As the Feltman brothers talk about the state of the dairy farming, they remember how different Carver County looked during their childhood, populated with dairy farms.
“There used to be so many of them when we were young,” said Chad Feltman.
His brother, Chris, added, “It used to be you went down the road and if you’d see a silo, they had milk cows.”
The Feltmans own a fourth-generation dairy farm alongside their parents, milking more than 200 cows and farming more than 500 acres of land. They are Carver County’s Farm Family of the Year, according to Colleen Carlson, a University of Minnesota Extension educator. And they are learning how to grow their business with low milk prices and low commodity prices.
For the three brothers, the business of farming is different than it had been for the generations before them. They, along with other Carver County farmers, face a host of factors — including a two-week weather delay on planting corn and soybeans — making for a stressful situation.
Carver County farmers are now sitting on piles of the same crops, due to a lack of international demand from changes in trade. Subsidies, several Carver County farmers said for this story, are just helping farmers break even.
“With that being said, we are the garden spot of the state in crop production right now,” Carlson said. “We’re looking better in this area than most parts of the state.”
The University of Minnesota Extension released data in March showing median net farm income dropped to $26,055 in 2018. Dale Nordquist, with the Center for Farm Financial Management, said it possibly made 2018 the lowest income year since the early 1980s.
“So, in the last half of 2019,” Carlson said, “farmers are looking at the bills that they have to pay, which include second-half land rent payments and property taxes. And they’re counting on selling corn and soybeans for commodity and possibly livestock to cover those expenses.
“And they’re looking at lower than average prices for all of that.”
Mike Buckentine is a crop farmer out in Chaska, who says farming stress is palpable in the community.
“I don’t know if I’d call it mental health — I’d call it morale,” he said. “So many farmers seem defeated. You can tell a lot of them are having a hard time going out to work every day because you’re basically working to lose money right now. And the whole hope that things will turn around is what keeps them going.”
He said he’s known many who have quit the industry, went to look for other jobs or retired early. Buckentine also touched on the differences in cost and income over farming generations. He said:
Farming families are looking at higher deductibles for their insurance, Carlson said. Some family members have taken other part-time and full-time jobs to aid with insurance and household expenses.
“Farmers are great at tightening their belts.” she said. “They have learned to live with less.”
Efficiencies, diversification of income, and innovative management are resources she says bolster farmers through this period. The extension’s report on Minnesota farming profits also says not all operations struggled, thanks to precise management, timing and luck.
For Farmer Eric Hoese in Mayer, adding a robotic feeding system and doubling the size of his farm improved his cash flow.
“The way I looked at it when I got done with school, and with my dad on board, is that we have to constantly improve to stay relevant and profitable. It takes money to invest, but we feel there’s payoff in what we do," he said.
Hoese wants to encourage more young people to enter the lifestyle of dairy farming. In today’s world, with people more likely to be a few generations removed from a farm, the larger public may not have a close friend or relative who farms for a living.
“We’re trying to feed people,” Hoese said. “We’re trying to do the best we can.”
Carlson encourages farmers to reach out to the University of Minnesota Agriculture Rapid Response line, where they can get a free consultation looking at their enterprises and financial statements.
As the interview with Carlson wrapped up, she had a final comment she wanted to add for farmers in Carver County.
“We’ve weathered storms like this before,” she said. “We need to work together to stay resilient in this challenging economy.”
Funds are in place to repair storm damage along a three-mile length of the Minnesota River Bluffs Regional Trail that has been closed for more than five years.
Construction is planned for 2020, and the Hennepin County Regional Rail Authority hopes to have the trail open late 2020 or 2021.
The Metropolitan Council approved a grant of $1.7 million in regional funding this June for Carver County to purchase about 90 acres of land from the Hennepin County Regional Rail Authority.
“The county is pleased we’re moving forward with this acquisition,” said Carver County Parks Director Marty Walsh, “and that we could find a way to utilize regional funding sources to help us in this repair.”
A storm in July 2014 had caused an 80-foot slope failure, among other damage, along the trail in Chanhassen. The price tag — which was willingly set lower than the appraised value of $5.8 million — covers the cost of repairs for the rail authority. The rail authority is donating the remaining $4.1 million in land value to the county.
The trail is popular for bicyclists to get from the Twin Cities metro to Carver County and beyond. After the 2014 storm, Three Rivers Park District blocked the trail with chain link fencing, and instead directed bicyclists and pedestrians along a six-mile detour via Pioneer Trail. Bicyclists have said the road shoulder along Pioneer Trail had been risky to ride.
The detour is not well-suited to bicycle travel, Walsh said. He added the closed portion of the trail is important to the overall trail system.
“It’s key to connecting areas from Chaska going east,” he said, “And then as you come to the west, there are all those folks coming from the other direction to access Chaska and Carver, so it is a very valuable connection.”
A purchase agreement and memorandum of understanding between the county and rail authority dictate the rules and responsibilities of slope repair and property ownership. The repairs will be coordinated with construction on Highway 101. Carver County will be taking over the lease for the Three Rivers portion of the trail.
After the 2014 storm, the rail authority had received funding for trail repair from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). There had been two projects at hand. The first involved slope repair at the edges of the trail corridor at the bottom of the slope for $58,000.
The delay for repairs came up in the larger, second project to repair the 80-foot slope failure. FEMA denied giving the entirety of the $1.8 million, the rail authority’s request, saying several areas of damage could not be determined to be a result of the storm.