in September and then widespread blizzards in October, November and December. All crops raised in the region suffered to some extent, as did virtually all farmers and ranchers.

Other issues surfaced in area ag in 2019, too. Topping the list are President Donald Trump’s controversial trade policies, high-profile legal/criminal cases, poor commodity prices and a difficult spring planting season.

But 2019 will be remembered best and longest as the year of the miserable harvest.

Here’s a quick, month-by-month look at 2019 area ag highlights.

January

  • Trump’s trade policies continue to generate controversy. Many in ag say his trade war is hurting long-in-the-making relationships with key trading partners. Trump supporters say the economic pain is short-lived and will be offset by long-term gains.

  • Cell-based meat, which takes cells from animals and grows the cells using liquid solutions in controlled conditions in a laboratory, draws more attention. Some supporters refer to it as “clean meat,” while some critics call it “fake meat.”

February

  • Ag economists and farmers generally say that given poor crop prices, area ag producers will need above-average yields to turn even a modest profit in the 2019 crop season.

  • African swine fever, or ASF, raises growing concern. It’s a severe viral disease of pigs that can spread very rapidly in pig herds. It’s occurred in many African countries and other countries worldwide, but not yet in the United States.

March

  • A “bomb cyclone,” an intense winter storm, sweeps through the U.S. after record cold in January and unprecedented snow in February. Not surprisingly, the start of spring planting is delayed throughout the Upper Midwest.

  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture releases its new Census of Agriculture. The once-every-five-years report provides the most comprehensive look available at U.S. ag and is used by ag companies, regulators and legislators.

April

  • Planting delays continue, with much of the Upper Midwest, especially southern Minnesota and South Dakota, hit with record flooding. At month’s end, Minnesota farmers have planted just 2% of their corn, compared with the five-year average of 24%.

  • It’s not only the Upper Midwest that’s wet. The contiguous U.S. (lower 48 states) has its wettest 12-month period on record from May 2018 through April 2019. An average of 36.2 inches of precipitation fell across the 48 states, 6.25 inches above the 20th century mean.

May

  • The North Dakota State Legislature approves shifting Grain Regulatory Authority from the Public Service Commission to the Ag Department, largely because of a multi-million-dollar case involving Hunter Hanson, a young Leeds, N.D., grain trader. Later, Hanson is sentenced to eight years in prison.

  • A new Montana state law creates a student debt assistance loan program. It will help young ranchers and farmers pay off up to half or their student loans when they commit to five years of ranching or farming.

  • The late start and uncooperative weather puts the area’s planting pace far behind normal. One example: In the middle of the month, just 19% of South Dakota’s spring wheat crop is planted, compared with the five-year average of 76%.

June

  • The often-delayed planting season finally wraps up, with many fields going unplanted. South Dakota leads the nation will roughly 3.9 million prevented planting acres.

  • Jerry Hennessey, who admitted that he stole more than $5 million from the co-op elevator he managed in Ashby, Minn., is sentenced to eight years in federal prison. He used the money to pay for big-game hunting trips around the world and then to build a showroom at his house for the trophies.

July

  • Drought damages crops in parts of the region, especially northern North Dakota. Ironically, some drought-ravaged areas are hit later with heavy fall rains — coming too late to help parched crops but complicating harvest.

  • The Trump administration releases details of its $16 billion aid package, which includes $14.5 billion in direct payments for farmers hurt by Trump’s trade policies and bad weather.

  • The Spiritwood Energy Park Association, near Jamestown, N.D., pulled out of a deal with North Dakota Soybean Processors to build a soybean crushing plant at the park after the project did not move forward as anticipated. A state district court judge later ruled that SEPA appeared to be within its rights to terminate the deal, and the case is pending trial.

August

  • Cattle futures sink to multi-year lows.

  • The 2019 World Ploughing Contest is held in Baudette, Minn., with contestants from more than 30 countries. It’s the first time the event has been held in the U.S. since 1988.

  • Heavy, repeated rains bedevil the small grain harvest. Farmers hope for dry conditions in September.

September

  • Heavy rains continue, and hamper the harvest of crops such as dry beans, as well as small grains.

  • Harvest woes generate attention on mental health challenges facing area farmers. The greater focus reflects years of growing awareness of, and concern over, stress, frustration and depression in agriculture.

  • South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem opposes legalizing hemp production in the state. She says law enforcement has trouble distinguishing it from marijuana. Critics says her stance could prevent South Dakota farmers from taking advantage of a potentially profitable new market.

  • The Trump administration repeals the Clean Water Rule, better known as the Waters of the United States, or WOTUS, rule. Most farmers, especially ones in the Upper Midwest, applaud repeal. Environmentalists are critical.

October

  • A freakish early October blizzard hammers much of the Upper Midwest, particularly North Dakota. The already sluggish harvest comes to a standstill in places.

  • Federal statistics show that ag rental rates and land values generally are holding steady in the region. That reflects, in part, unattractive returns on competing investments such as certificates of deposit. Area agriculturalists wonder how the difficult 2019 harvest will affect rental rates and land values in 2020.

November

  • Much of the potato crop in the Red River Valley of eastern North Dakota and western Minnesota is left in fields. By one estimate, 2019 Red River Valley fresh potato shipments will be down about 40% from the previous year.

  • Many area livestock producers worry they won’t have enough feed to get through the upcoming winter. They’re short of feed because of winter’s early arrival, rain damage to hay and straw, and difficulties in chopping corn for silage.

  • Another blizzard rocks the region, ending harvest for some farmers.

December

  • Moorhead, Minn.-based American Crystal Sugar and Wahpeton, N.D.-based Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative report disappointing financial results. Terrible harvest conditions and frost damage are blamed.

  • Large amounts of crops, especially corn and sunflowers, remain in fields. Unharvested crops are most common in North Dakota: on Dec. 8, the last day for which USDA figures are available, just 43% of corn and 60% of sunflowers are harvested in the state.

  • The U.S. House approves the United States Mexico Canada Agreement, to the great relief of U.S. farm groups that stress the importance of ag trade among the three North American countries. Senate approval awaits.