Early Planting
Dave Kolpack  /  AP
In this April 25, 2012 photo, a farmer plants corn in a field between Mandan and Huff, N.D., on one the earliest times for seeding in many years. (AP Photo/Dave Kolpack)
updated 5/12/2012 5:24:19 PM ET 2012-05-12T21:24:19

Customers are tossing back more beer this spring than last at Drinks Inc. on Main Street in Mohall, and it has a lot to do with the barley farmers are once again planting in the fields around the town of about 1,000 people.

A year ago, many tractors and seeders in northwest North Dakota sat idle as snowmelt, heavy rains and overflowing rivers swamped fields and roads. A record number of acres went unplanted, putting a strain on farmers' wallets. That carried over to small-town businesses that depend largely on farmers' spending for their livelihoods.

It was an unexpected downturn in a state spotted with oil fields and an influx of so many well-paid workers there aren't enough hotels or homes to house them. If it hadn't been for workers from North Dakota's booming oil patch, Drinks Inc. owner Chad Schmidt said, his bar might have collapsed because "farmers weren't spending."

But one mild winter and relatively dry spring later, farmers have a more optimistic outlook — and are willing to buy more beer. In North Dakota, durum wheat acres are expected to double, and the barley crop is projected to be almost 1 ½-times bigger. In South Dakota, this year's corn crop could be the biggest in state history.

"It's been really great up here, (with) farmers getting into the fields," Schmidt said.

Natural disasters ravaged 33 states last year, prompting more than $300 million in federal emergency assistance. The Dakotas were hit by flooding from the Missouri River, which cuts through both states and swelled with heavy rain that fell on top of ground still soaked from a snowy winter. North Dakota also saw historic flooding along the Souris River. Nearly 7 million acres of normally productive cropland went unseeded, about one-fifth of the land typically planted with annual crops in the two states.

The flooding hit hardest in North Dakota, where the amount of unseeded land in 2011 was historic. The federal Risk Management Agency and the federal Farm Service Agency, which use different methods of calculating "prevented planting" acres, estimate the number of acres that couldn't be seeded due to weather at between 5.3 million and 5.6 million. Both figures shattered the 1999 record of 3.9 million acres.

South Dakota had between 1.2 million and 1.4 million prevented planting acres in 2011, fourth most in state history.

North Dakota State University researcher Dwight Aakre estimates the state's farmers last year took a direct financial hit of more than $1 billion because they couldn't plant.

"That $1.1 billion loss, you're actually talking, with a multiplier effect, of almost a $4 billion effect on our state economy," state Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring said.

In Bottineau County, for example, Terry Holsten, general manager of the Theel Inc. automobile dealership in the city of Bottineau, saw his business suffer after more land sat empty than got planted.

"Farmer sales weren't as high as they were the year before, without a doubt," Holsten said.

What a difference a year makes.

"This will be one of the lowest years in both states (for unseeded acres) — if not the lowest," said Doug Hagel, regional director for the Risk Management Agency, which oversees crop insurance programs.

Doug Opland, who farms near Des Lacs, typifies the turnaround: He didn't get any durum wheat planted last year. This year, he got his crop in a month early.

"Anyone in the Minot area, within 150 miles, was glad to see last year disappear," Opland said. "Jan. 1 came, and we just said, 'Good, the new year has come.'"

The situation was just as dire last year for some corn growers in South Dakota, said Bridgewater farmer Mark Gross, president of the South Dakota Corn Growers Association.

Corn acres in South Dakota are expected to total 5.5 million this year, up 300,000 from last year and rivaling the 1931 crop as the largest in state history. Good prices have a lot to do with that, but good weather also is a big reason.

"Planting conditions are almost ideal," Gross said. "The ground hasn't been in this good of condition in my part of the state in years. Everybody is cautiously upbeat."

Farmers who can't plant because of flooding can collect crop insurance, but the amount is much less than what they would get by growing and selling a crop.

"All you do is cover your cash rent, your machinery payments, and survive," Opland said. "You've got to have a crop to make money."

North Dakota typically leads the nation in the production of durum wheat, which is used for pasta, and barley, which becomes beer and livestock feed. The plummet in production last year — 62 percent for barley and 72 percent for durum — didn't provide much of a boost to durum prices, with plentiful supplies in Canada. But the malting industry dramatically increased contracts it offered to farmers last fall to buy back acres lost to flooding and to more profitable crops such as corn.

"People are excited to just get out in the field and get a crop in," said Keith Deutsch, who last year was able to get only about half of his durum planted near Plaza. "Much more optimistic than last year."

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