Big event, small world

I like history more than most people. But even if you’re ho-hum on history, you might enjoy  reading about the 1964 National Plowing Contest, held that year in Buffalo, N.D.  The contest was a big deal, both in and out of agriculture, attracting more than 100,000 people, including Barry “Mr. Conservative” Goldwater, the Republican presidential nominee, and Hubert “HHH” Humphrey, the Democratic vice presidential nominee.

In researching a story on the event, I had a chance to talk with Ramona Fraase, who, along with her late husband, served as the event’s host couple. Put yourself in their shoes:  you have a family farm and 100,000 people are coming to visit? But Ramona had, and still has, a great attitude.

Photos of  the event are on display this month at the Olde School, the renovated 1916 Buffalo High School. One of the photos, lent temporarily to me, shows a young man, back to the camera, who’s competing in the 1964 contest. The photo is labeled “Larry Hoffmann.” I wondered if that could be the same Larry Hoffmann, who’s still farming today in nearby Wheatland, N.D.  So I asked the very efficient and helpful Liane Stout, who’s associated with the Olde School. Yes, she said, it’s the same man.

So I phoned and emailed Larry. He wasn’t immediately available. Probably at Big Iron, I thought. Big Iron is the annual three-day farm show in West Fargo, N.D., 30 miles east of Buffalo and Wheatland. Sure enough, I ran into Larry the next day at Big Iron. The Agweek booth was next to the North Dakota Corn Growers Association booth, and Larry, a member of the association’s board of directors, was helping to staff its booth. Yes, he’d received my phone and email messages, and we had a nice conversation about his memories of the 1964 event, held when he was a college sophomore.

Read the story, and see the photos, in the Sept. 15 issue of Agweek.

Stay safe in difficult harvest

Farming is a dangerous profession, with injury and death all too common, statistics show.

It’s not that farmers are careless or lackadaisical about safety. Far from it. But when you’re tired — physically, mentally and emotionally — mistakes can happen. They’re even more likely to occur when you’re in a hurry. I grew up on a North Dakota family farm, and sometimes I still shudder at how close I came to getting hurt, usually when I was tired or in a hurry to finish.

The region’s slow-going wheat harvest intensifies the conditions in which mistakes (and injuries) can flourish. The on-again, off-again harvest drains mind, body and soul, and it’s oh-so-tempting to hurry when the weather does allow harvesting.

Farmers don’t need a lecture from me. But a friendly, heartfelt reminder can’t hurt.

Yeah, harvesting your crop is important. But it’s nowhere near as important your safety.

Do shelterbelts have a future?

When I was a a kid, my family had a shelterbelt planted to better protect our North Dakota farmstead. For the first few years, my two younger sisters and I hoed the trees to hold down weeds. I hated the job, but plugged along fairly diligently. One of my sisters worked hard; given her size and age, she probably accomplished more than I did. As for my other sister, well, let’s just say there are differing recollections of her contributions.

Shelterbelts used to be a big deal in Upper Midwest agriculture. No more. Larger farm equipment and changing farming practices have limited interest in planting new trees. That’s hurt Lincoln-Oakes Nursery of Bismarck, N.D., which supplies many of the trees used in shelterbelts in the Upper Midwest.  The nursery, owned and operated by.the North Dakota Association of Soil Conservation Districts, has needed to make some painful changes. My cover story in the Sept.8 issue of Agweek looks at what the nursery is doing to increase its chances of survival. The big question, nursery officials say, is whether sales will stabilize or continue to decline.

People a lot smarter than me have mixed views on the future of sheltebelts. Some folks say shelterbelts can continue to play an important role. Other folks say their time has come and gone. If you have strong feelings either way, drop me a line.

One thing I’m sure of: writing about shelterbelts is a lot better than hoeing them.

Potato industry’s loss

I never had a chance to meet Christian Thill, the University of Minnesota’s Minneapolis-based potato breeder who died recently from a heart-related ailment. But I’ve talked with a number of people who praised him both personally and professionally.

So I’ll pass along word that a scholarship is being established in his name. To donate, write a check to the University of Minnesota and put “Christian Thill Scholarship” in the subject line. Donations can be mailed to or dropped off at U of MN Foundation, P.O. Box 860266, Minneapolis, MN,  55486-0266.

