There may be members of the farming fraternity looking back on 2019 this spring as boot camp. Last year’s late planting season, wet summer and winter-shortened harvest season paired with low commodity prices added up to a rugged year for farmers.
Because of the spread of the COVID-19 virus and the extraordinary measures being taken by the government in stopping the spread of a contagion, the agriculture industry is going into the spring planting season with a fresh set of problems on top of the ones they already had.
Don Viger is preparing for spring planting fully aware of the perils COVID-19 has placed before him. Yet the Dalton-area grain farmer is moving in the only direction he can go - forward.
“I think COVID-19 affects everyone, not just farmers,” Viger said Wednesday. “I don’t have any good, positive things to say about it.”
Like anyone who makes their living outdoors, Viger likes to stay on good terms with Mother Nature. But COVID-19 is presenting him with a fresh set of problems. It has the potential to leave him without the resources he needs to raise his crops.
The health of people who do application work is also vital to farmers. Fertilizer application is a mainstay for many farmers in doing their spring planting.
When speaking to ag service recently Viger was told that “if one of us gets sick it’ll shut us all down.”
The seed Viger will be planting this season is bought and paid for but so far it has not been delivered to his farm. While he is not concerned about the seed itself he does have other delivery concerns. During the course of the planting season he will need deliveries of fuel, oil and other supplies - right down to deliveries UPS drops off at his shop.
But Viger is not alone. His son works as a farm equipment mechanic in Elbow Lake. Their shop has been off limits to customers who bring in equipment for servicing and repair.
Viger has been getting his own equipment in shape for spring planting but a lot of modern equipment demands the skills of a trained mechanic. A malfunctioning unit is worthless to the farmer.
“Life as you know it is still going to go on,” Viger said. “We’ll just have to adjust on the fly.”
Ashby Equity agronomist Taylor Kemper said efforts were being made to keep their staff healthy for the spring planting season.
“Most of us are working from home to keep our team healthy,” Kemper said Wednesday afternoon.
During spring planting Kemper said that between the office, truck drivers and equipment operators there are normally 15-20 people working for Ashby Equity.
Manager Jon Stueve said Farmers Elevator of Fergus Falls does not offer agronomy services but it does have a plant that supplies feed to livestock producers.
“We’re trying to take precautions,” Stueve said. “We’re trying to distance ourselves from people.”
While most livestock producers grow their own forage crops they still depend on concentrates and proteins that the elevator sells.
“Once you start pulling the proteins and concentrates the production goes down,” Stueve said.
Elbow Lake Grain manager Al Mashek was among the first to notice the decline of corn and soybean prices when the COVID-19 crisis in China gained international attention in February.
Just one month earlier Washington had announced an $80 billion grain deal with China but early grain orders were not being placed. Soybean prices in February dropped 30 cents a bushel in two weeks. By the third week in March Mashek felt grain prices had reached a “ridiculous” level. Mashek has not been surprised to see the traffic of grain slow down. The fact that semis pulling grain hoppers were seen traveling up and down Highway 210 west of Fergus Falls Tuesday also did not catch him off guard.
“A lot of that grain movement is contracted,” he said, explaining that grain being moved now was most likely sold by contract months ago at a price being offered then.
As the 2020 planting season approaches in west-central Minnesota with all of its uncertainties Mashek is seeing something else.
“The farmers are being patient,” Mashek said.
Patience is a quality they have had plenty of practice in developing over the last couple years.