Gov. Tim Walz made a plea Thursday on behalf of Minnesota farmers beset by waterlogged fields that made it difficult to plant and harvest soybeans, or whose beets and potatoes remain frozen in the ground.
“Northwest Minnesota needs access to federal aid to recover and endure the effects these losses will have in the coming years,” Walz said in a letter to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue.
Farmers have been pushing for federal disaster assistance after an unusually hard season made worse by President Donald Trump’s trade war with China. Walz took up their call Thursday, asking the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to grant disaster designation to a dozen Minnesota counties. The designation makes it easier for affected farmers to access loans and qualify for a federal program that helps offset disaster-related losses.
“It’s not a savior. But it is an acknowledgment. It’s a recognition of the real challenges producers are going through and the impact economically to a county,” USDA Under Secretary Bill Northey told reporters at a summit Thursday in Minneapolis sponsored by Minnesota AgriGrowth Council, a nonprofit trade group.
To qualify for disaster designation, a county must have suffered at least a 30% loss of one crop. The review process for the designation request could take up to several weeks, said Northey, who is meeting with farmers in northwestern Minnesota on Friday to learn about the extent of the damage.
The request comes as farmers across the country have been forced to rely heavily on federal assistance this year, with more than one-third of farm income coming from the government.
It also comes on the heels of large federal payouts to farmers across the nation to compensate for market losses suffered in the trade war with China. Minnesota producers so far have received $681 million, the third largest statewide allotment in the first round of the so-called Market Facilitation Program. Two more rounds are expected.
While there is no firm deal between the U.S. and China, the two sides have tentatively agreed to lift some of the tariffs on each other’s products, a Chinese spokesman announced Thursday.
Walz said even if a trade agreement is reached and farmers get tariff relief, it will take a while to rebuild their markets.
The governor, like Northey, stressed that the disaster declaration would not be a complete fix for farmers hit by bad weather. But he said it would provide a safety net to soften the blow — particularly as further environmental complications loom.
“This is going to be a long-unfolding disaster declaration because this is going to go into the spring,” Walz said, adding that more flooding is expected in early 2020. “I think what you’re going to have is two years, back-to-back, where it’s going to be very, very challenging.”
Walz’s letter to Perdue stressed that low commodity prices, trade uncertainty and severe weather challenges have made the situation for farmers particularly acute.
Members of the state’s congressional delegation — from both sides of the aisle — joined Walz Thursday in calling for the declaration, sending a separate letter outlining the needs in the northwestern corner of the state.
“Flooded fields have created unworkable field conditions for many producers in Minnesota. During September and October, parts of the state received more than 400% of the typical amount of rainfall, and the Red River reached record levels that are normally seen during the spring thaw,” the lawmakers wrote.
Minnesota Farmers Union President Gary Wertish also backed Walz’s request. “It’s clear that he is deeply aware of the fact that farmers are dealing with low prices right now, and wet and cold weather has thrown more wrenches into the situation,” Wertish said in a statement.