The toughest job in agriculture?

Planting a crop in a wet spring is difficult. Harvesting a crop in a wet fall is difficult. Marketing a crop is always difficult. Figuring out the farm bill — well, that’s really difficult.

OK, I’m exaggerating, but not much. I’ve seen smart, capable, confident farmers — producers who don’t shirk from most demanding jobs — cringe when confronted with the complexities of farm programs

The new farm bill passed earlier this year has a number of new, complicated programs that producers need to figure out. The farm bill always includes an alphabet-stew of acronyms, and this year is no different: ARC and PLC are two of the brain-benders.

Fortunately, the Farm Service Agency, state extension services and commodity groups are offering informational meetings this fall. I’ll be attending some of the meetings and writing articles for Agweek.

Like area farmers, I have a lot to learn in coming weeks. Good luck to us all.

Still wondering about that GE wheat?

It was a really big deal, at least in some circles, when genetically engineered wheat was found in an Oregon field on May 3, 2013. Even a lot of folks outside agriculture were interested in what the federal investigation would discover. Later, as often happens with issues that capture public attention initially, the investigation drifted off into obscurity.

But on Friday, the government agency in charge of the investigation issued its findings. The takeaway line: the case “appears to be an isolated occurrence and that there is no indication of any GE wheat in commerce.”

I’ve written a quick story about the report, with comments from two prominent wheat organizations. It will be included in the Sept. 29 print version of Agweek. It’s also available online at www.agweek.com/event/article/id/24145/.

Lots of drama in back-and-forth crop year

I was told once that one of the signs of good drama is plenty of “back-and-forths.” Which means that as the story unfolds, the reader/viewer’s expectations go back and forth: looks like the hero is going to win the big game … no, it seems now he’s probably going to lose … oh, now he seems likely to lose again. Back-and-forths are all about variability and uncertainty.

The Upper Midwest’s 2014 crop season has been filled with back-and-forths. The late, wet spring hampered planting and created concern. Then, good growing conditions during the summer raised hopes. Then, late summer turned dry, creating concern again. Then, early September rains raised hopes. Then, persistent rains in the first half of September hampered harvest, creating new concern. Then, favorable mid-September weather boosted the harvest, raising new hopes.

I sure hope harvest weather stays favorable. But the way this crop season has gone, it’s probably time for another wet stretch that hurts harvest.

Farmers, of course, don’t care about drama. Agriculture is a bottom-line business. What matters is whether producers harvest enough grain and sell it at a sufficiently high price to earn a profit. But if you like drama, it’s hard to beat the 2014 crop season.

Delayed by rain

If you’re a fan of major league baseball, as I am, you know there’s something special about the seventh and final game of a World Series. It’s intense, but quietly so, and larger than life. It’s the culmination of long effort. It matters. It will be remembered.

The annual Upper Midwest harvest shares some of those qualities, I think. Harvest is a long, drawn-out process, not a single game, but, like the seventh game, it’s special. It’s the culmination of long effort. It matters. It will be remembered.

The way things are going now, this year’s harvest may end up being remembered mainly for the frequent rain delays. Persistent showers have kept many farmers out of their fields, and concern is growing.

My article on the region’s rain-delayed harvest will be the cover story in the Sept. 22 issue of Agweek.

If you’re a fan of the Minnesota Twins, as I am, you know the Twins won their seventh games in both the 1987 and 1991 World Series. Let’s hope this year’s harvest turns out as well.

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, www.agweek.com/event/article/id/23963/. 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.