Casselton soybean pile draws Senate race attention, but confusion abounds
CASSELTON, N.D. — Terry Johnson isn’t sure why the soybean pile outside Maple River Grain & Agronomy became a political issue.
The pile, Maple River’s CEO explained on Nov. 5, is part of the elevator’s infrastructure. Soybeans have been piled in the same spot for several years around harvest.
“You can pile fast and pick it up fast,” Johnson said. “It’s put out there with full intentions of picking it back up within a few months.”
Johnson said the process of loading the already-sold soybeans onto a train was scheduled to begin Nov. 5, unless the rain interfered. The entire pile should be loaded onto four trains by Thanksgiving.
The pile, however, has become a talking point in one of the most watched U.S. Senate races in the country, due to a debate comment and a flurry of social media posts.
During the Oct. 26 debate between Sen. Heidi Heitkamp and her Republican challenger Rep. Kevin Cramer, the senator mentioned a pile of soybeans.
“If I had my phone here, I’d show you a picture of a mound of soybeans on the ground in the rain in Casselton. There are no bins, Kevin. Those beans will be wrecked by that rain. They’ll be wrecked by exposure to the elements,” Heitkamp told Cramer, in response to Cramer’s assertion that farmers aren’t concerned about tariffs.
Cramer appeared ready to argue about the unshown picture but instead switched the conversation to trade negotiations.
On Oct. 27, Heitkamp’s Twitter account posted a video featuring the pile at Maple River Grain & Agronomy, along with the text, “This huge pile of unsold soybeans in Casselton is what the trade war looks like. Our farmers can’t sell their beans & it’s hurting our economy. But @kevincramer doesn’t care — he’s committed to voting with his political party 100% of the time rather than standing up for ND.” Another video and post went up on Nov. 1, also showing the pile.
On Nov. 1, Maple River Grain & Agronomy posted a veiled retort on its Facebook page: “The famous Casselton Soybean pile will start being picked up next week. This year we hired an excavator with a custom grain loading bucket on it. If all goes well it should be off the ground before Thanksgiving. Fun fact: The pile is almost exactly the same size it was last year.”
By Nov. 2, Cramer’s campaign had jumped on the issue, sending out a news release to criticize Heitkamp.
“This situation is another example of how Heidi Heitkamp will say or do anything to win, even telling outright lies,” Tim Rasmussen, the Cramer campaign’s communications director, said in the release. “Even more unfortunate is how she is exploiting this issue to create fear and anxiety among North Dakota farmers in order to advance her political campaign.”
However, David McGonigal, a spokesperson for Heitkamp’s campaign, said Heitkamp was not referencing the Maple River Grain soybean pile at the debate. Instead, she was referring to a number of soybean piles she had seen seen in person and in picture while working with Aaron Krauter, who works on ag issues for her Senate office. The pile she was talking about was at a farm, McGonigal said. Krauter confirmed that Heitkamp and he have seen numerous photos of soybean piles at farms.
Heitkamp has been concerned about soybean storage since at least Sept. 14, when she met with farmers during a visit by Howard Buffett, McGonigal said. Bill Hejl, who farms near Amenia, N.D. and was present at the meeting, said farmers from farther west told Heitkamp they likely would be storing soybeans on the ground, as their local elevators would not have space given the lack of bids for soybeans.
Hejl does business with Maple River Grain and said he and his son prepay for interior soybean storage there. He said he told Heitkamp at the meeting that Maple River’s big soybean pile may take longer to sell this year than most.
Johnson is staying out of the partisan fight. He is not aware of anyone at Maple River Grain talking to the Heitkamp campaign about the pile, and McGonigal confirmed that no one on Heitkamp’s social media team talked to anyone at Maple River Grain.
The soybeans in the pile, Johnson clarified, are in good condition. The plan to pile and quickly move them was made about nine months earlier. He said elevators all over the country pile soybeans, saving interior storage for longer-term holds.
Johnson said Maple River Grain has been selling soybeans. Most of the time, he explained, the beans are purchased by grain brokers, so he doesn’t know where they’ll go.
“They may or may not be going to China. They may or may not be going to Argentina,” he said.
However, Johnson also made clear that the tariffs have not helped the soybean market, even if the tariffs did not lead to the Maple River Grain pile. Instead, the tariffs likely have led to the elevator handling fewer soybeans as farmers wait for improved prices.
“Tariffs have had a negative impact on the prices,” he said. “But farmers are putting their unsold soybeans at home.”
Johnson said the soybeans at Maple River Grain either have been sold or are being stored for farmers. He also said it’s possible that some elevators and farmers do have piles sitting outside because of the market situation.
“Some of the piles are there because elevators didn’t have the opportunity to move them,” he said.
But in Casselton, the big pile is about the same size as it was last year.
“This is nothing new for us. We do this every year,” Johnson said.