WILLMAR, Minn. — Hurricane Michael ripped through portions of Georgia and Alabama in 2018, causing millions of dollars in damage to peanut and cotton crops.
Tariffs came next, dropping demand and prices for both crops. This year brought the COVID-19 pandemic, slamming retail businesses hard, especially those selling clothing. For a three-month period, global cotton sales dropped by a total of roughly 21 million bales.
When you consider that the entire U.S. production of cotton totals 19 million bales, it’s not hard to see why cotton producers are hurting, explained Kent Fountain, a cotton producer in southeast Georgia and president of the National Cotton Council of America.
These challenges brought Fountain and three other farmers from Georgia and Alabama to a sugar beet field on the Hultgren Farms west of Willmar, Minn. Joining Fountain on Monday, Aug. 3, were Mark Kaiser, a fourth-generation peanut farmer in southwest Alabama; Chad Mathis, a cotton and peanut grower in southwest Georgia; and Jonathan Sanders, a cotton and peanut grower in southeast Georgia, and early in his career as a farmer.
The Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative in Renville, Minn., is looking to start its harvest campaign this Monday, Aug. 10, but it’s the 2020 political campaign that brought these farmers active in cotton and peanut grower organizations to the sugar beet field. They are swinging through portions of southwestern Minnesota to support U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., in his re-election campaign.
The four in March had urged Peterson to seek re-election to U.S. House District 7 in Minnesota. Now they are making good on their pledge to support Peterson, chairman of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee. The Minnesota primary is Tuesday, Aug. 11.
They pointed out that Peterson is among a very few Democrats in Congress from a rural district. One of their concerns is the possibility that someone without an agricultural background could become chair of the committee.
Most of all, they said they are concerned about maintaining the farm bill, which Peterson championed and helped broker.
“It’s not a profit center,” Kaiser said of the farm bill. “It’s a safety net.”
They see the farm bill as a national security issue, made all the more important by the recent pandemic. Take it away, and the U.S. will lose producers and instead import more food and fiber.
Fountain also pointed to the safety net for farmers when they seek financing. It’s especially important in helping young people obtain the financing needed to get into farming.
“There’s not many young farmers coming in,” Sanders said. “There’s not any profit in it.”
He started farming in 2013, the year that commodity prices began their downward slide.
Brothers Nate Hultgren and Noah Hultgren led the group Monday to the sugar beet field along Minnesota Highway 40 west of Willmar. The two farm with their parents, Duane and Nancy Hultgren, as part of a fourth-generation family farm dating to 1932.
The visitors from Alabama and Georgia had never seen sugar beets before, and were curious about everything from planting to processing. Yet the conversation in the field quickly turned to what they had in common: Waterlogged fields, tariffs, and now COVID-19 have made recent years challenging for farmers no matter the crop.
Peanuts saw an uptick in prices when COVID-19 arrived and people bought up non-perishable foods like peanut butter. But processors could only shell so many peanuts, and now the pantries are full. Demand and prices are down again, the visitors said.
Crops in the South are looking good this year, they said, as are crops here.
The Hultgren brothers said they are optimistic for one of their best sugar beet crops.
Corn and soybeans are doing very well too.
But at current prices, there will be no windfalls no matter how big the harvest. Noah Hultgren said the family is looking at sugar beets to offset the losses in corn.
The same kind of calculations are being made on farms in Georgia and Alabama, the four men explained later. They said the farm bill helps keep some consistency in farming for them, and is absolutely critical in years like these.
“The farm bill helps us stay in business and keeps food and fiber out there at reasonable, low costs to consumers,” Mathis said.