With the calendar turning to fall, Rice County farmers remain optimistic about a strong harvest this fall, but as the COVID-19 pandemic brings down prices, lagging markets continue to be a cause for concern.
In contrast to 2018 and 2019, which both saw less than ideal growing conditions and markets, farmers entered 2020 with strong hopes for both a strong harvest and a market rebound, thanks in large part due to resolution on the trade front.
In January, President Donald Trump gave U.S. approval to the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement trade agreement. Just two weeks before signing USMCA, Trump struck a “Phase One” trade deal with China. The agreements brought an end to costly, high-stakes trade conflicts between the U.S. and its three largest trading partners. In 2017, the U.S. exchanged nearly $1.7 trillion in goods with those three countries.
With optimism running high and spring weather good, farmers planted a robust crop. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s annual acreage report, Minnesota farmers planted 8.1 million acres of corn, and 7.4 million acres of soybeans. In total, that was about 8% more soybeans and 4% more corn than last year. Nationally, the increase was about 3% for corn and 10% for soybeans, with this fall’s soybean crop set to be the third largest in U.S. history.
The state’s latest Crop Progress and Condition Reports show an overall picture that remains strong for growers. Corn and soybean maturation remains well ahead of last year’s pace, and approximately 80% of corn and soybeans were rated good to excellent by farmers.
Rice and Steele counties’ University of Minnesota Agriculture Extension Educator Claire LaCanne said that although some local farmers have faced issues with sudden death syndrome in soybeans, the county remains on pace for a strong and timely harvest.
“The crops are looking really great overall,” she said. “The harvest should be in full swing very soon, as things dry up a little.”
Local soybean growers have gained a particular boost from the trade deal with China, because of China’s large appetite for soy products. China previously accounted for roughly 60% of local soybean purchases, but shifted to Brazilian soybeans amid the trade conflict.
Supporters said it could increase America’s agricultural exports to $50 billion and its overall exports by $200 billion, although the deal only includes fixed targets for this year and next. So far, China’s strong commitment to the deal is surprising some local growers.
“Real good demand from China recently that’s helped rally the soybean rally,” said Northfield area farmer Bruce Peterson, a former President of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association. “We’re not back where we were at the beginning of the year, but we’re not far from it either.”
Peterson added that China’s purchases of corn have helped to boost prices as well. Still, reduced demand for ethanol hit the corn market hard and it hasn’t fully recovered, said fellow Northfield area farmer Mike Peterson.
In addition to a short but costly oil price war, oil prices have been driven down by decreased demand due to the pandemic. Even before COVID-19 hit, Mike Peterson said that demand was hurting from waivers granted by the EPA to exempt small refineries from biofuel mandates.
Locally, the expected harvest remains reasonably strong, though some farmers lost a portion of their crops to hail. Rice County Farmers Union President Steven Read said the brunt of the blow has been felt by local vegetable farmers, particularly those in the Northfield area.
Sogn Valley Farms, located just west of Dennison, was hit especially hard, suffering roughly $100,000 in hailstorm damage. To help them, Faribault-based hot sauce company Cry Baby Craig’s purchased their damaged peppers to make a special limited edition hot sauce, with all proceeds going back to the farm.
While the generosity of Cry Baby Craig’s may be helping Sogn Valley, Read said there’s no real federal support program to help smaller speciality farms like theirs recover. Instead, he said that what little assistance exists has largely gone to larger producers.
Local livestock and hog farmers have also taken it on the chin due to COVID-19. The pandemic has shut down meatpacking plants across the state, putting additional strain on an already underserved industry and forcing some farmers to put down some hogs.
David Bau, a University of Minnesota Extension educator, said that while markets have continued to go sideways for hogs, livestock prices are now rising dramatically. However, dairy prices have fallen due to uncertain demand.
With most Minnesotans eating at home as much as 80% of the time, producers who were traditionally able to rely on strong demand from restaurants and schools have had to shift — a particular challenge for the growing number of small farmers throughout the region.
Drought has also been an issue. While Rice County has had just enough rain to keep the crop healthy, Mike Peterson said that it’s been a bit drier than ideal, reducing the projected harvest somewhat. However, he noted that southwest Minnesota has been hit harder by drought.
In addition, a massive windstorm known as a “derecho” that swept through Iowa last month caused mass damage to an estimated 37.7 million acres of farmland, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
While weaker harvests have helped to boost prices some, Mike Peterson said that unless exports increase at a dramatic rate, it won’t be enough to make the economics work for many area corn and soybean growers.
“Given the prices and inputs, most farmers need an enormous crop to get it to cash flow,” he said. “Our only hope for prosperity is to produce a lot and that seems to be the worst thing we can do economically.”
