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The Herald's top story of 2021: Driest months on record contributed to 2021 drought

Starting in September 2020, each month through July 2021 was the driest on record for the northern Red River Valley, and for much of North Dakota and northern central Minnesota, according to records going back to 1885.

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Dahlen cattleman Jeff Trenda walks across a dried-up water hole in a pasture near his farm on June 29, 2021. Many livestock producers in North Dakota had to reduce their herds as the drought affected pastures and forage crops. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
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GRAND FORKS — Indications of a coming drought started in fall 2020, but at that point, most people weren't worried about it, said Katelyn Landeis, NDSU Extension Agent in Grand Forks County.

Despite dry soil and little precipitation, she says farmers were optimistic that snow and a few good spring rains would bring moisture back to the soil. But as winter came and went, it became apparent that dry conditions were here to stay.

“I think we entered the drought in our region in the middle of December, which is highly unusual,” she said. “You don’t usually enter drought in the middle of winter, so I think that was a kind of spark that got people’s ears perked up a little.”

The 2021 drought, which brought uncertainty to the region's agriculture economy and dominated the news throughout 2021, has been selected as the Herald's top story of 2021.

Starting in September 2020, each month through July 2021 was the driest on record for the northern Red River Valley, according to records going back to 1885.

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Minnesota Governor Tim Walz and farmer Jim Reitmeier (right) survey the dry conditions of Reitmeier's fields north of Crookston on Thursday, July 22, 2021. Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald

Greg Gust, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Grand Forks, described the 2021 drought as a "flash drought" — it came with a fairly rapid onset and quickly progressed from abnormally dry conditions to extreme drought.

September 2019 through August 2020 was a wet period for the region, with flood disaster declarations in fall 2019 and spring 2020, but the tables turned in September 2020. The lack of precipitation in fall 2020 left soil dry, and over the winter, there was very little snowfall.

“Much of the area had less than an inch of snow water content in last winter’s snowpack, so in most cases that just melted on the existing landscape and virtually none of it ran off into the ditches, streams or rivers in the spring,” Gust said.

In agriculture, timing was everything.

“There was a lot of fear with producers that they were going to have crop failure all over, and I would say by the time we got to harvest, some of those fears were realized,” said Joe Breidenbach, director of sales at True North Equipment, a regional seller of John Deere farm equipment. “We had some areas of very poor yielding crop and we had other areas that had a good or record crop, really based on what time the rain fell on that particular field.”

There was some good news: Precipitation that came late in the growing season helped make 2021 a good year for some crops, like sugar beets.

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Crookston, Minn., farmer Tim DuFault, shown June 22, 2021, preparing his bins for an early harvest, thinks this year's wheat crop may be similar to the crops of drought-plagued 1988-89. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

“Beets can be very dynamic and can respond well when conditions change,” said Joe Hastings, general agronomist for American Crystal Sugar. “Fortunately, they did.”

Hastings said beets have long taproots that stretch deep into the ground in search of moisture. With the dryness came low rates of root diseases and leaf diseases. There also were fewer weeds. The combination helped bring healthy root systems for beets.

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“I believe around Aug. 19 we started getting those rains, and since the roots were healthy and a very nice shape, they responded nicely and grew,” Hastings said.

With a yield at 20.7 tons per acre and a sugar content 17.99%, Hastings said 2021 ended up being the company’s third-highest year for recoverable sugar per acre since 1980.

Already, with fall precipitation and the snowpack so far this winter, there are indications that moisture levels for much of the northern Red River Valley will be normal. Most of the Red River basin south of Grand Forks has normal levels of soil moisture, and areas like the Devils Lake basin and Lake of the Woods are back to low-level drought conditions.

“We are in a better position going into the spring now to be able to get in and hopefully get a good start to the crop year,” Gust said. “At this point, it's looking fairly optimistic.”

