FORT RIPLEY — When Americans sit down for their annual Thanksgiving feast Thursday, they’ll be reaping the tangible benefits of an industry that’s been struggling to regain its footing throughout the heartland for years.

Yes, farming — evidenced in every slice of sweet potato pie, every leg of turkey, every dollop of mashed potatoes, every bite of green bean casserole. Farming underpins every facet of Thanksgiving and forms a critical cornerstone to the U.S. economy. And, after months of poor weather, trade wars, market fluctuations, resource shortages, and the age-old challenges of agriculture, Minnesota farmers often find themselves working more for less.

Taking a pause in his mid-morning work Monday, Nov. 25, Dan Caughey juggled two meetings at once — the first, an interview with the Dispatch, and the second to purchase bull semen from the back of a repurposed medical ambulance. Caughey runs a mixed operation farm with 1,100 acres of corn, oats, alfalfa and rye, as well as raising beef and dairy cows 12 miles south of Brainerd in Fort Ripley territory.

While Caughey expressed frustration with the current state of agriculture and empathized with industry-wide woes experienced by farmers, he said some market upheavals supposedly caused by trade wars may be misinterpreted.

He noted China’s display of aggressive and detrimental market policies since the ‘80s are only now being addressed.

“There’s a lot of doom and gloom in the agricultural market because of low commodities like cash grains and soy. A lot of them farmers are struggling and they blame it on the trade war with China,” Caughey said as he tended cows on the farm his family has owned for four generations and nigh on 100 years. “A large amount of that trade is soy going to feed China’s swine herds. African swine flu has decimated the swine population there, so frankly they don’t need the soy right now. They’d have a significant dip either way.”

Such is a glimpse into the respective and intertwined markets of agriculture. International trade — perhaps most prominently, headlined by trade wars with Canada, China and Mexico — factors into the discussion and it certainly grabs the headlines.

But, it should be noted, farmers have been dealing with a shortened, water-logged harvest season, while market downturns, shifting consumer preferences, propane and feed shortages, processing plant fires, among other difficulties, are all hitting farmers just as they’re navigating a low point in natural economic cycles.

Health care — crushing premiums and deductibles, as well as a looming mental health crisis — rounds out the obstacles facing the heartland.

In trying to meet these challenges, farmers are often forced to take on second jobs, working their farms during evenings and weekends. It’s an unsustainable lifestyle, said Kent Solberg, a livestock and grazing consultant with the Sustainable Farming Association and the proprietor of his own small grass-fed dairy operation in Wadena County.

“It’s a real grinder. That takes a social, financial and emotional toll,” Solberg said. “We’re seeing it in our local economies. Businesses are struggling to get paid. Landlords are struggling to get paid. And that all trickles down to Main Street.”

Emily Wilmes, a University of Minnesota Extension specialist dealing primarily with dairy and beef cattle operations in Stearns, Morrison and Benton counties, said it’s not a pretty picture on the dairy side.

While cheese sales are stable or increasing, the market for milk is plummeting and the result is the closure of 8% of dairy operations across the state between July 2018 and July 2019 — though some of these could be operations being consolidated, not closed altogether, or shifting to incorporate other sectors of agriculture than just dairy.

“Dairy has experienced low commodity prices for years,” Wilmes said. “And that’s contributed to a lot of economic stress and mental stress on farmers due to that.”

Trade wars

As for Caughey, it’s just another day in another year, the end of another harvest season and another burden to carry. Much in line with years of struggles, that just means maintaining a white-knuckle grip on life until the storm passes. And when that storm takes on international implications, then so be it.

“American farmers have been shouldering the load for a long time. That’s the cost of freedom,” Caughey said with a dry chuckle. “My personal opinion is that we have to support President Trump and that he knows what he’s doing.”

However, levying tariffs on over $500 billion in Chinese goods is going to reverberate, and engaging in contentious trade scraps with longtime allies and top-tier trade partners like Mexico and Canada doesn’t happen without a ripple.

Steve Schlangen, who runs a dairy operation just south of Albany, said there’s been notable progress after the 2018 Farm Bill, trade agreements with Japan, and progress in negotiations with China. At the same time, he expressed a more critical assessment of President Donald Trump’s propensity to initiate drawn-out trade wars with trade partners like Canada and Mexico.

“We were in a natural downturn, but really the tariff situation with Mexico hurt dairy farmers pretty bad,” Schlangen said. “You can see it in the numbers, we’ve lost dairy farmers across the country, in Minnesota and Wisconsin. It’s been bad. Most farmers have really felt it. We need to get the (United States-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement) deal done quickly going forward.”

Francis Dierickx, owner of Ardent Acres Farm, a grass-fed beef operation near Palisade, said farmers are looking at the big picture and trying to tough it out.

“I think the perception is that it’s short-term pain for long-term gain, fingers crossed,” he said. “It’s kind of, ‘Well, I really hope this pans out.’”

