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Drought ends in west-central Minnesota

Losses reported on about a quarter of Douglas County’s farmed acres in 2021.

EP Agriculture
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DOUGLAS COUNTY – Last year’s drought meant big crop losses in Douglas County – and payments from the taxpayer-funded agency that insures crops.

In 2021, farmers reported losing 55,855 acres worth of crops in Douglas County, mostly from drought. That was about a quarter of the farmland in the county. The largest losses were in the county’s two main crops, corn first, then soybeans.

“It did impact many producers,” said Alex Fellbaum, who was hired as executive director of the FSA office for Douglas and Pope counties at the height of the 2021 drought. “Obviously it was variable across both counties. There were some late season rains, but they came too late.”

The blow to farmers was softened by federal crop insurance, which paid out $8,482,050 through the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation. It was the second-biggest payout in Douglas County since 1989. The biggest payout, which topped $9 million, came in 2014 in response to price declines, and to reimburse farmers for crops ruined by unseasonably cold, wet weather.

Walz 6941.jpg
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, right, talks with Brandon dairy farmer Michael Roers about his corn crop and the drought during a visit on Thursday, July 29, 2021.
Lowell Anderson / Alexandria Echo Press

Kannen Lund, 25, farms corn and soybeans with his dad and grandfather in Brandon, and also custom bales rye grass hay and wheat straw in northern Minnesota, which he sells. The extreme drought hammered pasture and hay ground in many parts of the state, and he said he only baled about a quarter of his typical amount in 2021.

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“Going into this spring, everyone is going to be short on bales,” he said.

But things aren’t all dire, Lund says. High commodity prices and crop insurance are helping farmers get through crop losses, everyone he knows was able to get enough feed to get through the winter, and the snowy winter seems to promise good pasture in just a couple months.

Fellbaum said he has heard reports of some farmers having to reduce their herds in the two counties he covers.

However, the area’s biggest cattle rancher, Joe Wagner, said he was able to get through the winter without culling his herd. To get by, he chopped up his cash crop of corn into cattle feed.

“You do what you gotta do to protect your feed piles,” he said. “If we wouldn’t have done that, we would have been 50-60% short on our feed resources so we would have had to cull.”

He was pleased with how autumn rains in 2021 perked up the area’s hay ground and said that a season of normal moisture should replenish feed stocks locally. However, he also pointed out that nothing is local anymore, and that west-central Minnesota is surrounded by areas where drought persists. Those farms may buy feed from west-central Minnesota, driving up prices locally.

Much of the western and southern United States remains drought-stricken, including huge swaths of extreme and exceptional drought.

“It’s such a massive area that’s in drought out west,” Wagner said. “It’s having a major impact locally.”

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Even in Minnesota, drought continues in many parts of the state. The U.S. Drought Monitor shows that eastern and a big part of northern Minnesota remain abnormally dry, with patches of moderate to severe drought.

Looking ahead

And what about 2022? It’s far too early to know, but early indicators say the Douglas County area may avoid last year’s drought. For one thing, the winter’s heavy snow pack has saturated the ground with moisture. For the first time since mid-May, the U.S. Drought Monitor no longer shows any drought or abnormal dryness in the county.

The National Weather Service’s long-range prediction for April-June indicates that Douglas County will have higher than normal temperatures, and that it has equal chances of either being dryer or wetter than normal.

But even those broad forecasts could prove incorrect.

“Anything beyond two weeks, it’s basically a coin toss,” says Peter Boulay, a climatologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Reporter Karen Tolkkinen grew up in Plymouth, Minnesota, graduated from the University of Minnesota with a journalism degree in 1994, and was driven by curiosity to work her way around the United States.
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