Strong start to growing season tempered by weekend storms, cloudy forecasts
CRYSTAL, N.D. — The potato crop at Lyle Shephard's farm near Crystal was looking good. So good, in fact, that he took a picture of the young plants to send to his son, Thomas.
"It was looking beautiful," Shephard said. But that was before last weekend's storms brought tornadoes, hailstones and scattered downpours across the region and "right in line" with Shephard's land. Though the standing water in his fields has receded, he said that at one point the potato plants shown in his photo were covered in water for about three hours.
"It was a really nice picture," he said Monday, June 12, his voice heavy. "It's amazing how things can change. Kind of puts things in perspective a little bit."
The recent storms marked the first major weather event of the growing season after a seemingly endless parade of bad weather last summer hurt farm prospects and stunted harvest gains. Farmers in the northern Red River Valley are now looking with some uncertainty to forecasts of even more stormy weather as they continue to pick up the pieces from the weekend.
The heavy rain was a problem for Shephard, but he said the worst of the damage seemed to come Friday night in the form of hail and high winds. The cumulative effect of those conditions damaged trees and ripped off part of the roof of his machine shed.
Beyond potatoes, Shephard grows soybeans, wheat and corn. He said the soybeans were looking "pretty hammered" but that the wheat seemed to be making a comeback. All in all, he entered this week still trying to figure out the best way to proceed into the growing season.
Tim Courneya, executive vice president of the Northarvest Bean Growers Association in Frazee, Minn., said the locations of harsh weather almost seem "targeted" in their potential to nail one area while completely missing another.
For Courneya, who advocates for edible dry bean growers in North Dakota and Minnesota, the only consistent point about the weather is its ability to punish growers.
"It's really a normal thing, very seldom do we have a season go by when people aren't getting beat up," he said.
Farmers south of Crystal also felt the beating from the storms, though they reported that hail was less of a problem than was the persistent rain.
Luke Blair, who farms about a mile north of Johnstown, N.D., in west Grand Forks County, described the area between Johnstown and Gilby, N.D., as a kind of "little slot" of nasty weather.
Blair saw about an inch of rain over the weekend. He said fields to the south end of town got three times as much.
"I was just in one of the fields that got about (1.2 inches of rain) and could barely get through that without getting stuck," he said. "These other fields, they're saturated and glistening with water."
Dylan Karley runs the Johnstown Bean Co. seed and processing plant and grows dry edible beans. He said his fields ended up with as much as 3.5 inches of rain in less than two hours of downpour.
The ground was likely oversaturated with water from the start due to heavy precipitation over the past year, Karley said, but it initially handled the water well enough. But in time, he continued, many of the area's streams overran their banks and caused significant overland flooding and pooling water in planted fields.
"In combination with wet soil, the wet roots of the plants is definitely going to lead to some crop loss," Karley said, estimating that thousands of acres were potentially hurt by the recent weather.
The damage from the storms comes as a gut punch to farmers who felt they were starting this growing season in strong shape. Karley said his acres were "looking very good" before last weekend, especially in comparison with the same time last year.
"These volatile storms that came through last week have a lot of people on edge with hoping we don't fall into that same weather pattern we had last year," he said. At the same time though, he said overall crop conditions are still looking relatively strong.
Despite his own losses, Shephard took solace in the fact that that his family stayed safe through the worst of the weather. He'd been feeling good about his season prior to the storms, he said. Much like last year though, Shephard said he "got everything in and the rains wouldn't quit."
"But hopefully they're going to quit here," he said of this year, adding shortly after that he still felt fortunate. "We're just thankful that it wasn't worse."