A year later

About this time last year, ranchers in South Dakota thought they were prepared for an early season snow storm that was on its way. But they soon found out they weren’t.

The storm dumped an unexpected amount of snow on livestock still in summer pastures, still wet from recent fall rains and still only insulated with summer coats.

That storm killed tens of thousands of livestock, mostly in South Dakota. Many ranchers didn’t know the extent of the damage to their herds for a few days because they couldn’t get to them on the ground. Those who were lucky enough to secure aerial views of their pastures came back to the ground with a sickening, real picture of what the next few years would entail in rebuilding their herds.

It was national news — pictures and video footage of cattle carcasses littering riverbeds, pastures and ravines.

Last year, Agweek profiled Richard Papousek, a Quinn, S.D., rancher who lost almost 300 head of cattle in the blizzard. The poignant cover photo of the Oct. 21, 2013, issue of Agweek showed a solemn Papousek with a ravine full of dead cattle in the background.

The storm impacted the agriculture industry far beyond its destructive borders.

The loss of livelihood helped shape disaster recovery programs in the federal farm bill. And the sheer devastation touched hearts of ranching families around the country, who donated money and animals to help in the recovery effort.

The Oct. 6 issue of Agweek will revisit Papousek and others affected by the storm to see how their recovery efforts are progressing a year later.

It’s an industry of resilient people, but the scars are still there.

Join us as we retell stories of survival and recovery. Pick up an Oct. 6 Agweek.

A full issue of Agweek

I just taped my promo video for the Sept. 29 issue of Agweek (I’m getting better at my on-camera presence, so watch out, Katie Couric). I’m happy to share that my script was unusually long this week, and that’s because we have a lot of news to share in the ag industry.

Most of it revolves around harvest, not surprisingly, and storage for the new crop that’s coming in. There’s no room for it in the bins, already overflowing with last year’s crop. So, as you might have guessed, the Sept. 29 issue of Agweek also has an emphasis on the rail delays plaguing the Upper Midwest and Canada.

The heat is on both Burlington Northern Santa Fe and Canadian Pacific railways, but it’s been hotter recently for CP. It’s new “solution” to reduce late cars doesn’t seem to be a solution at all, as it shrinks the numbers on paper but does little to fill orders and really reduce the backlog. If you haven’t already heard, the “solution” is simply to ask elevators to cancel car orders.

Progress? Nope.

But the good news is farmers are finally getting some warm, dry weather, so the harvest is moving along and crops are looking good. I recently overheard a few local farmers saying their wheat, potato and sugar beet yields are the best they’ve seen in their careers. Promising, but the crops always vary from field to field.

Beyond harvest, storage and rail delays, we’ll have coverage of the North Dakota Stockmen’s Convention this week in Dickinson, advice on what to do with a wet corn crop, and an interview with the new executive director of the Minnesota State Cattlemen’s Association. (She’s a woman, so it might be time to change the name to Cattlepeople’s Association; perhaps we should put it to a vote.)

So check out the video at agweek.com.

It’s not the Today Show, but in my biased opinion, it’s not bad.

A soggy day at Big Iron

The first day of the Big Iron Farm Show was chilly and soggy. But, of course, that’s why the turnout was so good.

If farmers aren’t in their fields, they can go to shows like Big Iron, and the crowd was thick today at the Red River Valley Fairgrounds in West Fargo, N.D.

Walking around in wind and drizzle wasn’t so bad and I got to see the entire show, sprawled across the grounds. But I was particularly excited about the drone demonstrations scheduled for 1 to 3 p.m. each day of the event. Today’s weather wasn’t conducive, though, so they didn’t fly the apparatus. It was disappointing, but I did get to hear a few representatives from different companies talk about their equipment and technologies. It would have been nice to see them in action. Hopefully they’ll have better weather tomorrow and Thursday.

If you’re at Big Iron this week, don’t forget to stop by the Agweek booth and say hello. Pick up a free copy of Agweek, enter your name in the drawing for a free shirt and sign up for a discounted subscription. Buy two years ($64), get the third free.

Oh, and they have candy. Lots of candy.

A big day for rail delays

Today, the U.S. Surface Transportation Board is in Fargo, N.D., for a scheduled hearing on rail delays.

