Steve Anderson, who farms north of St. Cloud in Benton County, sold his cattle herd in June after 33 years of dairy farming because he saw early signs of a drought that has only gotten worse.
Bad enough, Anderson said, that he's started to abandon his hopes that a healthy crop yield at a time of high grain prices would help offset cattle losses. "Now that's all I'm doing now, is selling grain," said Anderson, who's 65.
The 450 acres he farms near Foley typically meet or exceed the national average for corn and soybeans harvested per acre, Anderson said. But not this year: "It doesn't look like that's going to be possible unless things turn around and we get some rain. But I don't think we're going to," he said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Drought Monitor categorized 19% of Minnesota as under "severe drought" as of Tuesday, a jump from just 4% a week earlier. Another 53% of the state was under a severe drought and 26%, including most of the Twin Cities metro, was in a moderate drought.
The consequences for farmers are likely to vary widely by location, and crop conditions statewide aren't yet as dire as the drought map might suggest. The USDA's weekly crop report found that as of last Sunday, more than half the state's wheat, more than three-quarters of corn and soybeans, and nearly all of its sugar beet crops were still in fair to excellent condition.
"We're in a really tenuous position right now," said Seth Naeve, the soybean agronomist for University of Minnesota Extension. "It's not a disaster yet. But we need rain."
In the hardest-hit areas, crop farmers are definitely worried. The current severe drought area stretches down from a portion of the Canadian border into a swath of northwestern and central Minnesota.
Cattle farmers have been hardest hit to date as they run short of feed for their herds, and some have sold off livestock in recent weeks. Now crop farmers are watching plants wither during a crucial time in the growing season.
"It's as bad here as I've seen it in many, many years," said Tim Dufault, who grows spring wheat and soybeans east of Crookston on 1,600 acres. "The wheat's shot and the corn's going. Soybeans are holding their own for now — we're holding our breath."
Dufault said his wheat is just about ready for harvest, about two weeks ahead of a normal year. Land that usually produces 65 to 70 bushels per acre is more likely to give 35 to 40 bushels this year, he said. Soybeans still have a chance because August is when they take in their most moisture, he said.
The University of Minnesota's Northwest Research and Outreach Center in Crookston recorded 3.72 inches of rain through June, versus a 30-year average of 9.83 inches.
"We certainly understand the economics of farming, especially for the younger folks — one or two bad years can make the situation really tough," Gov. Tim Walz said to a group of farmers Thursday after a tour of a drought-stricken Polk County farm.
Walz extolled crop insurance while adding he knows it "does not make people whole." He mentioned that the state's Rural Finance Authority recently made zero-interest loans available to drought-affected farmers. Walz asked U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to temporarily open some Conservation Reserve Program lands to grazing, to help cattle farmers who are struggling to keep cows fed.
"A lot of guys around here are selling cattle off. I know three farmers who've sold their entire herds," said Miles Kuschel, who runs a 3,600-acre, third-generation cow/calf operation in Sebeka, Minn., about halfway between Brainerd and Detroit Lakes. "You either buy hay at an extraordinary price and lose money on the cattle, or you sell the cattle. There's a lot of guys going through that decision process right now."
Kuschel sold 60 cows in the spring and another 30 more recently. He doesn't want to sell more, he said, but he thinks he'll probably have to move another 50 to 100 in August unless there's more moisture by then. Selling off large numbers of cows to beef processors means losing cattle genetics that farmers spend years developing, he said.
The situation isn't quite as grim for farmers in much of southern Minnesota, where the weather has been a little less dry and where you're less likely to find wheat, which ripens earlier in the year, and more likely to find corn and soybeans.
"Things are looking OK for us around here," said Adam Asmus, who farms 450 acres of corn and soybeans with his father in Sibley County. "Springtime was low on surface moisture but we had decent subsoil so the plants came up OK. We've had a couple seemingly timely rains, and that helped out."
Asmus said he's holding onto his expectations for a normal harvest this year, but that a very dry August would affect that.
Drought conditions in agricultural areas tend to push up commodity prices, which means that those farmers who are able to hold on and produce a bountiful harvest end up benefiting from the same factors that are tanking profits for fellow farmers sometimes just a few hours away.
Asmus recalled cashing in on spiraling corn prices a few years ago as Illinois, Indiana and Iowa suffered a drought.
"Usually somebody else has to suffer for you to make money. It's how our current system is situated," Asmus said. "It kind of stinks."