1. The Ongoing Trade War- The tit-for-tat trade spat between the U.S. and China dominated the agricultural news scene this past year. The tension began in March with President Donald Trump imposing tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. China responded with tariffs on a variety of U.S. products, including agricultural commodities. The rhetoric and retaliation ramped up throughout the year and ag exports to China dried up. Minnesota Soybean Growers Association President Michael Petefish summed it up when he told RRFN “no one wins in a trade war.”
2. Weather Delays – Across the Northern Plains and Upper Midwest, the 2018 growing season was bookended by weather-related challenges. Conditions varied widely across the region this spring. New England, North Dakota farmer Jon Wert finished planting on Memorial Day, but faced heavy rains throughout May. In Wert’s words, “the fields are waterlogged; crops are kind of beat down.” In other areas, crop emergence was hurt by dry conditions. “Corn has some of the worst stands we’ve seen in quite awhile,” said Britton, South Dakota farmer Kurt Zuhlke. Wet weather was the nemesis at harvest time. An early October snow further complicated the harvest season. Ag Advantage Consulting owner Jonathan Erickson spoke with RRFN in October, saying farmers were cutting soybeans above the snow, taking about two-thirds of the plant and leaving the rest.” A large portion of North Dakota and northwest Minnesota went a month-and-a-half without rain in late July and August. That concern was evident during the inaugural RRFN Crop Tour presented by Pioneer.
3. Farm Bill Passes – The 2018 farm bill passed in the same year in which it was introduced. That milestone hasn’t happened in nearly 30 years. Farm-state lawmakers crowded the White House stage in late December as President Trump signed the legislation. “We have to take care of our farmers and ranchers and we will take care of them,” said Trump. The farm bill faced its share of battles, including controversy over work requirements for SNAP. The dairy title was enhanced to provide support for smaller dairies. Only minor tweaks were made to the ARC and PLC programs and the cap for Conservation Reserve Program acreage increased.
4. Election to Bring Changes for Agriculture- North Dakota’s race between incumbent Senator Heidi Heitkamp and Congressman Kevin Cramer garnered national attention. After an expensive and hard-fought campaign, Cramer will be sworn in as North Dakota’s newest senator. The Democrats won control of the U.S. House and Minnesota Congressman Collin Peterson will take over the chairmanship of the agriculture committee. U.S. Representative Kristi Noem won the South Dakota’s gubernatorial race. Governor-elect Tim Walz will make the transition from Washington, D.C. to St. Paul. Walz told RRFN he heard a common theme during the campaign from farmers; “don’t do things to us, do things with us.”
5. USMCA Revamps Trade Policy – During his run for the White House, Donald Trump pledged to renegotiate NAFTA calling it “the worst trade deal ever made.” The Trump Administration followed through with that promise, updating the free trade deal and rebranding it the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement. Dairy policy became a significant talking point and Canada eventually agreed to eliminate its controversial Class 7 dairy pricing program. Former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who now leads the U.S. Dairy Export Council, is worried the new agreement gives Canada the flexibility to again “have an advantage similar to Class 7.” Going into the New Year, USMCA still needs to be ratified by the legislative body in each country.
6. More Crop Goes to Storage – The market told farmers to store their crops this fall, particularly with soybeans. The drop-off in export sales to China widened out the local basis levels and some grain elevators refused to accept beans this fall. NDSU Extension crops marketing economist Frayne Olson told RRFN this is not a short-term event. “This is something that likely will take many months to fix, even if the tariffs were removed.” Storing soybeans in the grain bin takes more management than corn, especially with the higher moisture levels. Storage management became a popular topic during the long harvest season.
7. Weed Worries – In late August, Palmer amaranth was confirmed for the first time in North Dakota, joining the neighboring states of Minnesota and South Dakota in dealing with this very difficult weed problem. Palmer amaranth joins waterhemp, kochia and others on the problem list for area farmers. A tight planting window forced many farmers to skip pre-emergence herbicides, which resulted in summer weed resistance headaches. Rock and Roll Agronomy crop consultant Jason Hanson warned product shortages are possible in 2019. “A lot of generic products on the market are sourced out of China,” said Hanson. “Metribuzin is one of the big ones. Clethodim and 2,4-D may move up in price and could be tight.” In November, EPA’s long-awaited decision on dicamba was finally announced. The federal label was extended for two years.
8. Market Facilitation Program Payments Provide Short-term Help – In July, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced USDA would help farmers hurt by trade damage from unjustified retaliation. The Market Facilitation Program is offering payments to farmers raising soybeans, wheat, corn, cotton, sorghum, hogs and dairy cattle. Other commodities sought a helping hand, but the Administration emphasized the relief would go those producers with a direct market impact. “Corn moves in sympathy with soybeans, but you can’t really capture that very well when you’re looking at 40 different commodities.” USDA Undersecretary Bill Northey made that point in a Red River Farm Network forum at the Big Iron Farm Show. With the government shutdown at the end of the year, questions surfaced on the impact on MFP payments.
9. Farm Stress on the Rise- Farm stress and mental health are becoming frequent topics for the winter meeting season. “You have stacking factors with markets, policy, the uncertainty about trade and you add the weather piece on top of that; t These are things we really don’t have any control over,” John Shutske of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Extension made that point to North Dakota Bankers Association Ag Credit Conference. The National Farmers Union was among the groups urging USDA to proactively address farmer and rancher stress. In a letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, NFU President Roger Johnson urged the Department to “develop a response to the farm suicide crisis.” NFU also asked USDA develop training materials to help Farm Service Agency personnel better identify and respond to the signs of stress.
10. Seeking Year-round Availability of E15- Responding to repeated requests from the agriculture and the biofuels industry, President Donald Trump indicated the Administration will move forward with year-round sales of 15 percent ethanol blends. Growth Energy CEO Emily Skor welcomed the move. “For the first time, we have a clear commitment from the White House to get a regulatory fix in the pipeline for next summer’s driving season. Nationwide, E15 sales promise to drive demand for 2 billion more bushels of American corn.” A lengthy rulemaking process is now underway. EPA’s use of small refinery waivers kept ethanol demand flat and has been an ongoing headache for ethanol supporters. Arthur, North Dakota farmer and National Corn Growers Association Chairman Kevin Skunes said the waivers make a difference. “We don’t feel the criteria of those refineries meeting financial hardship was met, but the EPA went ahead and granted those (small refinery Renewable Fuel Standard) waivers anyway. We believe that the oil industry had their package delivered. It’s time to deliver a package for corn ethanol and agriculture.”