Hastings also says fall moisture bodes well for sugar beets in 2022, but the soil could benefit from more timely rains in the spring. With sugar beet taproots stretching six to eight feet into the ground, the beets benefit more from deep soil moisture than surface level soil moisture.

Even with predictions of a normal year, 2022 might not be as wet as the region is used to. Gust predicts normal levels of moisture in the region, but points out that from around 1993 to now, the Midwest has been in a protracted wet period.

“We’ve gotten into the habit now of having excellent moisture so that we’ve had an abundance of moisture or above-normal soil moisture for most of the spring seasons over the last couple of decades,” said Gust. “So, when you get a normal year, people start to think that it’s a bit dry, but it’s still pretty good.”

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Water from the Red Lake River flows across the Point Dam near the confluence of the Red And Red Lake Rivers July 21, 2021. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Following is a list of some of some of the top Herald news stories of 2021.

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January

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Plow trucks work on the Northwest Angle Guest Ice Road last week on Lake of the Woods. (Photo courtesy of Teri Alsleben, Points North Services)

February

Fritz Pollard
UND will rename its High Performance Center after Fritz Pollard Jr. (Submitted photo)

March

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UND's Riese Gaber works for position with UMD players Louie Riehl (6) and Wyatt Kaiser in the first period on March 27, 2021.
Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

April

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Grand Forks Superintendent of Schools Terry Brenner discusses budget reduction recommendations during an early April 2020 board meeting at the Mark Sanford Education Center. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

May

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GFFD Captain Logan Schonert was recognized as the VFW's Firefighter of the Year in a small ceremony at the Grand Forks Fire Department May 7, 2021. // Contributed photo

June

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Col. Timothy Curry shares a laugh following the 319th Reconnaissance Wing change-of-command ceremony at Grand Forks Air Force Base Monday, June 28, 2021. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

July

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Salamah Pendleton, testifies Monday, July 12, 2021, at the Grand Forks County Courthouse. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

August

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Approximately three dozen residents attended the meeting of the Grand Forks School Board on Monday, Aug. 23, 2021. (Pamela Knudson/Grand Forks Herald)

September

October

  • John Hauser, a UND student was killed in a plane crash in October during a training flight. It was later revealed he had been suffering from mental health issues. UND convened a mental health summit, and his parents created a memorial fund to help aviation students. 
  • Crookston 10-year old Kaylee Acevedo was struck and dragged by a semi at a dangerous downtown intersection . MnDOT has since closed a turn lane in an effort to make the sidewalk safer for pedestrians.
  • Nursing homes and assisted living facilities across the state are experiencing a workforce shortage of nearly all positions available within their facilities. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the issues, and the Grand Forks region has been no exception.
  • Lumber prices , supply shortages and more turned the local lumber industry on its head.
  • Grand Forks International Airport set a record for the daily number of passengers , most of whom were headed to Tennessee to watch the UND hockey team. 
  • An area woman died after being struck by a car in Nashville.
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Sally Rude, RNA/CNA at Valley Senior Living on Columbia Road, visits with resident Daniel Kosmatka.
Jacob Holley / Grand Forks Herald

November

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Nicole and Walter Kulbaba with children (from left) Carter, Parker, Harper and Spencer, of Minneapolis make a stop in Pembina, ND, before crossing the border into Canada to visit family for the first time in nearly two years. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

December

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A pair of excavators work to demolish the West Elementary school near University Park Wednesday. West Elementary School was closed in February 2020 after unhealthy levels of radon were discovered in parts of the building. Students and staff were reassigned to Discovery Elementary School on the city’s far south side for the rest of the school year. West remained closed during the 2020-21 school year.
Eric Hylden / Grand Forks Herald

Related Topics: DROUGHT
Ingrid Harbo joined the Grand Forks Herald in September 2021.

Harbo covers Grand Forks region news, and also writes about business in Grand Forks and the surrounding area.

Readers can reach Harbo at 701-780-1124 or iharbo@gfherald.com. Follow her on Twitter @ingridaharbo.
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