Fall rains: farmers love ’em, hate ’em

Fall rains are both a blessing and curse for Upper Midwest agriculture.

Precipitation in September and early October can hamper harvest, or even stop it completely. Few things in farming are as frustrating as being shut down by rain delays when crop in the field needs to be harvested.

But September/early October rains also can recharge soil moisture, brightening the outlook for the next year’s crop. Few things in farming are more satisfying than seeing fall rains sink into fields that need them.

Farmers have a love-hate relationship with fall rains, one that’s likely to grow even stronger. Our falls, on balance, are becoming wetter — and that’s cause for both groans and cheers.

Harvest speeds along

It was early November 2009, and I was driving through northwest Minnesota. I saw field after field of unharvested soybeans, the still-muddy soil a stark reminder of the frequent, frustrating October rains that had prevented farmers from getting their beans. Producers were trying hard (and without complete success) not to worry. The beans eventually were harvested, but it was a challenging, nerve-wracking time.

Harvests like that one makes this year’s harvest even more satisfying. Though recent showers shut down harvest temporarily, soybean producers across the Upper Midwest have taken full advantage of wonderful weather. Many farmers are done, or nearly so, with their soybeans.

I’m expecting to spend time Wednesday, Oct. 7, with a North Dakota farmer while he combines the last of his soybeans.

Harvest isn’t finished yet, of course, especially for farmers who raise corn, too. It’s too early to declare victory. But harvest is speeding along, and the finish line is nearly in sight. A few more weeks of favorable weather would get us close.

My cover package in the Oct. 19 issue of Agweek will look at harvest progress across the Upper Midwest.

Good cousin, bad cousin

I didn’t know much about industrial hemp when I was growing up on a North Dakota farm. It was a big deal in World War II — that much I knew. But mostly I regarded it as somehow disreputable or shady, never really understanding why or having good reason to do so.

A lot of people still have negative perceptions of industrial hemp. They lump it with marijuana, even though the two are very different. Yeah, they belong to the same species of plant. But the THC level in hemp is vastly lower: it’s simply not a drug crop. Think of hemp as the good cousin, marijuana the bad cousin.

I learned a lot about industrial hemp working on the Agweek cover story that will run Oct. 5. I talked with folks across the Upper Midwest, and nationwide, too, about this little-grown, little-known — but potentially valuable — crop. Federal drug laws effectively have blocked U.S. farmers from growing it, but the 2014 farm bill seeks to make it a little easier for producers. Nobody expects hemp to become a major crop anytime soon, if ever; we’ll certainly be hearing more about it, though.

Things that give life meaning

HILLSBORO, N.D — I’m in Hillsboro, N.D., today for a community forum hosted by the North Dakota State University Extension Service. Folks from northeast North Dakota are providing their thoughts and insights into the future of the state. The extension service is collecting information at 11 such meetings statewide to help it better prepare for the future.

I don’t claim to have a lot of answers or special insight, but I’m glad to be here. Agriculture, ag journalism and Agweek are important to me, and so is North Dakota, where I live and work. They’re among the things that give my life meaning.

Did you shut down the combine?

Updated: North Dakota State University easily won its football game Saturday against the University of North Dakota. UND took an early lead, but NDSU roared back, took a big lead and by halftime the outcome wasn’t in doubt. Whether you’re a NDSU or UND fan or a neutral observer, I think you’ll agree that the better team won.

I watched the game on a big-screen TV with relatives, sitting on a recliner and eating terrific bars made by my niece. Good times.

I’ve heard second-hand reports that some farmers/football fans shut down their combines to attend the game in person or to watch it on TV. Well, the cardinal rule of harvest is to keep the combine going, but, hey, it was the renewal of the NDSU/UND football game: I wouldn’t be surprised if some folks snuck away to watch the game.

Did you shut down the combine to watch the game? If so, drop me a line.


Harvest is under way in Agweek country. Aggies are concentrating on yields, moisture content, weather forecasts and a thousand other things that are part of the harvest season.

But the really important thing right now to many aggies in North Dakota and northwest Minnnesota involves a football field, not a crop field. On Saturday in Fargo, N.D., for the first time in years, North Dakota State University and the University of North Dakota play each other in football.

It’s a big deal in North Dakota/northwest Minnesota ag circles. Though many area aggies are UND grads, NDSU is the state’s land-grant ag school. If you’re involved in ag in North Dakota or northwest Minnesota, you’re much more likely to have attended NDSU than UND. You’re also likely to have friends, neighbors and relatives who attended UND — and winning Saturday’s game will give you bragging rights. (I suppose it’s the same story in other states, including South Dakota and Montana, with land-grant ag schools.)

Enjoy Saturday’s game. Have fun with it. Just remember it’s only a game.

I’m not a graduate of either school, so the outcome isn’t as important to me as it is to many people. But I’ve lived most of my adult life in either Fargo, home of NDSU, or Grand Forks, where UND is located, so I’m definitely interested.

I live and work now in Grand Forks, so enlightened self-interest tells me to root for UND. But my dad and brother (with whom I’ll be watching the game) are Bison fans, and family loyalty tells me to cheer for NDSU. When the choice is enlightened self-interest or family loyalty, I’ll take the latter every time. So, go NDSU Bison!

Big Iron memories

To me, Big Iron means two things: the classic Marty Robbins song and the annual farm show in West Fargo, N.D.

What I remember most about the song: the bitterly cold January morning, years ago, when I was feeding hay bales from a pickup on our family farm in North Dakota. The song started to play on the radio, and I cranked up the volume. The cows were startled, but I’d like to think they enjoyed it, too.

