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Minnesota farmers take on more debt for spring planting

Associated Press

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ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Many Minnesota farmers who have suffered years of low crop prices are taking on more debt to begin spring planting while trade tensions and tariffs drag on, according to a Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis’ survey.

Poor crop prices and trade woes “dealt a financial blow to farmers from July through September,” according to the survey of farm credit conditions released in November.

The financial hit came while many growers were already struggling, Minnesota Public Radio News reported. University of Minnesota researchers determined that 2015 through 2017 were the worst three consecutive years for farm earnings over the roughly two decades that the university had been tracking farm finances.

The growing number of farms filing for bankruptcy across the Upper Midwest follows low prices for corn, soybeans, milk and beef, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. Farmers’ financial prospects have worsened since June due to retaliatory tariffs closing the Chinese market for soybeans and holding back milk and beef exports.

Betsy Jensen teaches farmers about finance at Northland Community and Technical College in East Grand Forks, and she also farms with her family near the town of Stephen.

“There’s going to be a lot of restructuring for this year,” Jensen said. “Restructuring of debt — maybe you’re almost done paying off your land note and now you’re gonna ramp it back up again, create another note against your land.”

Jensen grows half a dozen different crops to spread financial risk at her farm. Low soybean prices can be mitigated by sugar beets or wheat, according to Jensen.

She said she’s seen land values remain strong, which could make cash-poor farmers appear wealthy on paper. Farmers can sell land to help pay off debts, but Jensen said many reject the option for reasons including emotional connection to the land.

“No one is going to make a lot of money in 2019, unfortunately, but we are hoping to squeak by,” Jensen said. “I guess it’s going to be a year to tighten the belt.”