Walz seeks agriculture disaster declaration for NW Minnesota

water standing in a muddy soybean field
This soybean field near Stephen, Minn., on Oct. 9, 2019, is typical of wet conditions keeping farmers out of fields.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News file

Updated: 4:22 p.m.

Gov. Tim Walz asked the U.S. agriculture secretary on Thursday to declare a disaster for 12 counties of northwestern Minnesota where farmers are struggling through a very difficult harvest season.

The governor said in a letter to Secretary Sonny Perdue that unrelenting bad weather has come on top of challenges farmers were already facing from low commodity prices and trade uncertainties. He told Purdue how the region's crops have fallen victim to flooding, disease and freezing temperatures, leaving many producers unable to harvest them.

"Soybean harvest is well below the five-year average and with snow and freezing temperatures in the forecast, what crops are left in the field will be very difficult to harvest," Walz wrote. He added that the sugar beet harvest is also way behind, "and the early freeze at the end of October ended most of the potato harvest in the Red River Valley."

A secretarial disaster declaration would make emergency loans available to affected producers and open the door to other aid. The USDA typically requires that a county have a 30 percent loss in production of at least one crop.

All 10 members of Minnesota's congressional delegation, led by House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, backed the governor up in a separate letter to Perdue.

"This fall, heavy rain and flooding has created significant harvest challenges for many farmers in Minnesota," they wrote. "For that reason, we urge you to expedite your consideration of this request to provide vital resources to struggling communities."

Walz planned to discuss his request with USDA Undersecretary Bill Northey, who visited southern Minnesota on Thursday. Peterson will hold an agricultural town hall with Northey in Moorhead on Friday.

Dan Younggren, of Hallock, said in an interview that he can't harvest 490 of the 1,200 acres of sugar beets he planted because the soil is already frozen. The harvesting machinery digs up chunks of dirt as big as sugar beets, he said, and processing plants won't take trucks that are half-full of mud.

The low Thursday was 5 above, so Younggren said he has turned his attention to harvesting the last 500 of his 1,900 acres of soybeans before they get buried in snow.

Younggren, who's president of the Red River Valley Sugarbeet Growers Association, said the northern valley got 10 to 20 inches of snow last month, and the meltwater aggravated flooding from September and October rains that were about three times normal. Many crops are now covered and frozen into place by water that has turned to ice, he said.

He was thankful for the governor's request but cautioned that approval takes time.

'It's awfully early in the ask," he said. "We hope that there's something there. We actively look for every avenue [for help], whether it's state or federal. But it's very early, and as long as harvest is going on it's hard to get things set in place. We'll lay the groundwork and see what happens."

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