The decline of the family farm

When did it begin?

by

Cindy Stewart
Kittson County Enterprise

April 1, 1998

 

Editor's Note: This is the first in a series onthe farm crisis in Kittson County. The family farm is in jeopardy.How and when did it all begin?

Fifty years ago, over 1,300 farms dotted the fertile soilof Kittson County.

The average size farm was 400 acres. The average farmerwas around 45 years old.

Wheat was the number one crop, contributing to half ofthe total harvested acres.

Today, the scenario is different. The soil is still fertilebut the statistics have changed.

Kittson County Agriculture Extension Educator Curtis Nyegaardsaid in general, Kittson County has been an "out-migration" countyever since the 1930s.

Population is, and has been, on a decreasing trend. Inthe 1950s, 10,000 people lived in Kittson County.

The population today, taken from the 1992 census, standsat 5,500.
There are 521 farms in the county now, with the average size farmat 920 acres.

The average age of farm operators, there's about 550 ofthem in the county today, is 49 years old.

So, when did the crisis begin, or has it been happeningfor some time?

Nyegaard said in general, yes, the numbers are decliningand statistics show it will continue.

And, the crisis happening right now in Kittson County willnot help the trend go the other way.

"We need market prices that will show a net profitthat is high enough to keep our young people on the farm and attract newfarmers into the business so we can maintain and ensure our rural populationand economy," Nyegaard said.

Kelly Turgeon, director of the Farm Service Agency officein Hallock, said he thinks Kittson County farmers have been optimistic overthe years. He said over the course of the last 10 years, there were somegood years, but there were also several disasters.

"As a whole, for wheat producers, they would liketo put those years behind them," he said.

Still, even five years ago, Turgeon said, there was stillsome optimism.

But, also in the last five years. crisis hit. Turgeon saidexcessive moisture at the wrong times during the growing season eventuallyled to crop diseases and mainly scab.

Nyegaard said he agrees that scab was a major contributingfactor to the present crisis.

"I don't think anybody anticipated a long term problemwhen scab was found in 1993. But, seeing the characteristics of the disease,you could see the potential, depending on the weather conditions,"Nyegaard said.

He said they found scab in the county in 1986 and thena little in 1987.

"I wasn't very familiar with the disease then andI'm sure farmers weren't either. It hadn't been around for 40 years,"Nyegaard said.

He said scab; along with some other factors, developedinto a long term, five year problem.

"It started in 1993 when approximately 110,000 acresof wheat in Kittson County was destroyed because of head scab. It wouldhave cost more to harvest than it was worth," he said.

The crisis was also caused, he said, by the governmentfarm program of the 1980s which required wheat and barley to be plantedeach year to qualify for payments.

Nyegaard said there was limited or no summerfallow allowedand little flexibility in planting crops. When no rotations were allowedon wheat and barley base acres, this caused problems with root rots, seedlingblights, scab and leaf diseases. Wet weather, crop insurance problems andpoor market prices didn't help.

This isn't the first farm crisis in Kittson County. Nyegaardsaid in the 1980s, farmers dealt with high land prices and high interestrates and cash flow problems.

"The 80s crisis was an economic one and a nationalproblem. The crisis now affecting the county is much smaller, geographically,weather and price related and a different scenario," he said.

There are farmers going out of business because of thiscrisis, Nyegaard said.

Next week, the second part of this series will addressthe affects the farm crisis is having on farmers and the community.nd part of this series will addressthe affects the farm crisis is having on farmers and the community.