Moorhead, Minn. — Dan Anderson is a 19-year-old student at North Dakota State University in Fargo. It's an exciting time for Anderson. He's gotten approval for a loan to start his own farm. A modest amount of $90,000.
"It's a huge thing to do. You've got to have balance sheets, you have to have cash flow statements, whether it's projected or you have actual history," says Anderson. "And for me it was a lot of investigating to figure out how I can make this work."
Anderson will farm 160 acres of sugar beets this year. He's starting small and hoping to expand quickly. He'll share equipment with his dad to ease the financial strain. Still he's optimistic about the future.
"I truly believe that there is money to be made in farming, you just have to be really careful when you're budgeting and when you're spending your money. I see guys that go out and they buy all kinds of new equipment and they don't have the money to do it, that's not a good way to get started," Anderson says.
Now might be a good time to start farming. Last month a Federal Reserve report said financial conditions for farmers in Minnesota and the eastern Dakotas were improving.
What's driving that, is a combination of higher prices and lower interest rates. George Sinner has been a banker in eastern North Dakota for the past 20 years. He says some farmers are paying as low as four percent.
"In the last five years I think they've been up around 9 or ten percent. You cut that in half and a lot of these guys who have a million dollars in debt and they're paying nine percent, you cut that in half your talking $40,000, $50,000 (in) savings," says Sinner.
But there are problems too. Drought in the western Dakotas has hammered ranchers. Sinner says weather problems also hurt Red River valley farmers.
"Thirty, 40 miles around Fargo, last year had a great year and a bumper crop, good prices. But you can go to the northern end of the valley, up to Northwood and Grand Forks and certain areas that had a poor crop, that had too much rain, and you see a lot of suffering there," says Sinner.
Weather is always a concern. In the northern Red River valley, snow is finally disappearing. In the southern end of the valley, grass fires have delayed field work.
The war in Iraq is also having an affect. Before the first Gulf War, Iraq was a major export market for U.S. farmers. According to figures from U.S. Wheat Associates, Iraq imported about 1 million tons of U.S. wheat a year. Currently, only five countries import more. But since 1991, U.S. agriculture has been shut out of Iraq.
Cole Gustafson teaches applied economics at North Dakota State University.
"In the past when they had a more affluent society they were big customers of ours. We exported a lot of wheat to those middle eastern countries. So we're hoping when their situation improves that we'll again be a favorite supplier for the wheats and other products that they consume," says Gustafson.
The United States has committed 200,000 tons of food for humanitarian relief. Gustafson says that will give prices a short term boost.
"But longer term, our markets now are so global and so competitive, that we may not be the eventual long run supplier for that region," says Gustafson. "We're going to have to be competing with everybody else for that market share on their dinner plate."
Gustafson says as farmers head to the fields this spring, everyone is an optimist. It's a new year. There's another chance at getting a good crop, and if the weather cooperates, a chance at making some money.