Hosted by the state’s delegation and governor, hearings likes this don’t happen often and this is the first time one has ever been held in North Dakota.

The three-member board has a busy day ahead, with testimony scheduled from grain elevators, coal industry officials, state officials and statewide candidates, labor union officials and the railroad companies themselves. Beyond that, there will be comments as necessary from board members, the governor and the legislators present at the hearing.

Gov. Jack Dalrymple opened his speech by reading a letter from the Wilton (N.D.) Farmers Union Elevator, which Agweek featured in our Sept. 1 issue. The facility’s ordered cars are five months behind and it’s desperate for help, with bins bursting with grain from last year’s crop and farmers in need of storage for this year’s. In the letter, sent to state legislators, farm groups and the media on Aug. 25, the elevator’s board officials say they’re fighting for survival.

Agweek already has a short article on our website about the beginning of today’s hearing. Read it here: http://www.agweek.com/event/article/id/24014/. Agweek Staff Writer Mikkel Pates is at the meeting today and posted a blog about his anticipation: http://ag-at-large.areavoices.com/2014/09/04/anticipation-high-for-stb-hearing-in-fargo/.

I don’t know how long this hearing will last, or what the end result will be, but keep checking Agweek.com for updates. We’ll have another, more detailed story (and hopefully some news on changes moving forward to help farmers and elevators) this afternoon.

We’re on the scene for our readers and will bring updates as they’re available.

In the meantime, write to me about how the rail delays have affected you. Do you have a good idea for a solution that hasn’t been floated yet, or a tweak to an existing solution? Let me know: lgibson@agweek.com.



A crazy (fantastic) week

What a week.

Farm bill program news, beef plant funding news, sugar news, railroad shipment news, weather news. I’m more than ready to take the next three days to relax.

But I’d be lying if I said I don’t enjoy the excitement.

And I can’t wait for all the Agweek readers to crack open they’re print edition on Sept. 1. It’s packed.

On Monday, USDA Undersecretary Michael Scuse came to North Dakota to discuss farm bill programs with farmers and legislators. Of course, Agweek was there and heard Scuse agree with farmers that choosing between Agricultural Risk Coverage and Price Loss Coverage will be difficult. To make it more complicated, those farmers are locked into their decisions for the five-year life of the farm bill.

It’s big news that he was here and, I’m sure, some assurance for farmers in our state that the big wigs on the national level are hearing their concerns.

And South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard is hiring an outside lawyer to review the funding distribution of money from EB-5, which had helped fund the now-defunct Northern Beef Packers plant in Aberdeen, S.D. This story is multi-faceted and includes calls for subpoenas of Daugaard, former Gov. Mike Rounds and others who might have played a role in how the funds were distributed.

Stay tuned for updates on this in the future. It’s interesting and the outcome will be important.

Then, on Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Commerce made a preliminary ruling that supports sugar growers, saying Mexico has been subsidizing sugar it’s exporting here. The Department of Commerce is immediately imposing duties on Mexican sugar in response. Permanent countervailing duties could be imposed, depending on the final decision of the Commerce Department, as well as the final decision of the International Trade Commission on injury to the U.S. sugar interests as a result of Mexico’s subsidizing and dumping. ITC made a preliminary ruling already that Mexico’s actions have injured U.S. interests.

Don’t worry, I’m not done yet.

On Wednesday, North Dakota Ag Commissioner Doug Goehring inked a deal with the Port of Vancouver in Washington State to help move more grain by rail. When the Port of Vancouver sends shipments of fracking sand and other materials to Minot, N.D., those cars will be cleaned and then sent back full of North Dakota grain. That sounds helpful, but at least one shipper in North Dakota says that won’t help his business move grain. Another says it will help a few of his customers, but not all.

Then on Thursday, North Dakota’s legislators called out Canadian Pacific Railway for its subpar plan to reduce grain car backlogs. The thing is, the company isn’t reducing anything. It’s just asking elevators to cancel some of their rail car orders that are already months behind. So, the numbers go down, but not because the orders have been met.

Also Thursday, Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that signup for the dairy Margin Protection Program, authorized in the 2014 farm bill, starts Sept. 2. It’s an important program for the dairy industry and it’s nice to see progress on its implementation.