What I remember most about the farm show: too many memories to single out just one. I’ve attended Big Iron many times and always enjoyed it. I’ll be there again this year, and plan to be at the Agweek booth about noon on Tuesday.

If you’re there, too, please drop by and say hello. We can talk ag — or Marty Robbins

Harvest isn’t what it used to be

Change is the only constant, and I’m reminded of that this fall by the Upper Midwest grain harvest.

When I was a farm kid, small grains dominated. Many farmers grew other crops, too, of course, but wheat and barley were the stars, at least in central North Dakota where I grew up. Small grains typically are harvested in August, so the month became an all-dash to bring in the crop. If the combine could roll, it did.

Some farm-town schools, including the one I attended, had temporary “harvest schedules” in which shortened classes began and finished earlier in the day, allowing farm kids to go home and help. A great deal for the town kids with no connection to harvest, not so good for farm kids like me who went home to shovel grain and breathe barley dust.

Over time, though, many farmers diversified, adding other crops, including corn, soybeans and sunflowers, that are harvested in September, October, November and even December. Harvest has been spread out, the August dash becoming a multi-month marathon. School “harvest schedules” are just a memory.

Harvest has seen other changes, too.

An extension service expert once lamented to me that harvest has lost many of its virtues. He praised the social and nutritional benefits of old-time harvests, when neighbors worked side-by-side in threshing crews and ate high-quality food prepared by farm wives. Today, farmers often work alone and eat fast food, he said.

OK, I’ll grant that. On the other hand, modern harvest is less demanding physically. Today, farmers need to understand and utilize technology, not possess a strong back and constitution.

Farmers will grow — and need to grow — the crops that give them the best chance of succeeding financially. Raising a variety of crops adds diversification that reduces risk and, in the long run, enhances profitability. For better or worse (or both), it lengthens harvest, too.

This much I’m sure of: dash or marathon, harvest remains exhilerating and exhausting, draining and demanding. There’s nothing quite like it — and I’m happy to be part of it. Especially since I’m pushing a computer keyboard, not a grain shovel.

Drop me a line with your thoughts on harvest.

Hey, I meant it ironically


One of the fundamental truths of communication is that something we write or say can be misconstrued by folks reading or hearing it. That was reinforced to me by some of the reaction to my column that ran in the Aug. 31 issue of Agweek.

In the column, two boys of the far future are talking about their vegetarian society, the older boy smugly bullying the younger boy. To me, the column is ironic and refutes the idea that vegetarians hold the moral high ground. (While I respect many vegetarians and their position, I don’t believe that to be true.) If anything, I figured I’d get angry emails from vegetarians who felt they were being ridiculed.

In fact, some readers drew the opposite conclusion, inferring that I was advocating for vegetarianism.

Nope. For the record: I grew up on a calf-cow operation, I’ve owned cattle, I’m not vegetarian, I’m pro-rancher. I wrote the column with two goals: a) refuting the vegetarian high-ground and b) reminding agriculturalists that animal-rights supporters won’t ever give up.

One Agweek reader emailed to say that he was confused at first, before deciding the column was “tounge-in-check.” In the future, he said, I should simply write what I think.

That’s probably good advice.

Here’s a link to the column: Click here.

Of wheat and weeds, deer and apples

Wheat harvest is wrapped on my family farm in central North Dakota. The yields were terrific, and protein was as high as could be expected. But even with big yields and without low-protein discounts, wheat prices just aren’t high enough for producers to make money.

In our neck of the woods in central North Dakota, deer depredation is a problem. There were two dozen deer beds in just one wheat field. It wasn’t a huge loss to the wheat crop, of course, but those deer certainly did damage to the adjacent soybean field. Wildlife has its place — a big one — but ag producers have legitimate concerns. Well, I just received my 2015 deer gun license and I hope (though I’m a safe, careful and responsible hunter, I’m a very poor shot) to shoot one of those deer, preferably one of the biggest ones, this fall.

I’ve written a lot about wheat this growing season — and many other crops, too. They’re all important and interesting to me, and I consider myself fortunate to have the opportunity to cover so many crops.

But I’ve given a great deal of time and attention personally this summer to one crop I haven’t covered professionally: apples.

I planted three apple trees this spring, and have watered and weeded them diligently. Between the hoe and Roundup, I’ve managed to hold down the weeds. But they’re tenacious, with quack, thistle and milkweed (you’ll see a few in the photo below) particularly persistent. And, yes, I just hoed the weeds

The wire netting, supported by the fence post, is in place to protect the trees from the deer.


Should I be writing about this?

One of the questions I keep asking myself is whether I should write news articles on upcoming deadlines and signups for federal farm programs.

On one hand, farmers and ranchers are smart, responsible people; do they really need me to write stories reminding them of what they should be doing? On the other hand, farmers are ranchers are busy and often preoccupied; maybe they’ll benefit from a reminder in a new article. Typically, I’ll write something when the program is especially important and the deadline/signup comes at an especially busy time of the year.

At any rate, a farmer recently told he was going in to his county Farm Service Agency office to finish signing up for an important farm program. He had been so busy during harvest that he’d put off doing so and it had slipped his mind — until he read an article on the signup deadline that I’d written.

Yeah, I know, he was just one farmer and I shouldn’t make too much of it. Still, it encourages me to keep writing — occasionally and when appropriate — about upcoming federal farm program deadlines and signups.