Your weather of choice

With the Labor Day weekend coming up, nonagriculturalists are rooting hard for a warm, dry stretch.  For many, it’s one last weekend at the lake or other favorite summer place.

But Upper Midwest agriculturalists have mixed views on what weather to root for this weekend. Do we want it to dry to help the small grains harvest? Or do we want it wet to provide moisture for row crops, especially corn and soybeans? The answer varies from farmer to farmer, depending on the mix of crops he raises.

Right now, though, I’d say that the region’s crop overall would benefit most from a week of warm, dry weather. Widespread rains a week ago helped the row crops, and the slow-going wheat harvest needs to pick up.

To aggies and nonaggies alike, enjoy your weekend. I hope you get the weather you want.

Mother Nature is still in charge

A veteran farmer once told me this of his profession: “We’re not in charge. Mother Nature is.”

I think of that line often, and I thought of it again this past weekend when much of the region received a much-needed rain. Fields that got the additional moisture will enjoy better yields, and the extra bushels could be the difference between profit and loss for the producers who farm them. Fields that got too much, or too.little rain, may not produce enough to be profitable.

Good farmers, and just about every producer today is good at what they do, find ways to mitigate risk and increase the odds of being successful. But no matter how good you are, no matter how carefully you mitigate risk, Mother Nature is still in charge.

On Monday morning I wrote a quick story on the weekend rains. It’s posted on the Agweek website, An expanded version, with more information, will appear in our Sept. 1 print edition. If you’re a farmer who got just the right amount of rain, or if your received too much or too little, drop me a line.

The delights of dairy

The North Dakota family farm on which I grew up didn’t include dairy cows. Thank goodness. Beef cows and small grains, which we did have, held some appeal. Dairy cows had none, at least to me. We had neighbors with milk cows, and I saw how hard they worked and the 24-7 commitment that dairy required.

But the dairy industry holds considerable appeal to me as an journalist. Dairy includes so many of the issues and topics — economics, lifestyle and technology, among other things — that make agriculture in general interesting to me.

One of the stories I’m working on this week involves South Dakota’s expanding dairy industries and efforts in Minnesota and North Dakota to revitalize their dairy industries. Dairy officials are optimistic that technology, including robotic milkers, will make dairy more attractive to small and mid-sized operators.

I’m not smart enough to predict dairy’s future in the Upper Midwest. But I’m pretty sure that it will be an interesting one.

You can read the story in the Aug. 25 print version of Agweek.

Pivotal week ahead

What happens during the next week could determine whether many area farmers harvest a good crop or merely an OK one.

Generalizing is always risky, but many Upper Midwest corn and soybean fields are running short of moisture. A nice shot of rain would change that, and give still-good-looking crops a big boost at a key time.

Because crop prices have plunged, farmers generally will need better-than-average yields to turn a profit. To achieve such yields, fields need rain. And soon.

A successful hunt?

When I first heard about the Wheat Foods Council’s Wheat Safari, I thought, “Seems like a smart idea. It’ll be interesting to see how things work out.”

The results, so far at least, appear pretty good.

The nonprofit Wheat Foods Council is an industry trade group that promotes awareness of grains as a necessary part of a healthy diet. The group recently sponsored a “safari” in which bloggers, dietitians and others with ties to food and nutrition visited eastern North Dakota. The trip included a tour of a farm that grows wheat. I went to the farm, too, to visit with safari participants. Here’s a link to the story:

From what I saw and heard, the participants were open to facts, logic and common sense. They certainly asked good, valid questions.

The big question, of course, is the extent to which participants will take what they learned in North Dakota and apply it in their professional work.. It’s too early to fully assess that. But there are encouraging signs. Here’s what safari participant says about it on her blog:

A fresh crop of farmers

A deep, longstanding concern in Upper Midwest agriculture involves recruiting and retaining the next generation of farmers and ranchers. With so many aggies nearing retirement, it’s essential to bring in their successors.

So I’m encouraged by the influx of energetic, enthusiastic young farmers during  the past few years. I’ve written about some of them, most recently Jayme Boeshans, who farms and ranches in the Beulah, N.D., area. He also works full time at a Beulah coal mine. My visit to his farm included a guided tour of the mine.

Read more about Jayme and his father, Jerome, in the cover package of the Aug. 11 issue of Agweek. The package includes a story on the guided tour. (Yeah, farm equipment keeps getting bigger, but it’s dwarfed by the huge machines used in open-pit mining.)