For his part, Solberg said there’s little in the way of consensus in the agricultural community on Trump’s trade decisions and how much they influence the livelihoods of American farmers.

“It’s a factor. I wouldn't say it’s the main factor, but it’s a factor,” Solberg said. “To what degree it’s a factor is up for debate. You could interview 10 different farmers and get 10 different answers. I don’t think you could get two economists in a room to agree.”

Beef cattle

Beef cattle, however, is something of an outlier in the discussion, said state Rep. Dale Lueck, R-Aitkin, who’s owned a beef cattle operation in Aitkin County for about 25 years.

While the beef cattle industry finds itself in a natural downturn, the industry is somewhat distanced from the same upheavals elsewhere in agriculture. Beef isn’t as big a commodity in trade disagreements with China, it hasn’t experienced the same level of commodity price reduction as other sectors and, in his estimation, it isn’t as dependent on government programs to survive.

That being said, when a calf takes two years or more to mature and become profitable, Lueck said, it’s incumbent on farmers to be smart about their investments and operate their farms in a way that doesn’t saturate the market during down cycles.

“At this point, if you’re not a numbers guy, or making those long-term year by year production calculations, you’re just not going to make it,” said Lueck, who noted the beef industry has evened out somewhat, though it remains in a precarious position after years of losses comparable to their counterparts in dairy.

However, both Lueck and Dierickx noted the beef industry wasn’t able to avoid Mother Nature this year. Heavy rainfall and a late winter means hay production has been stunted, which complicates feeding cattle in an affordable manner.

Lueck — who, at multiple points, emphasized that raising beef cattle is a distinctly North American market in the U.S., Canada and Mexico — noted economic winds could shift again depending on how South America fares. Just as the Midwest faced a difficult harvest season this year, Lueck said, the southern hemisphere is entering its own harvest season now and the results could resonate in economies across the globe.

Changing mindsets

In tough times, Solberg said the time-honored philosophy among farmers has been to isolate oneself and to work harder, but in the modern era it’s more prudent for farmers to look to unorthodox solutions, to collaborate with specialists and fellow farmers, and to look to other communities and even other countries for answers to their challenges.

“A lot of farmers were taught when the going gets tough you put your nose to the grindstone and work your way through that,” Solberg said. “The data proves that isn’t working anymore. You have to be creative, you have to be smart, you have to be willing to take a look with a second, third or fourth pair of eyes to make your operation sustainable for the future.”

That may mean leaning on state or federal programs — though, Solberg said, those are primarily meant to provide a temporary stopgap, not permanent solutions. It may mean establishing specialized outlets for niche markets, such as rye or flowers, or diversifying the operation to incorporate crops, meat and dairy aspects. Or, it could mean working with consultants, accountants and scientists of different disciplines to fine-tune a viable production model.

“Figure out how to be nimble, how to move fast,” said Solberg, who noted smaller, more diversified operations with little established, and costly, infrastructure have an advantage.

Perhaps an example of a smaller operation that’s doing well with niche and alternative methods is Ardent Acres Farm. Operating since 2012 on over 325 acres with 50-60 head of cattle, the farm’s been largely unaffected by shifting market forces, Dierickx said, and it sells out its offerings, turning a profit each year. This boils down, he said, to a specialized, made-to-order style of selling grass-fed beef directly to consumers — or, for example, selling specified cuts or ground meat directly by order.

Dierickx said there’s a disconnect between packed beef and live cattle markets because of consolidation among farms, retail and supply companies. As such, to be profitable, it’s better for smaller farms to avoid the middleman organizations altogether and charge a small premium for specialized, grass-fed and mostly organic beef offerings.

“It would take a pretty significant drop in price for beef at the grocery store for us to drop our beef prices,” said Dierickx, who noted trade wars with China, which primarily consumes poultry and pork, mean a robust American market for beef is marginally affected. “We offer a premium product for a premium price.”

All in all, Solberg said there’s reason for optimism. Farmers are finding ways to turn their operations around each day and there are now more resources available to them than ever before. The federal government granted $12 billion in aid to offset trade war tariffs, the 2018 Farm Bill incorporated more insurance protections for losses, and trade deals on the horizon look to potentially level the playing field for American agriculturists on the world stage.

“You have to be an eternal optimist to be a farmer. You have to be,” said Solberg, who added there’s a significant 20-25% portion of the agricultural community that’s resilient and thriving — notably, among small operations instead of commercial giants. “We have this calf born in the spring, or we put this seed in the ground every spring and we don’t know if we’ll see a return on investment. You’ve got drought, you’ve got disease, you’ve got pests, you’ve got fire — any of those things can happen.”

As for Caughey, his optimism for the future comes from a more fundamental source — the vital role farming plays in the world.

“There’s a lot of hungry people. Food is the No. 1 thing that people need,” Caughey said. “As long as there are hungry people, there will be farmers to feed them."

GABRIEL LAGARDE may be reached at gabe.lagarde@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5859. Follow at www.twitter.com/glbrddispatch.