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August Frost Wilts Crops
Joy Powell, 
Star Tribune
August 24, 2004

Minnesota farmers are braced for crop losses expected to total hundreds of millions of dollars after a devastating early frost during a lousy growing season. "There's a lot of black vines out there ready to drop," Gary Pahl, a vegetable farmer in Apple Valley, said Monday.

The frost swept in Thursday, Friday and Saturday, with temperatures dipping as low as 20 degrees. It settled in fields mostly north of Interstate Hwy. 94, turning frozen soybean plants brown and corn plants greyish-white. The cold snap came as a second punch for farmers, who had been off to a good start this spring, with their seeds planted early and a record crop forecast by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But by last week, amid a cool and gloomy summer, crop growth was lagging two to four weeks behind schedule. Then came the frost.

"It would appear that the soybean crop north of I-94 is anywhere from 30 to 100 percent gone," said Warren Pommier, a disaster specialist with the Farm Service Agency in Minnesota. "They were already up against it anyway, and this was the last slap."

Hard frost hit a vast majority of fields north of a line stretching from Chicago and Isanti counties just north of the Twin Cities northwest into the Red River Valley. To the south, frost nipped pockets in Worthington, Jackson, Redwood Falls, Pipestone, Lamberton and other farm communities.

"In some areas, it's a killing frost," said Mark Seeley, a climatologist with University of Minnesota Extension Service.

Tower and Embarrass reported record lows of 23 degrees on Friday, and Embarrass also reported 20 degrees on Saturday. St. Cloud saw 33 degrees, its coldest August day ever, on Saturday. And in the heart of St. Paul, the mercury dipped to 39 degrees on Saturday.

Other Minnesota communities with freezing temperatures included Crookston, Thief River Falls, Park Rapids, Hallock, Aitkin, Floodwood, Babbitt, Grand Rapids, International Falls, Itasca State Park, Madison and Staples. Crop losses were reported as far south as Murray County in the southwest corner of the state.

For Pahl, the Apple Valley vegetable farmer, the frosty setback came after a month of struggling with temperatures that included at least 10 days registering 50 degrees or cooler.

On Friday morning, he headed out at 5 a.m. in his pickup truck pulling a wagon to pick cucumbers and saw the digital thermometer on his dashboard flash a temperature of 35 degrees. It was worse than he feared; he lost about half his squash and pumpkins, which were growing in low-lying fields.

In Yellow Medicine County, farmer Doug Albin has driven through the western end of his county and seen soybean plants that have lost half their leaves, with their once-lush canopies shriveling. Some corn fields are fading.
"We've got areas today that look like they've shut down," Albin said.

"I've never seen anything like this, where the frost has come in on the 20th of August. We're supposed to be walking around in our shorts." Time will tell, Albin said, whether they will get enough warm days for the soybean pods to regrow leaves and fill pods, and for corn ears to fill out. The corn bushels may well come in lighter in weight than average. They'll also cost more to dry with propane, which costs $1 a gallon, up from 65 cents a couple of years ago, he said.

Waiting to see

"I would imagine the fields in western Yellow Medicine County and north of there probably had a 15 to 40 percent loss on soybeans, and probably 10 to 15 percent loss on corn," Albin said. "And of course those poor guys that are raising tomatoes or cucumbers are probably out searching for part-time jobs. I don't think they made it."

Farmers such as Albin now are waiting to see how many crops will survive. Once the weather warms up this week, heavily damaged soybean plants will wilt and blacken, much like lettuce that's been frozen and thawed in a refrigerator.

Near Cosmos, in Meeker County, brothers Duane and Doug Adams figure that from 50 to 75 percent of their corn in a 200-acre rolling field is frost-damaged. Doug flew over the field on Sunday, seeing green patches only on higher ground and lighter, frozen corn in most of the field.

Dale Hicks, an agronomist with the University of Minnesota Extension Service, estimated that many of the affected cornfields could lose at least 10 to 15 percent of their grain yield, which would, in essence, wipe out farmers' profits. "The injury ranges from none to complete leaf kill in some low spots," he said. "It's very serious."

Monday, the frost acted as an emotional trigger on the markets.

With a shrinking crop in the Upper Midwest and Canada, the soybean markets rallied Monday, jumping to a four-week high on the Chicago Board of Trade. Soybean futures for November delivery rose 26 cents, or 4.4 percent, to $6.11 a bushel.

"The market today finally traded on our weather up here," said Ron McDaniel, a trader and commodity analyst with Abbott Futures.

He predicted that states hit by frost -- Minnesota, North and South Dakota, and Wisconsin -- will reap 60 to 70 million fewer bushels of soybeans than the USDA yields given in an Aug. 12 report. The four states typically produce 20 to 23 percent of the nation's soybeans, he said.

In the Red River Valley, beets and potatoes, which are below-ground tubers, seemed to weather the frost well. But in the northern Red River Valley, from Polk County northward, fields of dry edible beans were killed off.

Joy Powell is at jpowell@startribune.com.



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