For the first time in the COVID-19 era, Faribault’s River Bend Nature Center is preparing to hold its longest-running and most important fundraiser.
While this year’s Ramble may be the 39th annual, its tagline, “A Ramble Like Never Before,” certainly doesn’t beat around the bush. With a mix of live and virtual events, it will attempt to continue the beloved traditions of the Ramble while trying some new things.
Nearly all proceeds from the event will go toward park maintenance expenses and community education programs. Even with the pandemic’s effects on the economy, the event has retained a long list of prominent local sponsors, from KGP to Met-Con to the State Bank of Faribault.
Center director Brianna Wheeler said the Nature Center is grateful for all the support it has received, particularly in recent months. She noted that traffic at River Bend has increased dramatically, along with other recreation opportunities limited by the pandemic.
“During times like this, connecting with nature is important,” she said. “Most communities don’t have something like the Nature Center, which is open to the public every day of the year. It really is a gem.”
Founded in 1978, the nonprofit nature center on Faribault’s south side provides a pleasant venue for community events and has traditionally hosted environmental science-related classes. River Bend also maintains more than 10 miles of public use trails spread out over more than 740 acres of park land.
While park staff are glad to see increased traffic, Wheeler said that makes financial support from the community even more important. Though it sits on land once owned by the state of Minnesota, River Bend doesn’t receive regular funding from any government entities.
This year, River Bend is promoting the Ramble as not a single event but a “package deal” which includes events throughout the week. A single $50 ticket will get patrons into all “Ramble Week” events. An individual event ticket can be purchased for $10.
The week kicks off with a pancake brunch to go from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 19. This year’s version of the Maple Syrup Fun Run, the pancake brunch to go won’t include any gatherings, even for the outdoor run, due to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations against large group gatherings.
Instead, River Bend supporters are invited to either just pick up pancakes, which are famously topped with real maple syrup and/or grab a race bag. Fun Run participants are invited to register for any distance on any “race day” between Sept. 19 and Sept. 30.
A scavenger hunt will also run throughout the week at River Bend, beginning Sunday, Sept. 20. New clues will be posted to River Bend’s social media pages daily until the golden ticket is found, with the prize slowly decreasing for each day passed.
Among the prizes up for grabs are RBNC gift cards, a free family membership to River Bend and a bottle of real maple syrup. More prizes will be awarded Tuesday, Sept. 22 night to the winners of River Bend’s virtual nature trivia. The following day, River Bend supporters are invited to learn more about the nature center on a one-hour walk or golf cart ride led by an RBNC naturalist. Only five people can take the tour at one time, due to COVID, and the event is weather permitting.
Friday night, the day before River Bend’s traditional big day, will feature a special guest appearance from New-Prague based band, Little Chicago. A 15 member horn band, Little Chicago plays classic hits from the 1960s and 1970s. Den Gardner, the band’s manager, said that Little Chicago is excited to be able to play for a good cause. Though they haven’t played at River Bend before, Little Chicago has become a staple of the Faribault Parks and Recreation Department’s Concerts in the Park series.
Gardner said that COVID has been particularly difficult for the band, forcing it to cancel roughly half of its gigs. When it has been able to play, he said the band has taken plenty of precautions, with members maintaining social distancing guidelines on stage.
The Ramble will still culminate in its traditional main event Saturday, Sept. 26, but for the first time since its inception, there won’t be any in-person meal for River Bend supporters to enjoy and share conversation over.
The main event will still include a silent auction as well as River Bend’s increasingly popular beer and wine raffle. Most of all, donors will get the chance to hear testimonials from fellow River Bend supporters and hear how their money is going to good use.
While the virtual format has its drawbacks, Wheeler said that it is already helping River Bend to expand its reach to persons who might not otherwise be able to participate. Depending on how it goes, Wheeler said that many of the changes pioneered this year could be here to stay.
“Wherever people’s comfort level is, whether they want to do it online or socially distanced, there’s really something for everybody,” she said.
As local parents prepare their children for a return to school, at least part of the time, others like Tracy Bice plan to resume distance learning.
Bice listed five reasons for allowing her ninth- and 11th-grader to participate in distance learning in the fall. One reason was consistency, as her family knows what to expect from week to week by committing to that model. Her family also wanted to “sit back and watch” how schools handle the pandemic before her children return to school campuses. She also didn’t want intense health protocols schools have implemented to interfere with her teens’ education.
“Our kids did better academically last spring with the distance learning than they had years prior,” Bice said. “They were able to take their time with assignments, they had less distractions at home versus in the classroom and had more one on one time with the teachers via Zoom calls for any needed homework questions.”
As a parent, Bice said she felt more “in the loop” with her children’s education as she could see the lessons teachers uploaded. Students could also replay lessons to gain clarity.