USDA also released details this week on eligibility for the Supplemental Coverage Option, a crucial program for crops.

It’s finally Friday and today, the National Corn Growers Association announced that Fargo, N.D., has been selected to host the National Agricultural Genotyping Center. That’s exciting news and Fargo beat Decatur, Ill., in the final competition for the facility.

Ah, I love news.

And I love the lake. That’s where I’m headed. I hope you all have a wonderful Labor Day weekend.

A donated blog idea

In mining blog topic ideas from friends today, one mentioned the issue of family farms struggling to keep younger generations in ag. Some potential young farmers are choosing more lucrative careers in other industries, such as oil, over their multi-generational family operations.

I was impressed by his knowledgeable suggestion, and it loosely ties in with Agweek’s Aug. 4 cover story. The article explores the competition for labor between a Montana sugar beet company, a subsidiary of the Red River Valley’s American Crystal Sugar, and the Bakken oil companies. Workers are choosing to work in the oilfields instead of on farms, leading to short staffing during peak times of the sugar beet campaign. Employee recruitment has become a year-round endeavor.

Incentives, housing, exchange programs and switches to less labor-intensive irrigation systems are all coming into play as the sugar beet farmers search for solutions to their staffing problem.

It’s not quite family farming strife, but explores a side of the labor shortage around the oil boom.

Check out the Aug. 4 issue to learn more about it. It’s well worth a read.

A busy week in ag news

Spring planting is wrapping up and farmers are trying to decide if requesting prevented-planting payments is the right decision, or if there’s another, better option.

Canadian grain handlers are asking their federal government to require major rail companies to devote a minimum number of cars to grain shipments each month, in an effort to avoid worsening of already unprecedented logjams in shipments.

The Minnesota Corn Growers Association is urging farmers to begin planning and preparing for their propane needs at harvest time, even though it’s months away, to avoid issues with propane shortages from last year’s harvest and drying season.

U.S. farmers are mad about Japan’s trade barriers and say they could derail the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

That’s only a little taste of the news that’s come across my desk this week, and most of that is just from today.

The dorky newsy in me is ecstatic about the amount of news coming up in Agweek’s June 16 issue.

Don’t miss it. And I hope I can fit it all in.


A stroke of mom genius

So much news came out this week about bees. And it’s all bad.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture released a report saying honeybees that are crucial for pollinating crops are still dying off at alarming rates.

Minnesota legislators are recommending pesticide reviews include the possibility of restricting or banning certain pesticides that are found to kill bees. The European Union already does this.

U.S. environmentalist groups are suing government agencies, demanding that the rusty patched bumble bee be added to the endangered species list, as a result of its steep population decline.

My head is buzzing (sorry).

If you read my blog regularly, you know I like bees. And I have a particular soft spot for bumble bees, with their fat, fuzzy bodies. I think they’re cute.

While mentioning my appreciation, I got into a discussion with a fellow Agweek team member in the office today about instances where I’ve been stung by bees. One in particular stands out.

I was about 4 or 5 and lying on the living room floor in our family home watching TV (Sesame Street or the Muppet Babies, I think). It was a hot summer day and we had no air conditioning, so the windows were open to let in the breeze. Suddenly, I felt a searing pain in my pinky finger and looked down to see a small bee sitting on it, stinger already detached and protruding from my quickly swelling finger.

I was so upset. Not because it hurt so much, but because I couldn’t understand why this tiny little bee wanted to hurt me.

My mom scooped me into her lap with a small bag of ice for my chubby, kid finger and explained he was just trying to sit down because I was welcoming and he accidentally stung me. I liked that explanation — so much that I didn’t question it. I probably still told people the story into adulthood.

But moms always have the answers. My mom knew everything when I was a kid. She still does.

So Mom, how do we save those cute little critters who like watching Sesame Street with 5-year-old strawberry-blonds?

The federal government needs your genius.

A side effect of favoritism

The rail delays hampering agribusiness in the Upper Midwest have been big news for weeks now. Federal authorities are getting involved to help alleviate the problem and assist elevators and farmers.