“Overall, my kids are more excited to start another distance learning semester/year than they ever were for the start of another ‘routine’ school year,” Bice said.
In the Faribault school district, Bice’s high schoolers represent two out of 757 K-12 students participating in distance learning this fall. After revealing plans to start the year with hybrid learning, district representatives conducted a phone survey to find out which families wanted to choose distance learning regardless.
Families in school districts beyond Faribault needed to make similar decisions this summer, while considering factors like the number of coronavirus cases per county. But for some, the choice came down to academic preference.
“We let our eighth-grade son choose, and he chose distance learning, mostly because his grades got better at the end of the school year, and he said he felt as though he learned more,” said Diana Rodgers, a parent in the Owatonna school district. “He was more willing to get up and be ready, and even took pride in it.”
Rodgers said distance learning was the option she wanted for her son as well.
Faribault parent Jessica Keeley also mentioned routine, consistency and stability as reasons for choosing distance learning for her fourth- and sixth-graders. But from her understanding, “There is no easy answer or one that fits every family and every child.”
Jamie Friesen, whose children attend Faribault schools, said while she’s nervous to see how sending her children to school will work out, distance learning wasn’t the best choice for her family. Both parents are essential workers. Plus, she believes her children learn better in a school environment and need to socialize with other students. But, she added, “I’m glad there are options.”
Considering Friesen’s situation, Keeley said: “I can’t imagine trying to work and distance learn at the same time. I don’t know how families can do it and have it be effective and successful. Older kids can teach themselves but not young ones or those with certain needs.”
Spring to fall
Tracy Corcoran, Faribault schools director of teaching and learning, explained that distance learning will look different in the fall compared to this past spring when the district needed to quickly react to the school closures. After spending the summer reflecting on the previous academic year and preparing for the next, Corcoran said educators have been more intentional about tweaking the model.
As teachers prepare to reintroduce distance learning for families that want it, Corcoran said the biggest goals come down to improved relationships and connections. Students will also be more familiar with the technology tools, and even students participating in the hybrid learning model will have exposure to programs like Seesaw. That way, if schools need to transition into a full-time distance learning model at any point during the school year, students won’t need to dive into new territory.
How the distance learning model looks depends on the grade level. Elementary students will have teachers specifically assigned to distance learning while middle school and high school teachers will conduct lessons online and in person. That doesn’t mean distance learning students will simply sit at home and live stream their classroom lessons.
Corcoran said teachers have designed ways for students to engage in synchronous opportunities, work through virtual learning sites like Schoology or use other resources to collaborate with peers who may be in a different space. At the elementary level, teachers have considered opportunities like allowing distance learning students to post artwork online for their in-person peers to view and react to with emojis.
The high school level will introduce a new opportunity this year called Falcon Online, which allows students to enroll in online classes on campus or at home. Unlike distance learning, Falcon Online will continue beyond the pandemic.
All student groups will be represented with distance learning, including those from the Latinx and Somali communities. English Learner teachers will continue to offer support virtually for distance learning students.
Case managers will still deliver equitable services to students receiving special education, even if they opt for distance learning, so they can work on their individualized goals. The difference, said Corcoran, is they will receive services with technology as a vehicle.
“Our teachers are really, really excited to have our students back next week in whatever location that might be,” Corcoran said.
A Faribault teenager is in serious condition after the ATV he was riding south of Shieldsville Thursday collided with a car.
The boy, 14-year-old Rocco T. Strouth, was airlifted to a metro hospital after the eastbound ATV he was riding near Hunt Lake Trail came out of the west ditch shortly before 1 p.m. It collided with a vehicle headed north, according to a report from Rice County Sheriff Troy Dunn.
Strouth, who was reportedly ejected from the ATV, was wearing a helmet, but it became dislodged as a result of the crash.
Strouth was treated at the scene by deputies and other emergency personnel, and transported by ambulance to District One Hospital. He was later airlifted to a Twin Cities hospital for further treatment and evaluation of his injuries.
The driver of the vehicle, Karen A. Johnson, 78, of Faribault, was wearing her seat belt, Dunn said, and was uninjured in the crash.
Thursday's crash is a little more than a mile from a fatal crash that killed Cristopher Lee Chappuis, 28, of Faribault, on Tuesday. In that case, deputies reported that Chappuis' vehicle crossed the center line and veered into an oncoming pickup. Chappuis was pronounced dead at the scene.
Chappuis was the fourth traffic fatality in Rice County this year. One of those, on July 8, involved ATV driver David Otto Schultz, 48, of Faribault. Investigators believe that Schultz drove into a Wheeling Township ditch and rolled. Schultz was reportedly ejected and pinned underneath the ATV.
Also responding to Thursday's scene were the Kilkenny Fire/Rescue and North Ambulance.