They’ve lost millions. An NDSU study showed farmers in North Dakota lost almost $67 million this year so far because of the delays of grain shipments, and could lose another $100 million if the situation doesn’t improve. It’s important to note that that figure just represents farmers — not elevators or other small businesses — and only in North Dakota.

Railroad companies and even the NDSU study say the delays are caused by a combination of factors: oil traffic, cold weather and a large grain crop.

I disagree.

There’s one cause for this: oil traffic.

Railways made a business decision to favor that industry because transporting oil brings in more money than transporting ag products. The farmers know it and have been saying it for months. It’s not a mystery. If it’s supposed to be a secret, it’s impossible to keep because it’s so obvious. This truth is staring (if not slapping) us in the face.

I guess we aren’t supposed to notice those things.

Grain cars for one rail company are almost a month late now in North Dakota. Two area railways were asked by the Surface Transportation Board during a recent hearing if oil cars are experiencing the same unprecedented delays. Officials from both companies said they didn’t know.

I think they do. I think the answer to that question (clearly, “No”) is an embarrassing one that nobody wants to admit to, in light of the attention this problem is getting and the disapproval of the STB and state-level organizations, not to mention farmers, businesses, farm groups, etc.

And now it’s not just grain cars. Fertilizer deliveries are behind, too. This week’s Agweek cover story is about the fact that late planting has eased that pressure a bit, but it’s still a problem. The STB is mandating weekly updates from two major railway companies on their progress in getting fertilizer to farmers.

This is a problem. A big one.

It needs a fix. And it needs to be quick. Legislators from North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota sent a letter this week to the chairman of the STB, asking for more, swift action to help farmers and others whose business has been deemed less important by rail companies.

The letter praises the recent action the board took, but says more work needs to be done.

Finally we are seeing some progress. Let’s hope that progress doesn’t slow.

A cattleman’s beef with Brazil

I read with interest an article this week about Brazil finding its second case of mad cow disease within a few weeks.

That’s far away, you might think, and of little importance to us.


The U.S. Department of Agriculture is considering allowing beef imports from Brazil, which currently are barred. Fourteen states would be given permission to export beef to the U.S. under the new rule, whose comment period recently closed. Not surprisingly, a throng of industry groups spoke out against it.

But not because of mad cow disease. It’s because of foot and mouth disease (not foot-in-mouth, mind you; that’s a totally different condition).

Foot and mouth affects cloven-hoofed animals, causing fever, blisters in the mouth and on the feet, and can be fatal. It typically doesn’t affect humans but can be spread from animal to animal through feed and other contact, or from person to animal on footwear, clothing, etc. According to Columbia University in New York, it can be spread through infected meat.

Scary stuff.

Sidenote: The U.S. has been FMD-free since 1929. Not surprising, then, that cattlemen here are against it.

“The economic cost of an FMD outbreak in the United States would be tremendous,” says Doug Sombke, president of the South Dakota Farmers Union.

“(FMD) could pose a threat to U.S. livestock herds and consequently to family farmers and ranchers across Montana,” says Alan Merrill, president of the Montana Farmers Union.

The National Farmers Union, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and other state, local and national farm groups let out a resounding “No” in response to the proposal.

But it has its supporters, too.

The American Meat Institute and American Farm Bureau are in favor.

“… the proposed rule promotes regulatory consistency and uniformity to the benefit of U.S. producers, processors and exporters of these same products,” the American Meat Institute says, adding that USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service performed analyses of the risks of an FMD outbreak in the U.S., and determined that beef can be imported safely.

The rule would allow an average of about 40,000 metric tons (44,000 tons) per year of Brazilian beef, increasing U.S. imports by less than 1 percent. APHIS says this would reduce the wholesale price of beef by 0.11 percent, retail price by 0.04 percent and the price of cattle by 0.14 percent.

Those figures aren’t impressive to me.

With outbreaks of multiple diseases in Brazil, minimal cost savings just don’t seem to be worth the risk (however small it might be), regardless of regulations and safeguards. You know what they say: Hindsight is 20-20.

Yep. But foresight should be adequate to catch plenty of mistakes before they happen — before they negatively affect livestock and the families that sacrifice so much to keep their animals alive and healthy.

Is this proposal a good one? Is it a worthwhile endeavor?

Personally, I don’t know. Do you?